We all know that Flora Duffy will start as a firm favorite to win Thursday’s Commonwealth Games Triathlon but what are some of the key factors that could affect the outcome of the race.
Preparation : Working with coach Neal Henderson and husband and mentor Dan Hugo as well as other specialists, Flora’s preparation for all of her races has always been meticulous. Free from injury and illness and seemingly with no lasting consequences from her spill in Abu Dhabi, Flora looks to be coming into these games extremely well prepared. Of particular interest will be to see where Flora’s run time is at, as in 2017 her running form changed noticeably and I don’t think we have seen the best of Flora off the bike yet.
Game plan : Flora and her crew will have examined all aspects of the course, including for example where to line up on the swim pontoon. Clearly Flora’s plan will be to do as she has done so many times before which is to split the field early on the swim and look to take a small group of three or four cyclists with her on the bike and open up as big a lead as possible on her main contenders going into the run. However if a larger group forms at the front, as happened in the Olympics, and that group includes some talented runners, Flora will need to assess whether to try and break that group up at some point or not take that risk and conserve her energy for the run knowing that towards the end of last season her run times matched the times of the best runners in the field. If the lead group out of T2 includes the lies of Gentle then it will take a time of around 16 minutes flat to win the race ; don’t put it past Flora to be in contention for gold if that is the scenario.
Confidence and handling the pressure :
Flora has shown time and again that she is not scared of taking on being favorite entering a race. The most obvious example of her confidence and determination to win was in Mexico at the 2016 World Championships when the Grand Final title and her ITU World Series title were on the line against the formidable Gwen Jorgensen. Unfazed, Flora blew the field away to take both titles.
After two years of dominating the sport Flora is certainly not lacking in confidence and has the experience now of handling the pressure. Major games do throw up surprises and the pressure is that much greater and she will need to stay calm and confident if the race does not pan out as planned.
The distances :
The fact that these games are over 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run is somewhat of a surprise as in previous major games and world championships the longer standard distance (or olympic distance as it is also known) has been used.
I am not sure who decided on the distances but the shorter swim will certainly favor the weaker swimmers but strong runners who will be hoping to limit the damage done on the swim and thus have more chance of reeling in any lead group that may form on the bike. However, Flora has shown on more than one occasion that she and the likes of Jessica Learmoth and Sophie Coldwell can open up a gap on the swim / bike in the shorter sprint format even at this level of competition. The margins will be finer but expect Flora to do everything possible to get away on the bike. With her much improved run and more work on the run over the winter Flora will not fear the runners over 5km especially if she has made further strides in this discipline which I suspect she has.
Team tactics :
It is well known that governing bodies of the powerhouse nations in triathlon will insist that their athletes employ team tactics in major games. With so much government financial support contingent on results, a medal at these games is going to be uppermost in the mind of team coaches. Controversially, some deserving athletes have in the last been omitted from teams in favor of swim or cycling specialists capable of helping their leading contender(s) to position themselves in the best possible place going into the run.
If Flora goes into the bike with a one or more team GB or team Australia athletes who are not likely to beat Flora on the run then those athletes, as we have seen with team GB in the past, might be instructed to act as spoilers by going to the front and slowing Flora’s pace in order to allow their contenders to bridge the time gap before the run. Flora will however soon know if that is the tactic and if necessary will take long turns on the front or simply try and drop these athletes who will then be forced to give up team tactics in order to try for a medal podium.
Assuming that a small group does get away then countries such as England and Australia could well have strong cyclists sacrifice themselves to try and pace their main contenders up to the breakaway group. If there is a large group at the front after the swim that includes contenders then it will be that much more difficult for Flora as the stronger team cyclists will look to nullify any attempt by Flora and others to break away.
If Flora does get away with a group but is the strongest runner in that group ( a very possible scenario if history is anything to go on) then for the Australian and England teams the big question may be whether to possibly sacrifice the gold medal to Flora and be happy with silver and bronze for their athletes that may be in that lead group. If just one of those two teams doesn’t have an athlete in any small lead group then expect that team to work all out, even at the expense of one or more of their athletes, to bring one of their athletes into contention by T2. That scenario would see a number of stronger runners from other nations looking to use that move to also bridge up to the lead group.
The competition :
The only triathlete to beat Flora last year is Australia’s Ashleigh Gentle who hails from the Gold Coast and will be buoyed by the home crowd. Gentle is an outstanding runner and if she exits T2 with Flora, Flora’s chances of taking home gold will depend largely on whether her run as at a point now where she can match Gentle’s pace to the finish line. Gentle’s achilles heel has always been the swim and most pundits expect her to be well off the leaders out of the swim, perhaps by as much as 45 secs. If Gentle can produce the swim of a lifetime, especially with the shorter swim, or if team Australia are prepared to sacrifice the talented Gillian Backhouse and Charlotte McShane to bring Gentle to the front of the race on the bike then Gentle might well challenge Flora for the gold medal, but the effort on the bike might also significantly sap her legs going into the run. McShane , who took silver in the Grand Final in 2016, is a strong runner and Backhouse is a strong all round triathlete and expect McShane in particular to be a threat if she is in touch with Flora going out of T2.
A bigger threat might come from the team tactics and talent of the English team who have a powerful team of experienced and up and coming triathletes that make for a dangerous combination. Vicky Holland took bronze in the Rio Olympics and has 5 world cup wins to her name. Last year youngsters Sophie Coldwell and Jessica Learmoth were a revelation for team GB as they are outstanding swim / bike specialists. Learmouh goes into these games as a clear medal contender after taking bronze at the 2017 ITU Grand Final and gold at the 2017 European Championships. This year she took silver at the first ITU World Triathlon Series event in Abu Dhabi. Learmoth has dramatically improved her run in 2017 and over the winter and is such a strong medal contender that if she gets away with Flora in a small group it is highly unlikely that the England coaches will call her back to help Holland who could well trail Flora, though perhaps not by much, out of the water. Holland is a strong runner but Flora can match her on the run . Sophie Coldwell has not produced the results that Learmoth has but is likely to emerge from the water with Flora and is a strong cyclist. If there is a sacrificial lamb on team England sent back to help Holland , in the event she trails out of the water, then it is likely to be Coldwell.
Non Stanford has been plagued by injuries in recent years but won the ITU Grand Final in 2015 and was a silver medalist in 2015 and showed with a 2nd place finish in a World Cup event in Cape Town this year that she is getting back to winning form. As she is competing for Wales she won’t be able to rely on her usual Team GB team support although as she is very close with the English athletes it would be no surprise if they team up to some extent to bring back Flora if she gets away.
Others to watch will be Australian Natalie Van Coeverden, who produced a strong all round perforance in Abu Dhabi to take bronze, Canada’s Joanna Brown and New Zealand’s veteran Andrea Hewitt. Hewitt has been slightly off the pace in 2018 but if she can come out of the water near the leaders she has the bike and run to collect another medal to add to her impressive collection. 22 year old Nicole Van der Kaay of New Zealand has impressed in March as well with 2nd in the New Plymouth World Cup and 4th in the Mooloolaba World Cup.
Luck and the weather : We all hope that luck does not come into the equation on Thursday but ofcourse the unexpected can always happen. Equipment failure, human error, weather conditions and how you are feeling on the day can all affect races.
As noted, as the sport has evolved into a race of attrition, the smallest of margins on the swim, just a handful of seconds, can make such a difference in a race that will last just around an hour. We will all be hoping that for Flora it will be a golden day.