If any race captured the essence of a Season Like No Other, it would surely have to be this weekend’s AJ Bell World Triathlon Championship Series Leeds. WTCS Leeds will bring even more intrigue and races-within-the-race than usual as the Olympic Qualification period enters its final stages and the last points are earned before it closes on 14 June.
For many of those on the start line in Leeds’, as important as the gold and taking strides towards the Series title, are the battles to finish ahead of those around them on the Olympic rankings
The incredibly packed elite field will face a brand-new course, some crucial battles for Olympic places, a debut for one of the biggest names in Ironman racing and the eagerly awaited return of former world champions. Sunday in and around Roundhay Park is set to be another classic WTCS Leeds race in the north of England.
Gone is the technical city centre element of the bike and the Millennium Square finale, in comes a tree-lined, nine-lap ride full of fast straights broken up by a handful of switchbacks and a four-lap run through Roundhay Park.
You can watch all of the action on Sunday from 12.45pm, on TriathlonLive.tv.
Among the headliners for Sunday’s women’s race are Katie Zaferes and Taylor Spivey, the American duo competing for the one remaining Olympic berth for Tokyo alongside Summer Rappaport and Taylor Knibb, both sitting out the race. World Champion in 2019, Zaferes was caught up in a crash in Yokohama that left her with a mountain to climb in the race to the podium, while Spivey finished fourth, just as she had in her previous Series race in Hamburg.
Both women have incredible consistency at the highest level, Zaferes having succeeded in converting her regular strong positions into gold medals in that title-winning season. The final team place goes down to the selectors’ discretion, but the result in Leeds, where Zaferes has twice podium’d and Spivey once, is sure have a huge impact on that decision.
One person likely to be able to dictate the course of the race is Bermuda’s Flora Duffy. An injury niggle has kept her from the start lists since Arzachena last year, but that race once again underlined her prowess on the bike as she rode solo to gold. That kind of power will be needed here, too, if she is to give herself enough daylight behind to keep a field of strong running talent at bay.
That group includes the likes of former World Champion Non Stanford (GBR), who’s last individual medal was the gold at the 2019 WTCS race in Hamburg, and joining Stanford, Jessica Learmonth, Vicky Holland, Beth Potter and Sophie Coldwell among the home nation’s favourites will be a new face for the Series if not for the fans; Lucy Charles-Barclay.
Barclay was part of the SLT Arena Games line-up in March where she finished second, and it will be fascinating to see just how the Ironman and 70.3 specialist adapts to the unique demands of the World Triathlon Championship Series. It was Potter who beat her to the gold in Rotterdam with a red-hot run, and will be wanting to get back to her scintillating form at the end of 2020 after a tough time in last month’s WTCS Yokohama season-opener, Learmonth also looking to see where her race fitness is in a first outing of 2021.
Wearing the number one, however, will be Netherlands’ Maya Kingma, who followed up an outstanding bronze in Karlovy Vary last September with an even better one in Yokohama, where she and Knibb broke away on the bike decisively in a manner that suggests she would be comfortable trying to match Duffy if a similar scenario played out in the streets of Leeds.
There are no Olympic place concerns for the likes of Belgium’s Claire Michel, France’s Cassandre Beaugrand and Netherlands’ Rachel Klamer, all three always strong medal contenders and looking to build some form, while Australia’s Natalie van Coevorden and Emma Jackson will want to state their cases for Tokyo selection alongside Ashleigh Gentle should only two qualify for the team.
Chile’s Barbara Riveros shrugged off an injury to register a strong 7th place in Arzachena, a race where Brazil’s Vittoria Lopes again impressed in the early stages before finishing 18th and Czech Republic’s Vendula Frintova wasn’t able to finish.
Japan’s Yuko Takahashi and Ai Ueda will both want a positive performance to take away to the build up to a home Games, and Germany’s Laura Lindemann and Italy’s Alice Betto both know that a podium place could be well within their grasp if they can save some legs for that 10km closer.
The full start list is available here.
Wearing the number one is Kristian Blummenfelt, after the Norwegian powered to golds at WTCS Yokohama and the World Triathlon Cup Lisbon. Mixed fortunes in Leeds over the years may mean the new-look course will be a welcome change, and he will be looking to throw down the gauntlet on the bike and test the rest of the field.
It was an almighty battle with Jelle Geens during the season opener in Japan, and the Belgian will have taken a lot out of the final stages of the race to feed into his race tactics should he find himself among the front-runners again this time around.
The bronze in Yokohama went to Pearson, and with it the first men’s spot on the US team for Tokyo. With no Eli Hemming or Kevin McDowell in Leeds, American eyes will also be on Matthew McElroy and Seth Rider, the third men’s spot in the balance with Tom Bishop just 18 points behind McDowell and Great Britain’s last hope for a third man ranked in the top 30 and a place on next month’s Olympic start line.
Also representing the home nation will be local favourites the Brownlee brothers, with Jonny the sole British male confirmed for Tokyo, brother Alistair plotting a course towards a second defence of his Olympic title. Alex Yee would love a crack at his first Games, though, and a podium in Leeds would be a huge statement of intent to the selectors.
Reigning World Champion Vincent Luis, untouchable in the final four races of 2020, finished sixth in Yokohama and will want to get back to the podium to rebuild his confidence ahead of Tokyo. He is joined by fellow Team France members Dorian Coninx and Leo Bergere on the Leeds line up, a winner in WTCS Bermuda 2019 and World Championship bronze medallist in 2020 respectively.
Vasco Vilaça was Portugal’s rising star between the two French medalists in Hamburg last year and will be keen to prove his abilities once again at the top level. Hungarian interests will be focussed on Tamas Toth as he needs to at least maintain his ranking if they are to have a Mixed Relay team on the format’s Olympic debut on 31 July.
The return of Spanish legend Javier Gomez to the blue carpet will delight triathlon fans the world over, while Antonio Serrat Seoane is finding some great form and could be due a breakthrough performance ahead of the team announcement of who will join Mario Mola and Fernando Alarza in Tokyo.
New Zealand’s Hayden Wilde makes his first World Triathlon appearance since the pandemic cut short the 2020 season, looking to see how sharp he is after so long away from the front line. Jacob Birtwhistle has recovered from the illness that hampered his Yokohama ambitions and the Australian starts safe in the knowledge he will be in Tokyo, as do Bence Bicsak (HUN), Makoto Odakura (JPN), Shachar Sagiv (ISR) and Jonas Schomburg (GER), all of whom can focus fully on honing their race form.
For the full start list, click here.