The 2018 Ironman World Championship men’s race is arguably the most anticipated yet. Even after the late withdrawal of hotly-tipped two-time winner Jan Frodeno with a stress fracture, there are many intriguing questions to be answered once racing gets underway on Saturday, October 13.
Can Patrick Lange deliver another remarkable run performance to defend his crown? Will the crosswinds blow and the biking talent of Sebastian Kienle prevail? Will Lionel Sanders go one better than 2017 and prevent five straight years of German rule? What of the global superstar Javier Gomez, who races on the Big Island for the first time? And will conditions and intense competition align so the magical 8hr mark is finally broken?
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The field is so stacked, plenty of big names are absent from our predicted top 10. There is no place for 2013 champion Freddie van Lierde, or Canadian Brent McMahon, who has five times finished an Ironman under 8hrs. Consistent all-rounders Tim O’Donnell, Ben Hoffman and James Cunnama also don’t make the list. Neither do express runners such as Matt Hanson and Ivan Tutukin, or biking heavyweights Cameron Wurf, Andrew Starykowicz, Michael Weiss and Andreas Dreitz.
And there’s not even a patriotic punt for the Brits either, as we’ve rejected Joe Skipper and Will Clarke and dismissed a romantic finale to cap the heroic comeback of The Man with the Halo and 220 contributor, Tim Don.
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But if those names don’t get the nod, just who does? Read on for our predicted Ironman World Championship top 10…
10. Bart Aernouts, Belgium
A longstanding member of the BMC-Vfit Sport team, the Belgian has progressed from being one of the best duathletes in the world and now has six years’ worth of Kona experience to his benefit.
Aernouts record in Hawaii reads 11th, eighth, ninth, DNF, and 12th, with a bike split best of 4:32:34 last year and a top marathon of 2:44:03 from 2013. It shows the 34-year-old knows his way around the challenging course, and while the swim remains a weakness, it’s his experience and consistency that gives him the edge over similar fleet-footed competitors such as Ivan Tututkin, Matt Hanson and Britain’s Will Clarke.
Having won Ironman Lanzarote and Challenge Roth in 2017, Aernouts was back on top of the podium this year in Hamburg. It was a race that played into his hands after the swim was cancelled, but to close with a 2:39:51 marathon – having already run 6km at the start of the day – shows he’s in shape to again finish in the top 10.
9. Braden Currie, New Zealand
A three-time winner of New Zealand’s Coast to Coast championship, the Kiwi is a multisport thoroughbred, and to prove the point plans to race the XTERRA World Championship a fortnight after Kona on the nearby island of Maui.
Unlike most of the top 10 who have shown they can perform on the Big Island, the 32-year-old’s inclusion is largely based on one standout performance in 2018. The stats show he won the Asia-Pacific regional championship in Cairns in June with a course record 7:54:58 that included a 2:39:59 marathon. But more noteworthy is that he became the party-pooper for the Iron debut of Spain’s Javier Gomez, running side-by-side with the five-time ITU world champion for much of the 26.2 miles before dropping him in the closing stages.
While it might seem logical that anyone getting the better of Gomez should be more highly-fancied, Currie first has to dispel the memories of his Kona debut last year when he struggled to finish 30th.
The Kiwi was also brought down to earth in the 70.3 worlds in South Africa where despite a fast swim, he lost almost 5mins on the bike as Jan Frodeno, Alistair Brownlee and Ben Kanute led the charge up front, before running through for eighth.
8. Andy Potts, USA
Having suggested age might finally take its toll and left the American out of our predictions last year, Potts had us eating humble pie by responding to finish seventh and running the third fastest marathon of any of the leading contenders.
Albeit on a day made for fast times, it was also the quickest he’d gone on the Big Island in nine attempts, suggesting the 2004 Olympian and 2007 Ironman 70.3 world champion is far from finished.
