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St. George Showdown: Will Sanders successfully defend his North American title?

One of the most exciting line-ups of the year for the North American pro championship.

Sanders on the way to winning Ironman 70.3 St. George last year

St. George Utah has been welcoming a handful of the world’s best half distance triathletes all week, ahead of Saturday’s North American pro championship race.

Lionel Sanders, likely the world’s most talked-about half distance triathlete right now, heads into Saturday’s race with not only a huge target on his back, but some fresh faces of competition. With defending champ Heather Wurtele out due to injury, world champion Holly Lawrence is the clear favourite on the women’s side. Here’s what to watch for in what’s sure to be one of the most exciting races of the season, on Saturday:

Sanders head to head against Kienle, Brownlee, Hoffman, McMahon

After successfully winning his half distance debut at Challenge Gran Canaria, ITU sensation Alistair Brownlee adds to the world-class calibre on the men’s start line. Many see the main battle on Saturday to be between Brownlee, Sanders and Sebastian Kienle. It’ll be interesting to see if the Olympic champ has the power to keep up with the leaders on the bike, but there’s no question his strong swim will get him off to a great start and his running prowess will help him gain an edge on the final leg.

As for Sanders, his performance in Oceanside last month is proof that he has made tremendous gains on the swim lately, and with Kienle in the field he hopes to get into a solid second pack in the water before doing what he does best — riding through the field to secure a lead and crush the half-marathon. Sanders talks about that race strategy in our official spin-off videos from Chasing the Lion.

Kienle has never won the race, but the 2014 Ironman world champion has come close several times. He knows it’s going to be even tougher this year than last, and it’s clear that the German will need to not let Sanders get too far ahead on the bike if he wants a shot.

This will be the first race back in action for Brent McMahon, who suffered an injury during the Super League Triathlon earlier this year. McMahon has won St. George in 2013 and finished second twice, so he knows the course well and heads into this year hungrier than ever to finally add another win at a high profile race to his resume.

We’ll be watching out for Ben Hoffman, too, who’s fresh off the win at Ironman South Africa and in fine form to place well at another regional championship.

On the Canadian front, the men’s field also includes Trevor Wurtele, Antoine Jolicoeur Desroches, and Jackson Laundry.

Lawrence headlines the women’s field

Heather Wurtele and Holly Lawrence are easily two of the best women on the 70.3 scene right now. Lawrence has been on a roll since last summer, collecting the 70.3 world championship win last September, Oceanside last month and earning herself spot on the Bahrain Endurance team along the way.

We’re excited to watch Ellie Salthouse, as well. The 24-year-old Australian was in the mix with Wurtele and Lawrence (among many other strong women) at Oceanside, landing on the podium in second.

Canadian women on the start line include Jen Annett, Valerie Belanger and Caroline Martineau.

Check out the full start list here and be sure to check back on the website this week for more preview coverage and live coverage of the race.