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Race Report: World Aquabike Championships

Ben Anderson

World Aquabike Championships, Pontevedra, Spain – 4th May 2019

It started in Glasgow in 2018, with a casual conversation with another athlete at the Euro Sprint Champs in which she told me about this thing called Aquabike. (No it’s not a trike with big inflatable wheels for riding on water – although that does look fun.) This information was filed away at the back of my mind without much thought until my attempt to qualify for the Worlds middle distance tri race was thwarted at the Vitruvian last autumn. Despite getting a Vitruvian and middle distance PB, the combination of it being British Champs, the winner in my age group being in a league of his own, and the tighter qualification standard for Worlds races – OK OK that’s just excuses: The fact that the wheels fell off on the run and my last 10k was 8 min slower than the first may be the bigger factor – I failed in the aim to qualify. The stored nugget of information resurfaced and I realised that at T2, before that run, I was much closer to the leader and Aquabike qualification was achieved.

So, after the mental multi-sport athlete reassignment I became an Aquabikist (or almost became, it still feels like there is unfinished business to make international AG standard at middle distance, but it was a chance for a trip to race in Spain in the spring in a World Champs so I took it). So, into a winter of not needing to run. Quick entry into Sheffield Half Marathon solved that and restored longer term faith in my status as Triathlete, as I achieved a half-marathon pb. (After all, as the squiggly red line appearing every time I write it highlights, Aquabikist isn’t even a real word.) However, the focus could remain on swim, bike, done, at least for a while.

After some months of trying not to get drawn in to the ‘which bike to use on a hilly course?’ chat on the event FB group (only so many ways you can put ‘you’ll be quicker on a TT bike’), and convincing my girls’ school that a first world champs race was exceptional in terms of the term time leave policy and would provide an educational experience to justify 2 days out in term time, we left for Spain.

It turned out that early May in Pontevedra is beautiful – huge thanks to José Garcia for all the advice on where to stay, what to see and most importantly the food, beer and wine to taste – the latter mainly for Mrs A until after race day! It was hot and sunny, but not warm enough to raise the water temp, meaning that the race day decision was to shorten the 3k swim to 1500m. The right choice for safety, but the wrong choice from my perspective as I’m a strong swimmer.

So to the race itself: Well as the decision to shorten the swim indicates, it was a cold morning (water temp about 11C and air temp about 13C).  After the usual faff setting up transition we went off to watch Xavier Gomez and the others at the Elite start.  Even with the Elite race you could see that the current was strong and the 750m upstream was going to be hard work. This became more obvious as the first AG waves went off, with the field really spreading out early in the race, and some swimmers looking like they would be in the water for some time (fully justifying the decision to shorten the swim). And so it came to my wave.  It was a deep water start, but we were told we wouldn’t be held long due to the current and temperature.  I made sure I got down to the pontoon quickly, and took up a position towards the front and away from the fastest part of the stream aiming to get a good start.  The start horn sounded pretty soon after getting there, and so I forgot to start my watch, but did get away for a good swim. 

As we had seen it was hard work swimming up stream, but I managed to push for the first 50m and find some space to lengthen my stroke and enjoy the swim.  There was a decent sized front pack, and I was glad to be in it and to have some feet to follow, taking the decision to sight less keeping my head down and body position more hydrodynamic to avoid the drag from the current.  This worked well until towards the turn point when we started passing the back markers from the previous wave and a breast stroke leg kick caught me in the face. (As the CTT signs at Time Trials say, “head down racing can be dangerous!”). After the turn the swim was great, feeling the current push you where you were aiming was a great change, but with the overlap with the previous wave it was hard to work out where in the crowd I was. (I was pleased to note later on that I was 7th out of the water – although the current made for a slow 1500m time of 26mins.) It was really motivating knowing that the family were stood watching by the swim exit, and to hear their shouts as I ran up from the pontoon.

Transition was long, with a run from the river over to the City’s athletics stadium which was being used for transition (so a good job I had kept the run training up).  It was an IM type transition with changing tents.  After the cold morning I had socks and arm warmers in my bag, but needless to say the race adrenaline meant I completely ignored this, shed my wetsuit, hat and goggles and left to find my bike.