Potts has placed six times in the top 10 in Kona in nine appearances, marking him as one of the most experienced and consistently high-level performers on the island. The dad-of-two is renowned for doing much of his bike prep on the indoor trainer and racing primarily in the USA, although this season has seen excursions to Taiwan, Peru and even Dún Laoghaire in Ireland for 70.3s, and Ironman Austria, where he finished third.
Despite being 41, Potts is far from the eldest statesman in the race. That honour falls to New Zealand’s Cameron Brown, who returns aged 46, having made his debut in Hawaii in 2000. By that measure, Potts still has years left.
7. Boris Stein, Germany
Hailing from the nation that produces by far the greatest depth in long distance triathlon talent is of mixed blessings. Stein is the first of a trio of Germans predicted to finish in the prize-money and the domestic standard has no doubt contributed to the 33-year-old’s development as a triathlete.
The highlights are Ironman victories in Switzerland in 2014 and France a year later, yet he remains low profile when compared to more illustrious compatriots Patrick Lange, Jan Frodeno and Sebastian Kienle.
Approaching his peak in terms of athletic prowess, Stein looks the part in Hawaii and has finished 10th, seventh and 10th following his Kona debut placing of 20th in 2014. Has biked 4:23 on his last two visits to the Big Island – putting him within 10mins of Kienle – and while he doesn’t have a fast enough marathon to push for a podium, if he can improve on his run split of 3:00:02 from last year, he should be well placed to match his Kona-best of seventh from 2016.
6. Patrik Nilsson, Sweden
The second member of the BMC-Vifit professional triathlon team predicted a top 10 finish, the Swede has just turned 27 but already has four Ironman titles to his credit including a lightning quick 7:49:18 finish from Ironman Copenhagen in 2016.
An inconsistent performer over the 70.3 distance where he has failed to finish in five of his last six races, Nilsson seems more at home in Ironman. Competed in Hawaii for the first time last year and produced an accomplished debut, keeping pace with training partner Patrick Lange until the marathon, before running 2:55:51 to finish eighth.
This year Nilsson overtook Lange in the final kilometres of the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt to finish runner-up to Jan Frodeno, and with the two-time champion German absent, Nilsson will hope for a repeat of 2017’s benign conditions so the gaps don’t become too large on the bike and he’s in with a chance on the run.
5. Lionel Sanders, Canada
Anyone watching Sanders’ reaction to finishing runner-up last year could be forgiven for instantly installing him as the favourite for 2018. Simultaneously both a breakthrough result and frustrating in being run down by Patrick Lange in the closing miles, the Canadian has both the encouragement and motivation to go one better this time around.
He looked the part as he won Ironman 70.3 St George in May, regained his Challenge Championship crown when defeating Sebastian Kienle over the middle distance in Slovakia in June, and three weeks later backed it up with more success at Mont Tremblant 70.3.
But while Sander’s swimming is vastly improved to go with his powerhouse biking and running, he was beaten by Cody Beals at Ironman Mont Tremblant in what was by his own admission a “humbling” experience in August.
Yet despite having already validated his spot at Arizona last November, he didn’t regret the decision to race, terming it an invaluable learning experience having made some broader dietary changes.
Whether a sub-par Sanders will be revived for Hawaii, remains to be seen. But having already shown he can be a competitor on the Big Island in calm conditions, if the wind blows and it becomes even more attritional, expect him to challenge for the win once more.
4. David McNamee, Great Britain
Last year’s third-place finisher is again Britain’s best hope for a podium spot. While Lionel Sanders, Andrew Starykowicz, Cameron Wurf and Sebastian Kienle will be jousting up front trying to split the race up, expect the Scot to calmly plug away and try to reach T2 with limited losses, before coming through strongly on the run.
McNamee, who has never been beaten by a fellow Brit at Ironman, is certainly not over-raced in 2018. He won Ironman 70.3 Marbella in April and was second to Javier Gomez at Barcelona 70.3 in May. But he was sick before Oceanside 70.3 and didn’t make the start, ill again at Ironman Austria – where he gamely stuck to the task to validate – and then cycled into an errant concrete block to put paid to his efforts while leading Ironman 70.3 Vichy in September.
