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Catching up with Lionel Sanders post-Ironman 70.3 Worlds

Credit; Kevin MacKinnon
Sanders on the run at 2016 Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Credit: Kevin MacKinnon

Lionel Sanders headed into this year’s Ironman 70.3 World Championships with five wins across the 70.3 distance in 2016 alone, yet the North American champ was disappointed to have placed ninth among the best in the world in Mooloolaba despite it being “likely the best performance of (his) career.”

On his blog, Sanders said “70.3 Worlds has been a tough pill to swallow.” He says that despite hitting all the numbers he wanted to see on the swim, bike and run respectively, he believes the long-standing issue of drafting affected his placing.

We chatted with Sanders about his race and his thoughts on drafting in Ironman racing.

Credit; Kevin MacKinnon
Sanders on the bike at 2016 Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Credit; Kevin MacKinnon

Despite your placing, you called your individual race at 70.3 Worlds “the best performance of your career”. What made it so?
At Ironman 70.3 Worlds in 2014 I was over four minutes and 40 seconds down to the front. This time I was only 3:30 down to the leader, and under three minutes to the main pack. I pushed the highest power I have ever pushed on the bike, then was able to run 1:10 off of that. Put all those numbers together, and it is my best performance to date.

Do you feel there was a make-or-break moment in the race for you?
Without hindsight, there was no make or break moment. I won five 70.3s this year, against all of the same guys who were “top contenders” in this race. I rode the bike the same way I did in those races, except with more power. This time the draft effect played a very large role, and instead of making up time as I did in the previous races, I actually lost time. Even to guys I had out-biked by three to five minutes a couple months prior. With hindsight, I guess I could have smashed the first 40k of the bike, riding as hard as I possible could. But why would someone change a winning formula?

Credit: Kevin MacKinnon
Sanders coming out of T1. Credit: Kevin MacKinnon

In your post-race recap on your blog, you talk about drafting, which is a hot-topic in Ironman racing right now. What are your thoughts on the issue? How do you feel drafting played into your race?
The current draft zone is 10 meters between bikes. I have spoken to several leading experts in the field now, and in the conditions in Mooloolaba, they would guess the aerodynamic savings of riding in that draft pack were 20 to 25 percent. To add insult to injury, the front guys driving the pack were well-organized and very motivated to keep the pace of that pack very high so that they would not see me. Put all of these things together, and I went from having the fastest bike split in six of my last seven 70.3 races to being a very average biker. That’s all fine and dandy, but Ironman triathlon claims to be non-drafting. This just simply is not the case, especially in championship races, which is where it should be the closest to non-drafting! I think the rule needs to be changed to 20m to make for a truly non-drafting race. I think most of the pro field agrees, and I would say we will see this rule change very soon.

What’s next for you this year?
My next race is Kona. After my experience in Mooloolaba I am not that motivated to go, as I rode very well there and it wasn’t good for much. I can only hope that we have a very difficult day with strong cross winds, so that it becomes an individual race.