If Flora Duffy doesn’t podium this weekend at the Triathlon World Championships in Chicago I know that it wont be for the want of trying to the bitter end.
Flora has already established herself as clearly the world’s best on the off road XTerra Triathlon world scene (swim, cross country mountain bike and run) where she has dominated the women’s events often winning by extraordinary margins, as she did at the 2014 world championships.
However, until this year, Flora has enjoyed mixed fortunes, and some bad luck ( her crash in the London Olympics for example) over the past few years in the road version of triathlon where the fields are typically stronger and have more depth. There were some encouraging top ten finishes and ofcourse medals at the Pan Am Games but when the best fields were assembled, for example in the World Triathlon Series, Flora was generally outside of the top ten.
But this year Flora’s performances on the International Triathlon World Series circuit have been a revelation and she has really caught the attention of the world’s triathlon media because of her willingness to mix it up early. Historically many world series races have come down to “who can run the fastest at the end” and to some extent that is still true but Flora has put fear into some of these runners by her willingness to try and break them on the bike. Her strength on the bike is becoming a real topic of conversation as race after race she almost singlehandedly attempts break away from the pack, often dragging a few strong cyclists with her.
Of course her ability to get away off the front depends on her position out of the swim and this year Flora has found more consistency in coming out with the leaders, or in touch with the leaders, on the swim. So this Friday at around 5.18PM Chicago time ( the womens’ elite race gets underway at 5PM) she will need to be at the front as they exit the swim.
Cross country cycling is a tough sport and I have no doubt that Flora’s XC bike training, often with leading professional male triathletes, has help to make her the strongest and most skilful cyclist in the womens’ professional field. If in the past Flora has been reluctant to risk it all by trying to get away on the bike and not succeeding and having nothing left for the run, this year she has thrown caution to the wind in her attempt to break up the field and open up a lead, even if with a small group. Flora’s efforts have been rewarded as she had had three podium finishes including a 3rd in Stockholm and a 2nd in Edmonton in the past month.
Going hard in the swim and bike is not just about opening up a lead but also about putting the hurt into the top runners’ legs. Flora may do most of the work at the front but the pace she sets will inevitably take a lot out of all of the group who go with her and equally importantly those groups trying to keep the lead group within striking distance for the run. If some of the top runners get caught in the 2nd pack they may not find strong cyclists in that pack to help them pull back the lead group and they will then have to work that much harder to catch the leaders. Flora is such a strong cyclist that her efforts at the front might not even take as much out of her as the effort of those triathletes trying to stay with her.
Nevertheless, even with a lead of say a minute or more you need to deal with not only the runners in the lead group but also the strong chasers in the following groups so having a strong run is still essential when all the best are gathered together. Flora’s improvement on the run in recent weeks has been the biggest revelation to me and is exciting to see. In Edmonton two weeks ago she got off the bike with some of the best runners in women’s triathlon and although she was not able to match the pace of the UK’s Vicky Holland, she was not far behind her and recorded the 2nd fastest run time. In Stockholm and Edmonton many, including the race commentators, were expecting Flora to fade on the run, but she proved them wrong and the professional women lining up on Sunday will have made a mental note of her run times !!
Admittedly Flora’s recent podiums, which have lifted her to 5th in the world rankings, were over the shorter distances of 750 meter swim, 20km bike and 5km run ( Friday’s race is over 1500m swim, 40km bike, 10km run). Whether she can sustain her effort on the run over 10km remains to be seen but her recent runs will have given her a huge boost in confidence, a factor which is so important in any form of racing and cant be quantified.
So what chances do I think Flora has of medaling on Friday ? So much will depend on how the race unfolds. The USA currently has the top three women triathletes in the world, Gwen Jorgensen – Sara True and Katie Zaferes, and they are all on the starting line on Friday. I see all three of them coming out of the with the lead group together and then working as a team to cover any break Flora might try to make on the bike, with or without accomplices. They will most likely be joined by one or more of the strong UK contingent and others who will be staying close to the front.
At this level of racing it will be tough for Flora to get away from enough of the strong runners to podium but having said that, if she and one or two others agree beforehand to try and distance themselves on the bike and there isn’t a quick enough organized reaction, it could be possible that the leading group into the run might have 40 seconds. If Gwen Jorgensen of the USA is in the lead group off the bike or within a minute ( or more even !!) of the leaders the gold will be hers. If there is a small lead group and Flora is in it her chances of her medal will depend on who is in that lead group, how she is feeling off the bike and how big the gap is.
When being interviewed by the BBC after her 2nd place in Edmonton Flora was asked about the freezing conditions for the race that hampered so many of the competitors and she replied with a big smile that not even the cold could stop this ” little Bermuda island girl” . One thing is for certain and that is that Flora will leave 100% out on the course on Friday so “go get them gurl” or better still “make them go get you gurl” ! Whatever the outcome, I am sure we will be proud of you.
FOOLOW THIS LINK FOR A PREVIEW OF THE WOMEN’S ELITE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP RACE. FLORA GETS A STRONG MENTION :