Having won Ironman UK in 2015, McNamee, who is based in Girona, made large strides last year when training with then-Ironman world champion Jan Frodeno, and it all came together in Hawaii where his third-placed finish of 8:07:11 was also the seventh fastest time ever recorded in Kona. This race remains the key focus and given his ability to judge his effort to perfection, there’s every chance he’ll go well again.
3. Sebastian Kienle, Germany
Of all the triathletes that could benefit most from Jan Frodeno’s withdrawal with a stress fracture, it’s his compatriot and 2014 Ironman world champion, Kienle. The 34-year-old has had to live with Frodeno, twice, and then Patrick Lange retain his nation’s stranglehold on the men’s Kona crown. But with Frodeno absent, Kienle knows that alongside Lionel Sanders he’s the most fleet-footed of the uber-bikers, as emphasised by his 2:47:45 marathon in winning Challenge Roth in an impressive 7:46:23 in July.
Kienle was beaten twice by Sanders over the middle distance earlier in the year, but has since racked up three 70.3 victories in low profile races, while deciding to opt out of the 70.3 World Championship in South Africa to keep his powder dry for Kona.
As a two-time world champion at that distance, he’ll hope it’s a sacrifice worth making and it’s a Hawaii-focused strategy that also included him validating his spot in Cozumel last November. Having only once being outside the top four in six appearances in Hawaii, expect Kienle to be in the mix for a podium once more.
2. Javier Gomez, Spain
Perhaps the most surprising element of the Spaniard’s conversion to long course racing is that he didn’t win on his much-anticipated Ironman debut – finishing runner-up to Braden Currie in the Asia-Pacific Championship in Cairns. Not that the five-time ITU world champion performed badly, clocking 7:56:38 with a 2:41:02 marathon.
The conditions – if not the bike course in Hawaii – will suit Gomez. He’s traditionally performs well in the heat and took the XTERRA world title on the neighbouring island of Maui in a rare appearance at the discipline in 2012. Gomez also has the running pedigree to match, or even surpass, defending champion Patrick Lange, although, importantly, it’s yet to be proven here.
While Gomez might be the most talented all-rounder on show, it’s also worth noting how few triathletes ever win on debut. To find the last male to do so, you have to go back to Belgian Luc van Lierde in 1996. Often a lesser podium finish predicates a win in the men’s race, as has been the case for a generation, but if any triathlete can buck that trend, it’s also likely to be Gomez
1. Patrick Lange, Germany
The defending champion takes our top spot for a number of reasons. If you’re a betting person, then opting for a ‘runner’ over a ‘biker’ is the safe play in Kona. While the winds can be notorious, recent years have been relatively benign and only Sebastian Kienle in 2014 has biked off the front to win since Normann Stadler in 2006.
The ever-increasing strength in depth of the men’s field also means that Lange can tuck into a paceline on the bike and is less likely to be isolated for enough time on the Queen K to cost him too much time.
But most important of all is his ability to run on the Big Island better than anyone has seen before. If the sight of the German emerging from the natural energy lab ticking off 6min/miles was a surprise in 2016, then it was a case of deja vu last year when he ran just 14sec slower than his course run record 2:39:45 split from the year before. The marathon charge was good enough for third place on Lange’s debut, but took him to the top of the podium in a course record 8:01:40 last time out.
As with last year much of the 32-year-old’s build-up has been low-key. He was third in Challenge Gran Canaria in April and second at 70. Kraichgau in June, before validating his Kona spot with third behind Jan Frodeno at Ironman Germany in July – a race he finished a lowly sixth at in 2017.
If the crosswinds blow and the likes of Lionel Sanders and Kienle can get away on the bike, even Lange’s sub 2.40 marathon exploits might not be enough. But if it remains calm and the humidity is up on the run, the German coached by 2005 winner Faris Al-Sultan, has proven he can make up the places to take the tape – although this time he might have to duck under 8hrs to do it.