Lance, Lieto, and letting it rip in Hawaii

9.30am February 17th, Kona: one of the greatest cyclists in history – the one and only Lance Armstrong – blasts away down the Queen K highway. 9.31am: the strongest biker in professional triathlon and second placed Ironman World Championship finisher steps on the pedal in hot pursuit. 11 miles later and just 9 seconds seperate the two men as the respective watches click stop.

Most of you know that this impromptu meeting of two star athletes was the world’s first Twitter TT. But it was more than that: this was Lance Armstrong throwing the gauntlet down to Chris Lieto and the world of professional Ironman triathlon. Bring on 2011 (or ’12!).

So Lance won. Marginally. But his July TdF objective (versus Lieto’s October IM Hawaii target) means he’s ahead in periodization; he should be stronger. Okay Lance isn’t quite the TT specialist he was at his best; but Lieto is 38 and combines two other disciplines on a daily basis. I predicted it being close, and close it was. Whether Lance has to qualify for the Worlds (with the changes to the 70.3 IM series qualification route, he’d likely have to secure a qualifying spot in another full distance race pre-Hawaii or risk devaluing the event if awarded a ‘celebrity guest pass’) and whether he gets into the pro or age-group race (perhaps unfair on top age-groupers to have Lance turn up and steal your hard-earned podium spot; but then Lance isn’t a pro so should he ‘get a bye’ into the pro ranks?), the fact is he’ll make it to the Worlds.

So the burning question is: just how good might Lance be in Hawaii?

We know he was a national level triathlete in his younger days. His swim technique might be rusty but – especially given his renowned attention to detail – you can bet he’ll be highly proficient when the time comes to dive into the waves. Of course, it’s important to get in a good group (see Macca’s post-swim deficit due to dropping the ball this year in Kona) but at worst you can assume Armstrong will only lose minutes on the favourites.

He’s obviously going to kick ass on the bike. But as the Twitter TT shows, he’s not got much on Lieto; and there’s guys like Jordan Rapp, Norman Stadler and young Brit Philip Graves who can rip up the hot tarmac as well. Biking off close on an hour swim is tough (as I’ll be finding out in July!) and the rest of the elite field will have the experience advantage. Still, I think the first critical question is this: how much of a lead can Lance (and Lieto) build going into T2? In 2009 Lieto had approximately 12mins on Craig Alexander…but got caught in the 22nd mile. Can Lance really build much more than that? I doubt it – but then who else is better equipped to prove people wrong?! Babbit and Huddle have debated before whether the bikers could (legally) work together to build an unassailable lead then shoot it out on the run. But Lieto himself didn’t believe this could really work. Which means Lance is going to have to go it alone.

So let’s imagine Lance comes off the bike first, with maybe a minute more than Lieto and 12-14mins on the top runners. He’ll probably have lost time on the swim – but how much who knows – so let’s work on him having a 10min lead. It comes down to this second crucial question: how competitive can Lance be over a hot, windy marathon course after 5h30 mins of hard exercise?

Lance has run 2.46.43 in New York, but that isn’t a fast course. This is a massive improvement on the all-star pacemaker assisted 2.59.36 which caused stress fractures in his legs. If he devoted more time to running and chose a flatter couse, he surely would shave a little more off that mark. But Lieto has run low 2h40s in Ironman, and is rumoured to be a 2h20s marathoner. Moreover, he held his own running with elite marathoners Ryan Hall, Josh Cox and NYC Marathon ’09 winner Keflezighi over 6 weeks of training in Mammoth last summer. This – for me – shows that he is far ahead of where Lance could expect his running ability to be. It’s nye on impossible to compare Kona times as the conditions play such a part, causing large fluctuations year-on-year. But if IMUK champ Graves ran a 3h30 in Kona this year, former Hawaii winner McCormack had a tough time on the run, and many other principals struggled, then really you have to conclude that Lance would have faced a tough challenge to stay remotely in touch.

With this in mind it’s hard to predict a Lance finishing time. But I’m going to go out on a limb anyway. 54min swim (just off the top guys but in touch), 4h22 bike (25.5mph ave, taking the lead but narrowly), and somewhere between 3h05 and 3h20 run (being determined by favouribility of conditions – I think Lance will apply his scientific brain to nutrition and pacing to ensure a solid performance). He’ll get caught by the other top bikers within the opening 6 miles, then gradually slip down the field. Total time? 8h30-40. You heard it here first.

And a finishing position? Lieto thinks top 5 is a possibility; I respectfully disagree. Top 20 is feasible, but no higher than 15th (Luke McKenzie went 8h38 for 15th in 2009 in hard conditions). Of course, Chrissie Wellington might put pressure on him if he slips much outside that! – how would the great man feel about being ‘chicked’?!

Whatever happens, it will be quite some spectacle, and it’s great for the sport to have one of the world’s most recognised sportsmen take part in triathlon’s showcase event.¬† It gives me extra motivation to work even harder and try to qualify for Kona and race against Lance! There’s a wild rumour that Ryan Hall could enter too. Come on Michael Phelps, let’s see what you’ve got!

1 Comment

  1. Interesting article by Paul Huddle and Lance Watson: thoughts on training Lance for an Ironman.

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