Canada’s Lionel Sanders will no-doubt be the crowd favourite in Edmonton next weekend when at the Professional Triathletes Organisation’s (PTO) Canadian Open, but a win will certainly not come easy as he takes on the two biggest names in long-distance racing right now: Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt and Gustav Iden.
Blummenfelt, of course, is the sport’s golden boy, coming off an incredible run of major titles that includes the Olympic gold medal, a record-setting 7:21 performance at Ironman Cozumel last fall, the Ironman World Championship St. George in May and then a blistering 6:44 clocking at the Sub7 Project last month.
Related: The Ironman World Championship wrap – Sanders sprints to second, Blummenfelt blasts to the win
Iden has been almost as impressive, dominating the PTO Championship in 2020, finishing eighth in Tokyo before successfully defending his title at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship, then besting Sanders at Ironman Florida. He arrived in St. George as one of the men to watch, only to have to pull out of the race at the last minute due to a chest infection.
Sanders has been enjoying quite a run of runner-up finishes (sorry, couldn’t resist that) over the last year. Second to Jan Frodeno at the Tri Battle Royale. Second to Cameron Wurf at Ironman Copenhagen. Second to Joe Skipper at Ironman Chattanooga. Second to Iden at Ironman Florida. (He then messed up the string with a win at Ironman 70.3 Indian Wells – La Quinta.) This year he was second once again to Jackson Laundry at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside after having issues on the bike, then second to Blummenfelt in St. George. He continued to mess up my list by dominating Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant despite a flat tire.
So, will the home-country advantage be enough to help Sanders beat the two men who will arrive in Edmonton as the prohibitive favourites? Just being Canadian certainly won’t do it. Last year Blummenfelt sprinted to the win at the World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton, nailing both Olympic gold and the World Triathlon championship title. Both Blummenfelt and Iden could care less what country they’re racing in – they’re going to put themselves in a position to win the race wherever it’s taking place.
So is there a scenario where Sanders can take down the Norwegians? For sure – and it comes on the bike. Everyone I’ve talked to who saw Sanders chasing the lead pack in Mont-Tremblant (after he lost time because of a flat tire) says he looked like a man possessed as he pounded on the pedals. There were even people in that lead group who said that, when Sanders did finally catch them and blow by, they knew they were racing for second. If Sanders can put together a similar devastating bike ride and open up some time on Blummenfelt and Iden, it’s easy to imagine that he could hold on for the win.
Unfortunately that last sentence began with a very big “if.” With their draft-legal backgrounds, both Blummenfelt and Iden are likely to beat Sanders out of the water, which means the Canadian will be chasing on the bike. Yes, he’s got 80 km to catch the folks who beat him out of the water, but there’s 10 km less than he would have in a 70.3 race to open up some more time. Add to that the fact that Blummenfelt and Iden are hardly slouches on the bike – both will likely be very happy to keep pace with Sanders if he is able to bridge up to them during the bike.
As strong as Sanders is on the run, Iden and Blummenfelt are that much stronger. Both ran away from Sanders at full-distance races in the last year. It’s hard to imagine they would struggle to do the same over an 18 km run. Which is why they’ll be the prohibitive favourites in Edmonton.
Don’t count Lionel Sanders out, though. This is a guy who knocked out a tooth as he pushed himself to his limit to catch up at Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant last month. Since April of 2015 Sanders has won all but five of the half-distance events he’s entered. The distance suits him. While the PTO Canadian Open might be a bit shorter than a 70.3 race – 2 km swim, 80 km bike and an 18 km run – it’s still very close to that distance. Add to that the confidence he’s been steadily gaining under his new coach – Mikal Iden (yes, Gustav’s brother) – and you have an athlete who should be ready to take on the Norwegian powerhouses.
There’s one final piece to this puzzle. If the ultimate goal for all these athletes is the Ironman World Championship, Sanders might not have to win in Edmonton to improve his chances at the world title. He might just have to do well enough to scare the Norwegians into pushing just a bit too hard in their training because they’re worried about what the Canadian might do. That’s not likely, based on the scientific approach the Norwegians take to their training plans, but when it comes to Kona, anything is possible.