Can anybody beat the big threes? John Levison on St George in May

Can anyone challenge the ‘big three’ for the title of IRONMAN World Champion on May 7 in St George, Utah?

Who will take the first of two championship wins in 2022?

And who are the ‘big three’ anyway?!

It’s early February, there has been almost no professional racing this year and yet I’ve been given the honour/hospital pass of trying to predict the answers ahead of St George.

Thanks team!

Nonetheless, with a packed season of racing ahead, let’s give it a go, because, at least to our eyes right now, there are some interesting parallels when looking at both Pro races in Utah in early May.

By the time the bookies release their odds, we suspect that there will be three athletes at the head of their market.

First up, Lucy Charles-Barclay will likely start as race favourite. On a high from a brilliant 2021 season and off the back of a career-best performance – in St George no less – when winning the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship, the stars seem aligned for her. She ended 2021, deservedly, as the PTO’s #1 ranked athlete.

Three times second in Kona, and with serious thoughts of a run at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, the incentive for her to crack the top step over the full distance, perhaps twice, in 2022 will be stronger than ever.

We also have to include Daniela Ryf in our top three. Already a legend of the sport, it is a measure of her status that many would regard a season in which she only (!) won five of the seven races she started – including two IRONMAN races – as a poor one. One of those victories was an almost five-minute winning margin at the May edition on IRONMAN 70.3 St George too.

We can be honest too. Despite those wins, 2021 wasn’t the vintage and untouchable Ryf… but was it enough to write-off the prospects of nine time World Champion? No chance. Fuel for the fire, expect the Angry Bird to come out fighting.

The third of our top trio has to be Anne Haug. Still the reigning IRONMAN World Champion (even if it was from 2019), the German rarely seeks headlines, but guided by Coach Dan Lorang – who will also be in the Charles-Barclay corner – she delivers when it matters.

Her win at Challenge Roth in 2021 is one which definitely didn’t get the profile that the stats suggest it warrants, while her ability to run off the bike is remarkable. Logic would also suggest that the hills of the run course will be a perfect fit for her slight stature too. She won’t lead the race into T2, but you can be sure that whoever does, will hope that their margin is significant.

Women’s Contenders?

Here’s the question I ask myself. Who, potentially, could beat all of the aforementioned trio? I can only come up with two names which might apply.

Germany’s Laura Philipp only started swimming at 24, turned professional at 25 and is already ranked #3 by the PTO. Her full-distance wins in 2021, Finland and Austria, were by margins of 21 and 45 minutes, respectively. She’s only raced the IRONMAN World Championship once before – finishing fourth at Kona in 2019 – and three years on she is a far more accomplished and experienced athlete now.

Laura is unlikely to swim like Lucy, bike like Daniela or run like Anne… but is well on the way to becoming the complete triathlete.

The final name I’m going to throw in to the mix is Kat Matthews. Yes, I’m well aware that the chances of winning the IRONMAN World Championship at your first attempt, historically at least, is very tough. But… perhaps this edition being in St George changes that Kona-centric history?

Matthews is so new to the sport at a professional level, and her progress so consistent, that predicting a ceiling on her potential is a fool’s errand right now. She also has St George experience on her side, with a fourth-place finish at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship last year only likely to add confidence to the military precision with which she prepares for and executes her races.

At IRONMAN Tulsa in 2021, Matthews produced a 2:49 marathon to finish 5:01 behind Ryf. A race in which she received a five-minute penalty. Like Philipp, Matthews is getting better every year. An outsider for the very top spot certainly, but enough that she has to round out my list.

There are plenty of other talented athletes set to race, several of whom could feature on the podium, and the chances that these five names will fill the first five finishing positions is slim. Sport rarely works like that.

Still, in asking myself the question, ‘Do I believe anyone else from the qualified starters can beat all five of these athletes on May 7 2022?’, my answer is no. Thus, my women’s Pro shortlist of potential winners for the IRONMAN World Championship, St George ends with these five names.

What about the men?

Considering that we haven’t even had an IRONMAN World Championship event since October 2019, it’s quite remarkable the level of interest, coverage and discussion there is around men’s full-distance racing right now.

And that, to a large extent, is because of three names who we think will likely start as the bookies favourites come May. More remarkably, they have never raced each other in non-drafting format either… which adds further to the anticipation.

Men’s big three

Who will start as favourite? That’s a tough one to determine yet, but you would have to assume that Jan Frodeno will be pretty close. Widely regarded as the GOAT, he’s done it all, is the three-time Kona champion… and he hasn’t lost a race since October 2017.

