2011 marks the 16th year of XTERRA off-road triathlon racing and the 11th year of the U.S. amateur series known as the XTERRA America Tour. This year there are 70 races in 35 states from coast-to-coast, and it all starts Saturday at the 10th annual XTERRA Saipan Championship in the Northern Mariana Islands.
After the inaugural XTERRA Saipan in 2002, staff and competitors alike quickly declared it the “Crown Jewel”. It’s epic in so many ways, from the run that goes through the tropical rainforest, past World War II relics and into secret caves to the greatest host hotel ever at the Pacific Islands Club that has its own wave pool and lazy river.
The great food, fascinating culture, perfect weather, and warm hospitality of the locals – who set-up a host of activities and parties for visiting athletes – all make for a once-in-a-lifetime experience (unless, of course, you go every year like Renata Bucher).
Last year Bucher won this race for the sixth straight year and while she may have never won an XTERRA World Title, she sure has beaten-up on the girls who have when they meet in Saipan. She upset 2004 World Champ Jamie Whitmore in her first trip to the Northern Marianas back in 2005 (and twice more in ’06 and 07), took down three-time World Champ Julie Dibens in ’07 (and again in ’09), and has topped the current world champ Shonny Vanlandingham in each of the last two years.
“For me Saipan is the crown jewel of XTERRA and this race is so important to me,” said Bucher. “It’s just a special place, a beautiful island with wonderful weather and the people are so nice. It’s really like my second home now.”
Sam Gardner feels the same way, and the newly crowned XTERRA Philippines Champion is looking to make it three in a row in Saipan on Saturday. To do so, Gardner will have to be faster than “Oga-san” – Japanese mountain bike phenom Takahiro Ogasawara who has finished in the top five here for three straight years.
“We loved it here when we came in 2007 and it’s great to be back in Saipan. I love the weather, the bike course really suits me, the swim is fantastic in this warm turquoise water, and the run is pure adventure,” said Gardner.
The most anticipated race is among the pro women with Bucher, Vanlandingham, XTERRA South Africa Champ Carina Wasle, Suzie Snyder (who was 5th at XTERRA Worlds last year), Saipan’s own Mieko Carey, the ’09 amateur XTERRA World Champ turned pro Daz Parker, and last year’s Saipan overall amateur champ, who also turned pro, Caroline Colonna.
“Outside of the incredible women’s elite field, the weather is the big story this week. It is the nicest I have ever seen it – mid 80’s and a nice breeze every day,” said XTERRA managing director Dave Nicholas.
Two-time XTERRA European Tour Champion Franky Batelier – just months removed from a second-place finish at the XTERRA World Championship – has announced his retirement from sport.
“I’ve known that 2010 would be my last season as a triathlete for two years now,” said Batelier from his hometown in Normandy, France. “My contract with the French Army ends in May and I need to work on my ‘reconversion’, my new job.”
Batelier (pictured) will work in a sports clinic helping athletes as well as others with medical conditions.
“I’ll work alongside doctors and cardiologists, and coach not only athletes and sportsmen but also people with lumbago and other back issues. We’ll practice Nordic walking and posture exercises to help correct problems.”
Batelier did his first XTERRA in 2007, placing second at XTERRA Italy and later that year he won his first title at the XTERRA Germany Championship. In 2009, he was perfect – winning at XTERRA Italy, Czech, Germany, and Austria. In four years of racing Batelier collected eight XTERRA championships and two Euro Tour titles.
“I did like to travel around the world, meet nice people and visit wonderful places with the sport, but I’m also looking forward to staying home, going to work Monday to Friday, and then being with my wife and daughter every weekend,” said Batelier. “XTERRA is my favorite sport and I’ll continue to ride my mountain bike and run, but just for my health. My family is more important than being a pro.”
Batelier said he will stay involved in the sport, and in July he plans on taking in XTERRA France as a contributing reporter for Sport + TV. He also has thoughts of organizing a race himself, saying “What do you think about XTERRA Normandy on landing beach?!”
XTERRA will certainly miss Batelier, and he says the feeling is mutual. “I’d like to thank the XTERRA family, thank you all very much.”