The off-road triathlon world turns its attention to Oak Mountain State Park in Shelby County, Alabama for the ITU Cross Tri World Championships being held in conjunction with the XTERRA Southeast Championship tomorrow.
The spotlight is on the pro races with 50 elites representing 13 countries looking to win a world title for their country as well as their share of $20,000 in prize money.
Conrad Stoltz headlines the list of contenders in the men’s race, and for good reason. Stoltz won the inaugural ITU Cross Tri World Title last year, won the last five XTERRA races contested here in Alabama, won last month’s XTERRA U.S. Pro Series opener in Vegas, and is, well, “the Caveman”.
Other serious contenders include Americans Josiah Middaugh, Craig Evans and Branden Rakita, Aussie Chris Legh, and British Aquathon World Champ Richard Stannard.
For Evans, who lives just three hours from the park in Tennessee and has a long history or racing in the Southeast, this race holds special meaning.
“There is a lot of emotions in this race for me. All winter my training has focused on Saturday afternoon at 4pm,” said Evans (pictured above courtesy Bernard Troncale, Birmingham News). “It’s kind of a dream come true, I never thought a world championship would be in the Southeast, so this is an opportunity of a lifetime. It’s especially meaningful to represent the U.S. My goal is to make this one count.”
Evans could be the leader out of the water or among the leaders and his local knowledge paired with Southeast-style bike handling skills will make him a serious contender.
“I don’t normally have this much confidence but there’s almost zero climbing here, it’s all tight and technical riding, missing trees, going around corners and making sure your wheels are on the ground. Then, it all comes down to two 5K loops,” Evans explained. “Dream wise, I want to be on the podium.”
Middaugh is usually the man pegged with the best shot of pulling off an upset, and he’s finished runner-up here to Stoltz twice, but the multiple lap course took away some of his climbing strength as the course is relatively flat. Add to that he’ll come out of the water a minute or two down and need to pass a bunch of guys on a course that is hard to pass on.
“I wish there was more climbing to tell you the truth, and I’m concerned about passing on the bike. Coming out of the water a little bit behind it could be an issue, but at least it’s just the pros in front of me and not half the age group field. If I can make up time on the bike I should be in good position on the run,” said Middaugh. “That said, it’ll be exciting to have spectators all around the course and have a pro only race, and I’m excited to have ITU Worlds on home soil.”
Chris Legh could be the dark horse in all this as the speed demon on the run simply needs to be within striking distance of whomever is in front. How much time he could reel in is yet to be seen, but he, along with Middaugh, are the fastest two runners in the field.
The women’s race will be exciting, and furious. The favorite might be the defending ITU Cross Tri World Champ Melanie McQuaid from Canada, but there’s really at least four other super fast women that could be called the frontrunner.
What makes McQuaid (pictured courtesy Bernard Troncale, Birmingham News) so lethal is the fact that, a) she might just be the fastest swimmer in the field and b) she might just be the fastest biker too. It takes all three, however, and there are some fleet-footed women that would relish the opportunity to chase her down on the run.
“It’s a flat, twisty, power course on the bike that is more technical the faster you ride and the run really suits me. I think when I’m on, I’m fast at all three so I’ll go fast from the start-to-finish time trial style and see what happens.”
Among the quick are Lesley Paterson (the defending XTERRA World Champ from Scotland), Renata Bucher (the 4x XTERRA European Tour champ who has won four straight XTERRA Championships this year and just won against this same field at the XTERRA West Champs), and Americans Shonny Vanlandingham (2010 XTERRA World Champ) and Emma Garrard (3rd at ITU Worlds last year).
Paterson erased a more than five minute deficit on the run to win XTERRA Worlds last October in Maui, but this run course doesn’t have the climbing of the Kapalua course.
“I’ve tapered and practiced for this type of course, specifically the bike,” said Paterson. “There are a lot of twists and turns, so I have been doing a lot of courses like that. I’ve also been out in the heat as much as possible because it’s going to be hot and humid on race day. We’re racing in afternoon, so even more so. I think I’m ready, but you never know until the day comes.”
At the last race Paterson feel three-tenths of a second short of a win in a sprint finish with Renata Bucher of Switzerland. Bucher is back, and has been untouched in her last four XTERRA championship events – winning XTERRA Guam, Philippines, Saipan, and the West Championship.
“I’ve had good races and feel ready so am really looking forward to do well here,” said Bucher. “I’m proud to be racing for Switzerland. Triathlon back home is very important and I know my friends and family will be checking in on me.”
The wild card is 2010 XTERRA World Champ Shonny Vanlandingham, who was racing on this course as a pro mountain biker years before she ever did an XTERRA. It’s also home to her first XTERRA championship win back in 2008.
“My first year on the circuit for XTERRA I won here at Oak Mountain State Park so it does hold a special place in my heart. It’s one of my favorite places to ride in the United States,” said Vanlandingham, who is only considered a “wild card” because her race pace running condition is still unknown.
“It’s my first race back since my ACL replacement surgery in the fall,” explained Vanlandingham, who was second at the ITU Cross Tri Worlds last year in Spain. “I’m not holding my expectations super high, but I really wanted to be back for this race to compete for the United States and do my best representing the team and be a part of the camaraderie.”
Both the men’s and women’s race are sure to be exciting and come down to the wire, and for the first time in the U.S., the entire age group field – athletes from all over the world – and the lucky locals will get to see it all go down Nascar-style.
May 19: The women’s elite race is at 1:30pm, men’s at 4pm (CST).
Results should be posted immediately: