Friday, August 15, 2008

Olympic Watching Guide

With the Olympic Triathlon days away, I figured now would be a good time to write up my thoughts on these two races and what to watch for.  When 2004 rolled around I was in my second season of racing age-group triathlons and knew very little about the Olympic format or the athletes who raced there.  I reckon most of you reading this blog are in the same boat.  So here's a bit of an overview to help you enjoy this event a bit more.

And for those of you readers who race Continental Cups alongside me, feel free to correct me or to elaborate in the Comments.

Most of you know that the Olympic triathlon consists of a 1500m swim, a 40km bike and a 10km run and that you are allowed to draft on the bike leg.  Some self-described "purists" say that the draft-legal rules make it less of a "real" triathlon, but I'd like to see those "purists" swim well enough to make that pack or run a sub-31 10k after that ride!  From a spectator's standpoint, a non-drafting triathlon is a time trial while a draft-legal race is more like a road race.  I guess it's that way from a competitor's standpoint, too -- in a non-drafting race you can "race your own race" for the most part whereas in a non-drafting race a lot of your pacing and tactics are dictated by what the other guys are doing.

The draft-legal format turns the swim into an all-or-nothing affair for most of the athletes.  Unless you are a killer cyclist there isn't much motivation to break away in the swim but you *don't* want to fall off the back this early i the race.  If you exit the water in the "B" or "C" pack (as I often do) you are often racing for tenth or twentieth place the rest of the way.  Whether the groups come together on the bike is a function of the other racers' strengths & weaknesses:

  • Most of the bike tactics depend on the racers' perceptions of each others strength on the run.
  • If a trailing group contains strong runners then the leading group will work to prevent a catch. 
  • If the trailing group is non-threatening then it actually has a better chance to catch...
  • A breakaway's chance of staying away increases as the other racers' perception of its members' run strength decreases
  • A weak runner has little incentive to pull in a break but very high incentive to bridge or to go on their own break
  • A strong runner wants the break to be caught, although he'd rather not be the one to do all the work on the bike. 

For some examples, lets look at Pacific Grove 2007 and Mazatlan 2008.  Victor Plata was very vocal at Pac Grove last year b/c he was very confident in his run and he didn't want a weak runner getting too big of a gap on the bike.  Jarrod Shoemaker was in a similar position in Mazatlan -- he couldn't let Matt Chrabot and Ben Collins get too far up the road on the bike b/c he knew he wouldn't get back more than 60-90 seconds on Matt.  At PG the gap stayed small (less than a minute) and Victor won the race.  At Mazatlan the break got two minutes up the road and Matt Chrabot stayed away on the run.  Looking more deeply, Victor was helped by the presence of other runners in the main bike group who wanted things to stay close.  Jarrod was hurt by the fact that everyone in his bike group knew that he was likely to outrun them.

Enough on the racing format... let's take a look at some of the competitors.  First the American men:

  • Jarrod Shoemaker was the first to qualify for the games by virtue of his Top American finish at last year's Beijing World Cup, which was contested on the Olympic course.  He only placed 11th overall, though.  Jarrod is a very strong runner, with a 5k PR near 14:00.  If he can be in the front group starting the run then he has the best chance of any of the Americans.  But he also has the lowest chance of being in that front group b/c his swim & run aren't as strong.  (I should note that they're still quite strong by rank-and-file pro standards, just not as overpowering as his run.)
  • Speaking of overpowering, the next American to qualify was Matty Reed.  Matt's brother Shane is racing for their native New Zealand but Matt got his American citizenship a few years ago after marrying an American.  Matt is one of the strongest cyclists in the ITU circuit and one of the most likely guys to get into a break.  This was partially b/c his run didn't inspire fear in the other racers until very recently.  After a *lot* of off-season run focus and some work with Bobby McGee in Boulder Matt is running very well right now, as shown in his win at Olympic Trials and his outkicking of 2000 gold medalist Simon Whitfield for fifth at this year's World Championship.  Matt also won the Escape from Alcatraz last year.
  • The third member of the American team is the one with the most success on the ITU circuit of any American male -- Hunter Kemper.  Hunter has been on all three US Olympic teams and spent some time in the #1 spot on the World Cup points list before the emergence of Spain's Javier Gomez.  Hunter is pretty strong all around with the run probably being his strongest discipline and the bike his weakest.  But he's had some injuries in the last year and it's hard to say where his fitness is right now.  He did outrun a much-improved Andy Potts at the Hy-Vee World Cup in order to snag the last US spot.
  • Andy Potts is the alternate.  He's one of the strongest swimmers on the ITU circuit and usually leads out of the water.  He'll sometimes start the bike in a break but has only stayed away when his group has been rather large.  Like Reed, Andy has worked a lot on his run over the last two years and unlike Reed Andy pulled in a World Cup win last year.  I think it was in New Plymouth.  Andy won Alcatraz this year.

The big favorite in the men's race is Javier Gomez and he'll be hard to beat.  Out of 11 World Cup starts he has 8 wins, 2 second place finishes and one third.  He also won last year's Beijing World Cup.  He is known for dropping a 4:50 mile around the 5k mark ... he may be vulnerable to a strong kick *if* anyone else can stay with him until the finish.  Other names to know:

  • Bevan Docherty of New Zealand was the Olympic silver medalist in '04 and won the World Championships in Madeira, Portugal in 2004.  The other Kiwis are also quite strong -- Shane Reed (Matt's brother) and Kris Gemmell.  Retired 2004 gold medalist Hamish Carter is also a Kiwi.
  • Simon Whitfield of Canada won the gold medal in 2000 and has been on form this year.
  • Rasmus Henning of Denmark won the highest prize-money race on the World Cup calendar in 2007 and 2008 -- the Hy-Vee World Cup in Des Moines, Iowa.  That race was in June so he's had enough time to build to a second peak.
  • Aussies Brad Kahlefeldt and Courtney Atkinson are both quite strong.  Greg Bennett would have been their third team member but the IOC said that only eight countries could have three athletes and Australia was ranked ninth at the critical moment.  Kahlefeldt went back and forth with the American Hunter Kemper as World Cup points leader in the year before Gomez's arrival.
  • Daniel Unger of Germany won this year's world championship.
  • Ivan Rana of Spain and Dmitry Gaag of Kazakhstan have also had strong performances at World Cups and World Championships.
  • The World Cup points list on the ITU site can also give you an idea of who's been racing well this year

I don't know the women's field as well since I haven't raced any of them.  But the women's race will take place at 10am on Monday the 18th (Beijing Time) or 7pm on Sunday the 17th Seattle Time.  There is supposed to be a live video feed without commentary on (powered by Microsoft Silverlight) and a one-hour highlight reel on the midnight broadcast.

The men's race is 24 hours later -- 7pm Pacific on Monday for the video feed.

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