She may be one of the veterans of the professional triathlon scene, but with two top-10 finishes in IRONMAN World Championship events during 2022, Great Britain’s Laura Siddall is not yet ready to hand back her Pro licence.
Seventh in St George and 10th in Kona, the engineer-turned-pro-triathlete was recently one of the athletes present at the announcement that saw triathlon’s worst-kept secret confirmed; that Nice will be the dual location from the IRONMAN World Championship starting this year.
I spoke to her at the end of last week to get her take on what has surely been triathlon’s biggest talking point over the last couple of months.
Kona 2022 – exhausting, but brilliant
Before talking Nice specifically, we rewound to early October, and the IRONMAN World Championship 2022 edition, which saw two days of racing on the Big Island for the first time. What was her experience of that new setup?
I’ll start with the hard stuff first – it was exhausting.
“And by that I mean for the event teams, the media who were there, the coaches, volunteers and everyone involved, to have it over two days with that short turnaround. You know what it’s like; working or spectating at an IRONMAN event is tiring. To then turn around and do it again – as that middle day is not really a day off – even racing, and then watching the men, I think it wiped people out a lot more than we realised after that race. Two days of racing… that is hard.
“However… it was brilliant. For the women, I know we didn’t completely have our own day as there were a few male age-groups on the Thursday, but just having the course to ourselves, and knowing that when you heard that helicopter coming down Ali’i Drive, it was for the first female, and that happened to be Chelsea and everything about her story, was really special”
A new audience
IRONMAN has made much of its commitment to retain dedicated days for the men and women as a key part of its decision to so significantly change the structure of the IRONMAN World Championship. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the move towards split venues, Laura was very clear that she saw that focus on both the women (Thursday) and men (Saturday) as a massive positive.
“To be able to purely focus on my race during the race, and not be thinking, are there Pro men up the road that the women were caught up in, or were the age-group men going to come through and who would they drag through? We just got a clean race. Also, just seeing the men out there supporting us two days before their race, that was really cool.
“The big thing though was having so many people come up to me on Friday or comment that they never knew what the women’s racing was, we never really saw it, we’ve never had the opportunity to see it because it was just lost within the ‘whole’ race broadcast. So many people saying that it was just great to watch the women’s race and to see the levels of sport. That was what made a difference to me.
“You can then flip that for the men – their race was also fantastic, and so if you had tried to cover both concurrently you would also have missed elements of those battles too. That separation means you can fully showcase everybody.”
Will Nice be nice?
“Being there yesterday was great. For one, it was a beautiful sunny day, which always helps (!), but the press conference was packed. I think IRONMAN were blown away by how many people were there. The energy and enthusiasm from the team, but also the Mayor of Nice pulling this event together, was a real, genuine excitement.
“They spoke a lot about the history – the first international long-distance race there was in 1982 – and the race in Nice was one that a lot of Pros wanted to win, and went to try and win, outside of Kona. Nice was the race that they all mention outside of Kona.
“The other thing is that it’s not another American race. I loved St George, but I think it is probably a good decision to go European as an alternative, with a different course, culture and conditions.
“There is also a huge drive from the city of Nice to become a sporting centre. Aside from IRONMAN and marathons, they are a host city for the men’s Rugby World Cup and in 2024 Nice will be the Champs-Élysées of the Tour de France, as it will not finish in Paris [Ed. due to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games]. The taxi driver I had taking me from the airport didn’t know about it, but when we spoke he started talking about it and was really excited. There’s a font of energy, and so I think there’s a ‘method to the madness’ in picking Nice from the history of triathlon.”
The announcement from IRONMAN means that the event will remain in Nice for at least four years, 2023 to 2026 inclusive. That will see the men (2023 and 2025) and women (2024 and 2026) have IRONMAN World Championship events there finishing on the Promenade Des Anglais. Stability, but Sid did raise one possible note of caution.
“I didn’t know there was a four year agreement when I arrived. I understand the need, from a business perspective, for stability and to build longer-term, but was a little surprised that they went for that commitment before the first iteration. Just thinking that Kona 2023 was announced as two days, but ultimately didn’t/couldn’t be delivered. It does give some opportunity to build and evolve.”
The Pro view
When summing up the initial announcement, my take was ‘Everybody gets what nobody wants’, when you work through the logic and the roads that led to the changes made. Of course, views on that were mixed – Frodeno went back to bed for example – but several weeks on now, did Laura have a take on whether there was any broad consensus amongst the Pro ranks?
“There are Pro athletes for whom ‘it’s always been Kona’. IRONMAN have built an incredible ‘monster’ – and I mean that in an affectionate term – in the infatuation with Kona, and you could see it this past year in October. When I look back at my ‘wins’ of the year, it was incredibly special getting that tenth place in Kona, because I know what it means to everybody else.
“I think generally – and I don’t want to speak for everyone, obviously – the Pros just want to race the best in the world, and they want to do that all together. Yes, we want two days of racing, but ideally in the same location. Kona hasn’t gone away – it will be different, obviously – but it’s still there.
“For St George this year, and maybe it’s because it was because of not having a race for so long due to the pandemic, people just wanted to race the best in the world. I actually feel that St George showed that you can have incredible race outside of Kona, and would perhaps have been even more successful if Kona hadn’t happened in the same year. If St George had been the only World Champs, I think people would have got behind it even more.”
Opportunities – but the best will still win
Cream rises to the top – and Kona or Nice, lava fields or Alpes-Maritimes, Siddall still believes we will see the best-of-the-best taking victory in France.
“Once the dust settles, I think people will get behind it. Will a different athlete win? I still feel that the best athlete in the world that year will win, regardless of the course. You’ve seen Daniela dominate every course, Jan I think can win in Nice, the Norwegians – as a champion, I think the best athlete is likely to be the same person, regardless.
“The opportunity is perhaps for the rest of the field. If you go back a few years, someone like Meredith Kessler was one of the most dominant female athletes, winning every race with a resume that matches most people, but has never done well in Kona. Now, potentially, it could give different athletes a chance to have their day.
Sam Laidlow took plenty of headlines for Les Bleus during 2022, topped off of course by his brilliant display for second place in Hawaii. He is not the only young talent in the French ranks. Filling three of the top nine positions in Hawaii, 2023 could provide a massive opportunity.
“Also, now it’s official, the smart athletes will be doing the appropriate training to focus on that climbing aspect, to hone their descending. The French athletes in particular, I think they realise that this is massive. The likes of Sam Laidlow, Leon Chevalier, Clement Mignon. Even for Sam who has always had the dream to win Kona, at the press conference he was saying that to win it as a French athlete in France could be absolutely massive. A realisation of what it could mean.”