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Can a pro cyclist win Ironman?
It’s a question that cyclists and triathletes have mulled for decades. Swiss rider Karin Thurig balanced both disciplines simultaneously, winning a five Ironman races and two UCI world time trial championships in the mid-2000s. Steve Larsen won Ironman Lake Placid in 2001 after retiring from his decorated pro cycling career. Chann McRae, Rolf Aldag, Kai Hundertmarck, and even Laurent Jalabert all gave it a try over the years.
Andrew Talansky is the latest pro cyclist to try his hand at triathlon. Talansky recently revealed his plans to race Ironman in 2018, having competed in cross-country running and swimming as a child. So how will he fare? I spoke with two of the strongest cyclists in Ironman, Andrew Starykowicz and (now retired pro) Chris Lieto, to get their takes.
How will Talansky’s strength in cycling shape his Ironman?
Lieto: He will be strong of course, but I think it may take some time to get used to the bike effort. Chann McRae came in and everyone thought this Postal guy is going to kill it, and it didn’t happen. He was a lightweight climber and the Ironman effort was different. The road guys are accustomed to riding hard for four or five hours. There’s a lot of cruising. When you’re done, you’re done.
Starykowicz: The current Ironman rules say the no-draft zone is 12 meters. No matter what anybody says, you can feel the pull at 12 meters. So in a big professional race, you have guys riding 10-15 meters apart, and those guys are getting towed along. If Andrew has a bad swim, he will be playing catch-up and pushing his own wind. So his advantage may be negligible if there are 40 guys riding together.
Where will Talansky struggle?
Lieto: So much about Ironman is how you manage your nutrition. During a five-hour bike race, when you’re sitting in, you have time to take in calories. You can drink, you can eat a sandwich or a bar, and that plays a huge role in your effort. In Ironman, you’re at your limit for four or five hours, and that’s just on the bike. Your heart rate is at a level where consuming calories and fluid is tough, and you always end up being in a deficit. So that’s a whole different ballgame for how you’ve built your energy systems as an endurance athlete. We’ve seen some cyclists come in and they don’t know how to dose those efforts.
Starykowicz: For him, he may be used to having a director giving him tactical information in his ear. Ironman is a really different world. You get zero feedback on where anybody is in most races. So you have no tactical information, especially if you’re the leader. You just gotta go. You’re going by feel instead of direction by the information that is being given to you.
How much time can he lose in the swim and still be competitive?
Lieto: If he can’t get good at swimming, then it’s all over. If he’s more than five minutes behind the top guys then he’s always going to have a hard time. Just because he’s a great cyclist doesn’t mean he can catch them. That is the key factor. The top [Ironman] guys are no joke. They can ride. If he’s within 2-3 minutes of the main group in the swim then watch out.
Starykowicz: We’ve seen [Mirinda Carfrae] lose a ton of time in the swim and still come back to win. On the guy’s side it’s different. If he’s five minutes back then he’s out.
Where will Talansky have an advantage?
Lieto: He’s 28 so he’s actually really young in Ironman years. I didn’t ride a bike until I was 25. I had a swimming background with no running. I started from zero, and by 29 I started doing well. I didn’t hit my prime until 37 or 38, and I would have continued to get better if I didn’t get hurt. Andrew already has a lifetime of doing endurance training. I could see him do relatively well in that first year. It will then depend on what shape his swimming background is in.
Starykowicz: I don’t know if he will have an advantage. The top guys at Ironman have been training at loads that far exceed what he’s been doing. Just racing cycling may have handicapped him because your body can only cycle so much. If you’re doing biking, swimming, and running, you can do far more combined work with all three. He will have a big engine relative to age groupers. But compared to professionals? I don’t think so.
What factor will determine his Ironman success?
Lieto: It just takes time. If he has time to put into it, then I think he will adapt. He can get there quicker, depending on coaching. It may take him two years. He has good muscle mass, so I’m sure he will adapt quickly. He has that running background, so that will also play a huge part.I’m not worrying about his skill set. He’s amazing at climbing and time trials, so the question is whether his engine can cross over.
Starykowicz: I’m honestly worried about the guy’s health. The marathon is hard, and he’s going to have to train for it slowly. If he doesn’t have a ton of running under his belt, he could get injured in a bad way. He will be able to train at a high level, but it’s all about whether his body can take it. We’ve seen talented people get taken down by injuries and not be able to show their potential. There’s a high probability of overdoing it, especially if he is super motivated right away.