Australian triathletes with their eyes on the Commonwealth Games know they face a step up in class with a host of big name international’s sure to keep them honest in Saturday’s opening ITU World Cup race of the season in Mooloolaba.
Big performances in front of the selectors will be duly noted with the countdown to Glasgow on in earnest, even though it is a sprint distance (750m swim; 20km bike; 5km run) in what could well develop into a frantic finish.
The ITU Mooloolaba Elite Women will kick-start proceedings at 12:00 noon with the Elite Men at 3:00pm while on Sunday the Oceania Cup and Age Group race over the Olympic Distance will start at 6:35am.
Saturday’s men’s race will be headed by Spain’s world ranked number three and one of the real success stories of 2013, in Mario Mola and sees six of the top 11 in the world including Australia’s early Commonwealth Games nomination in Aaron Royle in the 70-strong field representing 28 countries.
The 24-year-old, Mola from Palma de Mallorca finished third in last year’s ITU World Triathlon Series (WTS) to fellow countryman and Olympic silver medallist Javier Gomez and 2012 World Champion, Olympic bronze medallist Jonathan Brownlee.
He will be joined by vastly improving South African Richard Murray, who finished fifth in last year’s WTS, Portugal’s Joao Silva (6th), New Zealand-based Frenchman Laurent Vidal (7th), Switzerland’s Sven Riederer (8th) and Australia’s highest ranked athlete in 2013 in Royle (11th).
Royle and Australia’s rejuvenated 23-year-old Ryan Fisher, who has made the successful move from Brisbane to Melbourne to join the Danielle Stefano squad at the VIS, staged a thrilling shoulder-to-shoulder tussle after an agonising 10km run in Devonport a fortnight ago over the Olympic Distance Oceania Championship.
Each trying to claim the inside running in the closing stages, it was the more experienced Royle who edged in front but Fisher heralded his arrival with an eye-catching performance, just two weeks after his impressive victory in the Oceania Sprint Championship in Elwood.
â€œI’m really happy with how I’m going,â€ said Fisher, who returns home to Queensland to race in front of his home crowd.
â€œI have certainly made some improvements from where I was last year and the race in Devonport would have seen me well back in previous years â€“ but the move to Melbourne has given me a new direction in the sport.â€
And although he tries not to focus on any other athletes, especially Australians, Fisher admitted if there’s someone you want to finish second to it’s Royle.
â€œHe’s an Under 23 World Champion and all of last year he raced well above expectations; he’s a world class athlete, a young athlete to be inspired to compete with and to race hard with. That’s what it was like in Devonport and Mooloolaba will see the addition of a host of internationals – you want to come to races like Devonport and Mooloolaba and race the best there is.â€
Others to keep an eye on will be Royle’s training partner Ryan Bailie and Fisher’s fellow VIS athlete, Peter Kerr, who was first out of the water in Devonport – expect him to be pushing towards the front in the Mooloolaba surf as well.
Meanwhile the women’s race will see five of the world’s top ten â€“ led by world number three and 2013 Mooloolaba World Cup winner Anne Haug (Germany), Australian-based American Gwen Jorgensen, New Zealand Olympian Andrea Hewitt and Australia’s big two Emma Moffatt and Ashleigh Gentle.
Moffatt has not raced since her 70.3 success in Geelong but loves the Mooloolaba course which will see a 750m surf swim; 4 x 5km laps on the bike out and back along Mooloolaba Esplanade and 4 x 1.25km run laps out and back, also along Mooloolaba Esplanade.
But like Royle, she too has secured her early nomination onto her first Commonwealth Games team to go with her two Olympic Games in Beijing and London.
â€œIt is so good to have that Commonwealth Games nomination sewn up which allows me to map out my season leading up to the Commonwealth Games which is a major focus for me,â€ said Moffatt, who will attempt to become the first Australian triathlete to contest three Olympics in Rio in 2016.
And Moffatt will relish the opportunity for a hit-out against some of the sport’s biggest names in Haug, Jorgensen, Hewitt and Australian team mate Gentle, who knows that a good race in Mooloolaba could well go a long way to securing her place on the team for Glasgow.
Other Australians in the field are ITU Under 23 World Champion Charlotte McShane, who said she was happy to get a race under her belt in Devonport a fortnight ago â€“ the Oceania Championship over the Olympic distance.
â€œI’m glad that’s out of the way â€“ always good to get that first race of the season done,â€ said McShane.
â€œI definitely found it very tough, but it was a good wake up for the body. It was nice to be back racing again and it helped me find that extra bit of motivation that I think only racing can do â€“ next stop Mooloolaba.â€
Moffatt, Gentle and McShane will be joined by two of Australia’s rising stars in Gillian Backhouse and Jaz Hedgeland â€“ who have been two headline acts in the early season domestic races â€“ particularly in Elwood, Brighton and Devonport.
Backhouse, who is now firmly entrenched in the Stephen Moss QAS program in Brisbane, notched wins over the Oceania and Australian Championship Sprint Distance Championship in atrocious conditions in Elwood and backed up a fortnight later to take the Oceania OTU Olympic distance Championship in perfect conditions in Devonport.
She joined team Moss to train alongside London Olympian Emma Jackson and the move has benefitted both athletes, with Backhouse adding an improved run leg to her already established swim-bike.
WA wunderkind Jaz Hedgeland is the older of the Hedgeland’s â€œSister Actâ€ who along with younger sibling Kira, have notched two quinellas at Brighton in the Australian Championship and Devonport against the Kiwis in the race for the Oceania title
But for Jaz, this race is a major step up in her career, which will again see her named on the Australian Junior Team for this year’s ITU World Championships in Edmonton.
Sunday morning’s Oceania Cup will see the likes of leading Australian juniors and Under23s Jake Birtwhistle and Matt Baker tackle their second Olympic Distance in two weeks in the Men’s Field of 35 while former Surf Lifesaving Ironwoman Kelly Ann Perkins â€“ second Australian home behind Backhouse in Elwood â€“ step up for her Olympic Distance debut in the Women’s Field of 11
SWIM: (Number of laps: 1 lap)
Beach mass start â€“ Ocean; (Water temperature: Average 26.5)
BIKE: (Number of laps: 4 laps at 5km per lap)
Out and back clockwise ride along Mooloolaba Esplanade and Alexandra Parade. Gradual climb along Mooloolaba Esplanade from transition to Buderim Avenue intersection before descent onto Alexandra Parade. Sharp turn point at the corner of Maroubra Street before inbound journey along Alexandra Parade. Sharp technical dog leg turn before downhill descent onto Beach Terrace to transition.
RUN: (Number of laps:4 Laps at approximately 1.25km per lap)
Out and back clockwise run along Mooloolaba Esplanade and Alexandra Parade. Gradual climb along Mooloolaba Esplanade from transition to Meta Street intersection avoiding the steep climb on Alexandra Parade. Water station is located approximately 30 meters after the run turn at approximately 800 meters from transition. Athletes will pass this location 4 times.