After two furious turns through the swim-bike-run course, Olympic distance up-and-comer Greg Billington used his explosive speed and short-course transition skills to beat a field of Olympians and world champions in the Formula 1 Triathlon on Coronado Island, CA. He missed the US Olympic team by just 19 seconds earlier this summer, but took a bit of retribution today.
Based on the made-for-spectator races held in Australia and Europe, this race put the pro-only field through a 300-meter ocean swim with heavy waves, 10 700-meter laps around a short criterium-style bike course with four 90-degree turns, then a hectic five-lap run totaling just 1.5 miles. Then instead of crossing the finish line, they ran back into transition, threw their shoes on the ground and jumped back in the Pacific.
On the first lap of the swim, super-swimmer Tommy Zaferes battled through the waves, gapped the field and ran up the shores of the Silver Strand State Beach with a comfortable lead over second place. Derek McNeice was next, then Clark Ellice of New Zealand stormed the shores in third. The rest of the field followed close behind into transition.
American Olympians Matt Reed and Manny Huerta lost ground to the fastest swimmers and came into transition a few seconds behind.
As soon as the bikes hit the course the race turned especially intense, even chaotic, creating a level of excitement rarely if ever matched in the sport. Most of the men raced road bikes so they could corner at max speed through the 700 meter loop. It sent them through one length of a parking lot, then through a pedestrian underpass beneath the street before coming back on a sidewalk segment then completed the circuit through a second street underpass. Instead of sitting in a pack or riding steady tempo, nearly every athlete was sprinting out of corners and working together to keep the pace high. Part way through the bike, this teamwork strategy was paying off for the trailers and the most accomplished runners in the field (Huerta, Reed and Leon Griffin, to name a few) were starting to close on Zaferes and the other elite swimmers.
Shortly after, Reed’s rear tire below off his rim and the big American walked around to the start area to swap wheels before reentering the fray a lap down. Dylan McNeice came off the bike first. The entrance and exit to the transition area overlapped, so the athletes emerging from T1 had to cross paths with those just entering for their second change.
Huerta and Griffin did damage on the first run and moved closer to the front. Ben Kanute, the young American who won the USAT Collegiate National Championship undergraduate division in April, moved up and charged back into the ocean toward the front.
The choppy swim once again spread the field apart, helping Ellice move up. “I grew up in the waves so it really helped me pull away, I have to thank the motherland for that,” said the New Zealander.
Billington suffered a bit in the second swim. “There were some guys who just blew by me in that swim, it was painful,” he said after the race.
USAT Triathlon experimented with a team strategy by pairing Billington with Eric Lagerstrom, a former cyclist turn triathlete, to shield Billington through this potential hectic race format. “I’ve spent a lot of years bike racing, preparing for this,” said Lagerstrom. “It’s my rookie year as a pro, so I think [the] corners is what really did it for me. I was able to ride in and out of them faster than anyone else I saw around me so I didn’t have to ride as hard between.” Billington also benefited from Lagerstrom’s cornering prowess. He was sheltered through the second bike leg and was able to start the final run toward the front without having worked as much as some others. Ellice said the second bike, “was a little more reserved,” and he stayed toward the front.
Kanute started strong on the run with Billington, Lagerstrom and Ellice all chasing. Billington worked up to the front and eventually distanced himself from the rest, crossing the line first to win the F1 Triathlon. Ellice pushed past Lagerstrom for second, finishing just seconds behind Billington. And Lagerstrom, the person tasked with helping another athlete, held it together for a hard-won third place finish. The veterans in the field didn’t have an answer for the speed and aggression of their younger counterparts.
This unique format added many interesting elements to the pro competition, all aimed to make the race more fun to watch. Wild transitions, frantic group riding, high-octane running and big ocean swell held the crowd on edge. Keeping track of who was leading and who was lapped was challenging during each event, but the frequent transitions helped spectators and athletes alike sort through the confusion. This unique format made the race thrilling to watch for any fan of the sport.
2012 F1 Triathlon – Sept 29th, 2012
Results – men – 300m swim, 4mi bike, 1.5mi run, 300m swim, 4mi bike, 1.5mi run
1. Greg Billington (USA)
2. Clark Ellice (NZL)
3. Eric Lagerstrom (USA)
Jené Shaw contributed to this report.