As I am sure has not been lost on the Bermuda triathlon community and Bermuda at large, Flora Duffy will take to the start line this Saturday 20th August in the 2016 Olympic Triathlon in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Flora enters the race with perhaps the best chance of a Bermuda Olympic medal since Clarence Hill’s boxing bronze.
Flora goes into the triathlon as one of the favorites in some commentators’ opinions and as a dark horse amongst other commentators. At the start of the season, as Flora herself admits, she would have been pleased with a top ten finish but her form in the Triathlon World Series, which Flora now leads, has now shown that she is a real contender for a medal or even gold in Rio.
As in so many sports, the ability of an athlete to “peak” for an event can often be the deciding factor between a podium finish or disappointment. The British track cycling programme is a good example of how this works. After, by their standards, a mediocre 4 years since the London 2012 Olympics, the team won 11 of the 24 Olympic medals on offer at Rio ; that’s 11 to every other nations 13. Flora’s results in 2016 would suggest that she is peaking at just the right time for these Olympics and has often been said, form and rankings often go out of the window at the Olympics. Flora has gone from 4th to 3rd to 2nd in the World Series this year and then just a few weeks ago she took 1st in the Stockholm leg of the World Series and 1st in a competitive World Cup race just over a week ago in Montreal.
A few years ago triathlons were following a standard pattern where nobody would get away on the swim or bike and a large group of triathletes ( sometimes almost the whole field) would battle it out in a foot race.
However, in the last few years the British Brownlee brothers realised that if they could get a narrow margin on the swim and early part of the bike they could eliminate the threat of some, if not all, of the fast runners. So, they focused on developing strength in all three routines and cleverly enlisted the support of their now training partner Richard Varga, who invariably leads out the swimmers in these races. With Varga pushing the pace, small gaps appear in the field and the Brownlees then build on that narrow lead in the early part of the bike by pushing the pace. In the men’s Olympics triathlon today, 18th August, they executed their now familiar plan to perfection with Varga leading them out of the water and the Brownlees and a group of ten breaking the string between themselves and the chasing group to open up a 1 min 15 sec gap on the likes of other pre race favorites, and strong runners such as Mario Mola , Richard Murray and Joao Pereira.
Last season Flora tried the same tactics but when others did not come with her Flora allowed herself to go back into the pack. This year, however, she has thrown caution to the wind, and the result has been amazing. She has upped her swim just enough to be able to sometimes open a gap with a group going into the bike or taken a few athletes with her early on the bike. Early in the season she did not have the run to hold off all of the field but the realisation that this tactic could work has transformed her thinking and confidence. After being caught so close to the line by the likes of Gwen Jorgensen, easily the fastest runner in womens’ triathlon and a strong favorite for Rio, she has shown in recent races that in Rio the margin she might need to hold off Jorgensen and others might be smaller than it was 6 months ago.
The problem for Flora may be that unlike in the men’s field, there are not as many strong swim / bikers than can emerge at the front of the swim and stay with her on the bike to share the workload and open up a gap on the likes of Jorgensen and Non Stanford, assuming they can exit the swim with a 10 to 20 second on these runners. Andrea Hewitt and Helen Jenkins ( and possibly Nicola Spirig or Erin Densham) are some of the athletes who could help Flora but if they are unwilling to match Flora’s pace on the tough hilly and technical course, then Flora, as she did in Stockholm, will have to make a tough decision as to whether she is willing to risk it all by just going off the front .
However, this tactic is unlikely to give her the kind of lead off the bike to hold off Jorgensen and other fast runners in a chasing group especially with designated athletes from some countries busting themselves to bring their top athlete into contention going into the run. In Stockholm Flora got a minute on the pack but in the last two laps her solo effort told and the lead was reduced to 25 seconds, not enough to beat Jorgensen in a foot race.
Flora’s run has improved dramatically over the season, despite the fatigue in her legs going into the run after her mammoth efforts. In Stockholm the TV commentators expected strong runners such as Helen Jenkins and Andrea Hewitt to catch Flora but Flora matched their times ( taking into account that she slowed dramatically near the line to take the crowd’s applause whilst Hewitt and Jenkins sprinted for the line). Jenkins in particular is considered to be one of the very best runners, so Flora’ run time was especially pleasing. Imagine what her run might be like if she has the opportunity to share the workload with a few others or, if she is unable to break away from the pack, to sit in and conserve energy in the pack.
If a pack comes in together at the front and it includes Jorgensen and the UK’s Non Stanford then gold and silver may be out of Flora’s reach but, assuming she is in that pack, don’t rule Flora out for that bronze medal.
If ,however, she comes in with the likes of Jenkins and Hewitt, or slightly ahead of them if there is a group off the front and she tries to distance them in the last two laps, then silver or gold is possible, depending on how far behind Jorgensen is and how she has handled the heat and hills. How much of a gap will the group need on Jorgensen ? Some would say at least 1 min 30 secs. I think at the Olympics that 1 minute may, just may, be enough.
One thing is for certain,and it is making many athletes like Jorgensen nervous, Flora will be going all out to break the top runners before the run and with the heat and 17% gradient on the hill, x 8, a bit of support on the bike and a disorganised chase group on the technical course, she just might do it. She has such an “off the charts” pain threshold and endurance engine that will be key.
Whatever happens, Flora has already earned huge respect in the triathlon community, especially after her start to finish solo effort at Stockholm, and I guarantee you she will leave everything out on the course.
GO FLORA GO.