The bike course in Pontevedra is fantastic.  For the Aquabike it was 108k, made up of 3 laps which included a technical section around the university campus, tough hills heading out of town and a long sweeping downhill return to transition. The first lap was amazing, with me and an American guy vying with each other through most of the lap, me catching and taking him on the up hill section and him coming back at me on the down hills.  After a bit of this I was confident I had the measure of him and that the uphills would make the difference in my favour over 3 laps. That was until disaster happened – front wheel puncture early in lap two as we passed through the university section. 

Looking back I am pretty pleased with the calm response I made, but at the time everything felt rushed and frustrating.  There was a neutral service motorbike on the course, but with a near enough 40k lap I wasn’t going to wait for that, so pulled off and stripped and changed the front tube.  That was pretty quick, but then came the hit that I’d not being able to fly with CO2 canisters, and the expo and the 2 bike shops I had tried to source one from had all being sold out.  A couple of spectators came to see if they could help, but none had a pump or canister, so the only option was to wave frantically at each oncoming rider shouting about CO2 and hoping a fellow competitor would take pity on me.  After what seemed like about 2 months a fellow GB rider stopped, passed me a canister and went on his way.  I quickly filled my tube and did the same. Post race analysis shows that this actually only took around 6 mins in total, during which I’d had a bit of rest, a gel and a drink.  The main thing was I was on my way and pumped with adrenaline. The following up hill section allowed me to take out the frustration, and to start retaking some of the lost places, but I had a nagging feeling I must now be well down the field, and my American buddy was nowhere in sight.

As the adrenaline wore off I started to realise I hadn’t checked the tyre and had no idea of the cause of the puncture.  This was not good for my confidence coming towards the fast downhill with the expectation that the front would go flat again, especially as I knew I had been approaching 70kph on the previous lap.  Fortunately though, the new tube stayed good and as time went on I regained confidence and started to push the downhill and corners again. The downhill also gave some respite to the work intensity allowing my legs a bit of recovery from the adrenaline surge fuelled climb, and I got back to the town to see the family again and ready myself for the final lap. 

I was now passing a lot of riders and seeing a few M40 leg markings, so felt I had been moving back up the field, and knew that with no run to come I could give the next climbs everything.  It was definitely tough 3rd time around, but I was pretty motivated and kept pushing.  The far point of the course has a few undulations, and a German with M4? tatooed on his leg (last digit was smudged) passed me on the downs, and was repassed on the ups for a while. This really spurred me on to push the final climb and throw everything into the long 7k back to town.  It was fantastic to be pushing that hard in a head to head race, and I kept him off until we hit town and the final technical section.  At this point however, he had more power out of the roundabouts and passed me again – but I have always been a firm believer that brains beat power and so it proved.  As he slowed to undo shoes and take his feet out, I realised that this is not a necessary part of aquabike.  There is no T2 and the dismount line was our finish line.  Keeping my shoes tight and pushing to the line I was able to dismount shoes on and take him by a second on the line.  It was only when looking at the results later that I realised the smudged digit on his leg tatoo was a 5 and he wasn’t in my age group, but needless to say, finishing ahead of him still felt good, and racing with him back to town had really pushed my time.  

I was really glad after that not to have the 30k run that the triathletes had ahead of them especially as the day had warmed up considerably during the 4hrs and 14 seconds we had been racing. However, it is clear that Aquabike has a long way to go to get the same kudos as triathlon. In my opinion the next step should be to have a finish line that is not the dismount line and to ride to the finish rather than dismounting to cross it – it seems odd for a swim-bike race that the finish is with feet on the ground. The ITU have work to do to make this format what it could be.

Result wise, I was incredibly pleased to find I had come 10th in my AG despite the puncture, with 7th fastest swim and 10th fastest bike in the AG that included the overall winner on the day. It was time to head off to find the family, an enormous amount of carbs and a beer, knowing that I had a full day in Galicia with no race to worry about to enjoy. 

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