Frodeno’s contribution to the 2021 iron bonanza was his self-created Zwift Tri Battle Royale, a two-man iron-distance race with in typical Frodeno style was delivered and broadcast with style, professionalism… and a new world best time.

Still at the top of his game, can the now 40 year-old Frodeno continue to hold back time and show that the King is not ready to vacate his crown just yet? If there’s a question mark, could it be whether Frodo can be as ‘all in’ for St George as he surely will be when aiming for a fourth Kona title in Hawaii? “We ain’t playing Wimbledon down in Sussex” was his quote to Bob Babbitt last October.

Will the additional course elevation, relative to Kona, also suit a man of his stature?

Conventional wisdom (and almost 25 years of history for the men), says that athletes don’t win the IRONMAN World Championship first time out. Our next two men won’t care about that stat one bit.

Kristian Blummenfelt has done one IRONMAN race – and with it, recorded the fastest ever time. In truth, that ‘time’ thing gets in the way – massively current-assisted swim and all that. The real takeaway though is that this was the Olympic and World Triathlon champion, in his first attempt at the distance, smashing it… with clearly more to give.

Forget records, the bigger message was clear – Blummenfelt is deadly serious about conquering it all. How much did Cozumel take out of him? Well, two weeks later he schooled the field at CLASH Daytona.

Mark Allen calls him a “megastar in the making“, and he could well be right.

The final athlete in our men’s top three is Gustav Iden. IRONMAN 70.3 World Champion in 2019 and 2021. Throw in that Challenge Daytona 2020 performance too, and he is clearly on top of the world over that distance.

Another of the boys from Bergen, Norway, a potential iron-distance head-to-head with Frodeno was stopped by the weather in California, but two weeks later he polished off IRONMAN Florida with a 2:34 marathon – and says there’s more to come.

There have been strong hints from the Norwegian camp that while Iden will be all in for St George in May, he’ll likely skip Hawaii in October for a return to Utah, and defending that 70.3 title. Could that clarity make him the man to beat in May?

Men’s contenders?

Ok, let’s deal with the elephant in the room immediately. No, I haven’t forgotten about Alistair Brownlee! He is 100% the next name that absolutely has to be on my list.

Should the top three actually be four? On talent and potential alone, I’m not going to argue with you, and I’ve been around the sport long enough to know that underestimating the twice Olympic champion doesn’t usually end well… and I’m not overlooking him.

Trying to be objective however, a last IRONMAN race back in December 2019, followed by a short-distance campaign in search of a third Olympic title ending in injury, surgery and another route back to fitness will likely mean some longer odds about a Brownlee win. That’s good news, if you have confidence and like a flutter with the bookmakers.

I’m going to put forward Patrick Lange as a potential winner too. Often overlooked, he’s a two-time IRONMAN World Champion, and in 2021 was hugely impressive while winning IRONMAN Tulsa and Challenge Roth. Always incredible on the run, those events also saw him matching up well on two wheels to several of the sports cycling stars. That’s a sign of athlete still focused on top-level performance.

Lange trains in the challenging terrain of Lanzarote a lot, and in combination with his slight stature and fast feet, could the hills of St George work to his benefit too? I don’t know the answer to that one… but I do know that he will be hoping that it is also very hot!

And that’s where I stop.

What? Are you mad John?! Perhaps, but as with the women’s analysis, I get to that point of do I believe anyone else on the start list will beat ALL five of the athletes named above on 7 May, and I’m not sure that they can.

There are plenty who can beat some of the names listed above – Sam Long, Lionel Sanders, Joe Skipper, Daniel Bækkegård and Cameron Wurf will surely be among several who will play their part in impacting the race, and possibly even sharing the podium celebrations once the race is in the books.

But – in early February 2022 at least – that’s my early shortlist for the potential winners of the IRONMAN World Championship in St. George.

Who’s going to win?

I guess you want prediction for the actual race winners too, right?

Okay, I think the Lucy Charles-Barclay form line will see her add to that 70.3 title. It won’t be easy, but she has been looking increasingly bullet-proof across all disciplines, that I think even a Ryf bike blitz or a Haug run fest won’t be enough to overcome her all-around racing.

For the men, and this really is a tough one, I’m going to pick Gustav Iden to continue his success in Utah.

With St George being, possibly, his one shot at an IRONMAN World Championship title for a few years (in the lead-up to Paris 2024 at least), I think he could be the first IRONMAN World Championship debutant in the Male Pro ranks to top the podium since Luc Van Lierde in 1996.

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