The Age of Alliances
While there is the possibility that additional rules or greater enforcement of the rules could tamp down the power to be gained through alliances, the base of talent now showing up in Kona may make team tactics inevitable. This is how the target of the 2010 McCormack tactic, Craig Alexander, sees it. In an interview with Competitor Radio after his win at the 2012 Ironman Melbourne, Alexander—the three-time Ironman world champion who will be defending his title— pictured this October’s Hawaii Ironman men’s race within the context of a new era of potential alliances.
“If Chris [McCormack] comes back [to race the 2012 Hawaii Ironman] there’s no question he’ll be a contender. The Raelert brothers [Michael and Andreas] are going to be back and in great shape and as hungry as ever.” Alexander ticked off them all in sizing up the 2012 event: Frederik Van Lierde, Eneko Llanos, Pete Jacobs, Marino Vanhoenacker and Rasmus Henning.
Alexander referenced how Andreas Raelert recorded a 7:41 at Challenge Roth in 2011, and Marino Vanhoenacker raced a 7:45 at Ironman Austria. Alexander said, “If they bring that kind of form to Kona—look out.”
“It could be a very exciting race,” Alexander said. “Just a stacked field full of talent. It throws up so many different story lines. It’s becoming so competitive. [The Hawaii Ironman] is almost becoming a team event. We saw it in 2010. People form partnerships of convenience. It would be foolish to think that if Andi and Michael got a chance to work together that they wouldn’t.”
Before Armstrong’s troubles with USADA and before Chris Lieto’s injury potentially kept him from qualifying for Kona, Alexander also imagined a Lieto and Armstrong partnership riding off the front. “Why wouldn’t they share the work? It’s to their mutual interest to gap the field.”
Alexander then paused and almost laughed as he entertained a possible scenario involving the two men who have together won the last five Ironman World Championship titles in a situation where Lieto and Armstrong were flying off the front.
“In a strange twist of fate,” Alexander said, “Macca and I might have to work together to bridge up to those guys.”
Thoughts from the Pack
From the current generation of Ironman elites, no one’s concerned that team-like tactics might become part of the fabric of the race.
Up and coming in the men’s Ironman world is Germany’s Andi Boecherer, who placed eighth at Hawaii in 2011 and has an 8:08 PR to his name (recorded at Ironman South Africa). Boecherer says he has no problem with alliances as long as there is no drafting. He also believes that a heavyweight needs to be involved to make anything effective. “I think it is likely that there will even be breakaways in the swim combined with a quick start on the bike,” Boecherer says. “But I think for such an early attack in a group you need someone with a lot of authority and respect like Macca, who can influence people and make the group work together well.”
Considering his 7:52 posting at Challenge Roth in 2010—an Ironman time that included a 2:39 marathon—Denmark’s Rasmus Henning has the goods to be in the mix for the 2012 Hawaii title. He also has the experience of breaking into the top five in Kona, as he did in 2009 when he finished fifth. As a strong runner like Alexander, does he feel like he could be a victim of an alliance?
“There will always be special sympathies between some athletes, who know each other well because they train together or are from the same country,” Henning says. “This might be helpful on a few occasions during the race, but since it is a non-drafting event it doesn’t have a huge impact.” Henning adds that as far as alliances either working to “tear apart” or keep the main bike pack together is something the pros don’t talk about. “Except for the Macca incident in 2010, I haven’t seen it much.”
One other such example may have been between Australians Craig Alexander and Luke McKenzie in 2011, with Alexander regaining his championship and McKenzie breaking into the top 10 for the first time with a ninth-place finish. Luxembourg’s Dirk Bockel finished fourth in the race and remarked how some of the top pros were aware beforehand there might be an alliance in place.
“Crowie was hanging out with Luke quite a bit before the race. There was some suspicion about that,” Bockel says. “And then Luke having his best ever race in Kona. And Crowie tailing him all the way. I’m pretty sure that was an alliance.”
But, like Henning, Bockel dismisses this as a growing problem in the Ironman. “I don’t think it is going to be a future topic for our sport. You can only help so much riding 10 meters in front.”
Henning says that a larger impact would come if an athlete sacrificed his race, domestique-style, to help another win. “I’m not sure how much of that is going on at Ironman, but it is probably a natural thing in sport.”
The idea of Lance Armstrong racing at the Hawaii Ironman has triggered the discussion that team tactics could be lifted to an entirely different level, as in professionally supported team tactics. At the 2009 Leadville 100 mountain bike race, in which Armstrong beat six-time winner David Wiens by a half-hour, Armstrong was seen as having used this form of leverage to not only win but set the course record. As Velonews.com reported from the race, Armstrong “ally” Matt Shriver set a high pace early in the race to set up Armstrong. After the race Wiens told Velonews.com it was the fastest pace he’d ever seen in Leadville and that “Matt was making everyone suffer except Lance.”
In an interview with Triathlete.com, two-time Olympic medalist Bevan Docherty hypothesized about how Lance might utilize a similar tactic in triathlon.
“It’s a whole new ballgame for triathletes to have someone as famous as Lance in our sport and sort of the entourage and publicity that comes with it,” Docherty said, describing that Armstrong could use others in triathlon the way he did in Leadville. “Financially he could pay a few people to support him and help him out in these events. It’s what he’s done his whole career with cycling, and I think he might be looking at that sort of avenue. He could certainly capitalize on that. Saying that, there are opportunities for other athletes to implement team tactics in long-course as well.”
But as it stands, Lance won’t be racing at the Hawaii Ironman in 2012. But the conversation initiated by Docherty does not fall by the wayside: Is it possible that the competitive pressure being brought to bear on the Hawaii Ironman will elicit an era where allies are recruited before the race as paid actors? In other words, could an athlete who has the ability to finish in the top five pay a sum of money to a lesser athlete to purposefully use his race to “harm”—as Sindballe puts it—the chances of a top rival? Perhaps by slowing the rival down in the swim or directly aiding his employer during the bike, and effectively sacrificing the best possible finish within his own race, just as a domestique might in the Tour de France?
While this might not be within the original spirit of the Hawaii Ironman, as described with the words of Reid and Sindballe, an evolution of the race in this direction may be inevitable. How would rules be put into play to stop under-the-table dealings? Consider the effort required to just have a shot at winning the race. With the sport continuing to grow and become more lucrative, the declaration “I’m here to win” may take precedence over all.
Who could work together at this year’s Ironman World Championship? See who we think could benefit from forming alliances here.Pages: 1 2