British interest in triathlon as a discipline has rocketed in recent years, thanks, in no small part, to the success of the Brownlee brothers. Now, a brand new type of event looks set to capitalise on that popularity and do for triathlon what Twenty20 did for cricket – send it mainstream. Launched earlier this year in Australia by two-time Ironman world champ Chris McCormack, Super League Triathlon hits British shores on 23 and 24 September, arriving in Jersey, Proviz’s home territory. We spoke to former triathlete and one of the Jersey event organisers Nick Saunders to find out what it’s all about.
What is a Super League Triathlon?
It’s basically a very new format of triathlon – short, sharp and all about the entertainment factor. It's been designed for television and as a proper live spectator sport. Chris also wanted to find out who the best swimmer, cyclist and runner was overall. At the moment, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) can be very predictable racing. You'll find that there are very good swimmers and then they end up on the bike in a big pack and then the best runner will win the race, whereas in Super League Triathlon that’s not necessarily the case. It's the most consistent person that should win. And the courses are very tight, so there’s the potential for a bit of drama.
How does it differ from a typical triathlon?
The 25 participants do a 300-metre swim, a five-kilometre bike ride and a two kilometre run. It takes place on a very small course – for the swim it’s often just one lap in a small marina and then, for example, here in Jersey the bike course is a one-kilometre loop that participants do five times. The run is on one kilometre loop that they do two times. The other difference is that there’s a 10-minute break from the point at which the leader crosses the line before they all go again. And they won’t necessarily swim, bike and run in the typical triathlon order, that will get mixed up, too.
How is it judged?
It takes place over two days and the first day works on a points system, so the first person over the line might get, say 100 points, the second 99, and so on. The second day of racing then becomes an eliminator of three rounds, 10 athletes get eliminated after the first round, then five in the second round so you are left with the last 10 athletes who effectively race in the final.
So, pacing must be crucial in this kind of race?
It is, but these guys are so fit that they can do this. They can afford to push it as hard as they can, but they're always holding back just that little bit extra in reserve to try and counter any attacks. That said, there's no margin for error in this kind of racing. Seconds count.
You’ve got some of the biggest names in triathlon coming to Jersey…
They’ve signed up the 20 best athletes in the world who are available to race, according to the ITU rankings, and there are also five wildcard entries. So, for example, there's a guy from Jersey racing and a young junior from the UK, a guy called Ben Dijkstra. They’re keen to look out for up-and-coming talent. But, you've basically got some of the 20 best short course guys in the world coming to race. Unfortunately, Alistair Brownlee is injured so he's not racing, but he'll be commentating.
How important is the television coverage?
The proposed audience, including social media and things like that, is about 400 million, which is massive. It’s really good exposure for the athletes. It's important for Jersey as well because it's putting us on the map.
What’s your experience in triathlon?
I used to race as professional, but I retired in 2011 and I’m a coach now. I raced from short course up to Ironman. Coaching is much easier!
How did you get involved in Super League?
I was coaching an athlete from Iceland and he was a wild card for the first ever Super League that was held in Hamilton Island, Australia. I went out there to support him. I raced with Chris McCormack back in the day. We had a chat and got talking about Jersey and wondered if we could bring it here. So, I came back and spoke to a few people, including a guy called Fintan Kennedy who has been instrumental in helping us make it happen – getting the funds we need and government and infrastructure support. There's a lot that goes into it, the whole thing costs about $1.5 million per event.
Is it just for the professionals?
In future, we want to open it up for mass participation, but for the Jersey event we’ve got something we’ve called the Corporate Mix. That’s one of the ways that we’ve raised funds. So, we have about eight companies who have agreed to give us funding and in exchange they get to choose two professional athletes – one male and one female – to essentially join their corporate team. The team races in the morning and they’ll be up on a points table competing against one another and then once the pros race, we’ll add their athletes’ totals to the corporate figure. Next year, we want to really open it up more broadly.
Interest in triathlon racing seems to have exploded since the London Olympics in 2012…
It's certainly grown and London was a big part of that. Also, the Brownlee brothers have really captured people’s imaginations. Jonny is still racing ITU, the shorter courses, but Alistair is actually stepping up to the long course, so he's starting to do half Ironman and he's unbeatable so far.
Why do you think it appeals to so many people?
I think what people find attractive about triathlon is that there's three disciplines. You're not just training for one thing and it's very achievable. I think swimming is the biggest challenge for most, but everyone rides a bike, most people run. I think people tend to try one and quickly get hooked. They say they’ll never try an Ironman, but before you know it there’s a few of them that want to tick that box, too. I think racing outdoors in nice locations is appealing, too, and you get to race alongside professional athletes doing exactly the same distances. It's the same as marathon running in that sense. It's a real summer sport as well. People go away and do triathlon camps. Kids are getting involved now, too. They see the Brownlees and they want to give it a try. I think sometimes the parents get into it to keep up with the children.
How important is it for a sport to have figureheads like the Brownlees?
Huge. I'm involved in coaching at a local academy and they're so excited about this event coming here and they've all got a favourite athlete. So, those names are really important in any sport. You'll find that the kids will have a role model if there's a professional side to it.
Will the kids you coach be out supporting?
Definitely, and some of them have been recruited by the corporate teams and we're entering a junior team into the corporate race as well.
What sort of turnout are you expecting?
It would be great if a few thousand came down here to watch it. It's a good atmosphere. We had the Island Games here two years ago and there were thousands of spectators. The Super League event is in a similar location. It's near the Radisson Hotel, next to a castle called Elizabeth Castle. So it's very scenic and in a marina. We hope to have a lot of people down there.
Photos from the Super League Triathlon Event in Hamilton Island, Australia. Credit: Delly Carr
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