Tasmanian Jake Birtwhistle will return to the Gold Coast next month chasing a maiden world title when he goes head-to-head with defending champion and training partner Mario Mola for the World Triathlon Series.
Birtwhistle, the 23-year-old Commonwealth Games gold and silver medallist in April, comes back to spearhead the Australian team six months after a barnstorming bronze medal in Montreal earlier today.
It moved Birtwhistle from third into second on 4010 points – 824 points behind Mola (4925) and 291 ahead of Frenchman Vincent Luis in the race for the title.
Mola is the defending champion – and a two-time winner of the WTS – while no Australian has ever won the Series – with Brad Kahlefeldt the closest, finishing third in 2010.
The flying Spaniard produced arguably his greatest 10km run over one of the toughest courses splitting a stunning 29 mins 48secs after giving away over a minute to tearaway leader on the bike, Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt, who held on for silver.
Blummenfelt hung tough until the final kilometre when the never-say-die Mola – now alongside two-time Olympic gold medallist Alistair Brownlee as the sport’s finest runner – pounced and pounded away to take his fourth win of the season.
A similar performance on the Gold Coast (September 13-16) will leave Birtwhistle, himself happy with his 31.30, content with second or third – a dream season for the lanky lad from Launceston.
“I’m really happy with that performance,” said Birtwhistle, “and there was the added incentive to catch and pass Richard (Murray) with those extra points on offer.
“It was an aggressive swim and bike and I stayed where I needed to … and there have been some big improvements … I was able to stay engaged during the middle stages and catching Richard became a realistic goal and I kept pushing forward and it did give me that extra motivation.”
Birtwhistle was full of praise for Mola, who went out of his way to pat Birtwhistle on the back as the Australian struggled to catch his breath after digging deep and charging across the line.
“Mario is not only a friend and training partner, but I have to say an unbelievable athlete– and I’m happy to be competing against him and happy for him to be my training partner … what he did today was unbelievable,” Birtwhistle said.
The pair, along with Luis and under the guidance of coach Joel Filiol had come off a high altitude training camp in Flagstaff Arizona and looking at their 1-2 finish they certainly adapted to the sea level without too much trouble.
Of the other Australians Rio Olympian Aaron Royle hung tough for 20th after being the first green and gold costume out of the water after the 1.5km swim, some 22secs down, followed by rookie Brandon Copeland 32secs back and Birtwhistle 35seconds behind – all comfortably in touch – or so they thought – Royle finishing 20th and Copeland 34th.
Once through the first transition, it only took moments on the bike for the field to group together – 40 athletes less than 20 seconds apart - with the wet conditions and the technical course, it was hard to get a moment to gain an advantage.
However, it was Denmark’s Andreas Schilling who saw an opportunity and took it. He broke away from the pack and rode solo for a few laps.
It was then about halfway through the bike course where Norwegians Blummenfelt and Casper Stornes along with Canada’s own Charles Paquet and Shachar Sagir (ISR) joined him on the breakaway quest.
Blummenfelt wasted no time charging out of the second transition and he looked likely to steal his maiden victory.
But with runners in the mix such as Mola, Murray and Birtwhistle needing to catch up, every second counted.
However, Mola was on the hunt, ensuring that the Norwegian would not be able to run with ease.
Mola got to work and had wiped 20secs from the deficit on the first lap, he continued to make time as each lap passed. It wasn’t until the final kilometre when Mola caught Blummenfelt then immediately stepped on the gas to overtake him for the win, clocking in at 1:47:46 with a 29:48 run split time.
The silver then went to Blummenfelt a mere 16 seconds later, with Birtwhistle producing his trademark spark at the finish to grab third and keep his WTS podium hopes very much alive.
“I am really looking forward to going there and having a good race. I know that it is very close, but until I cross the finish line I won’t be given anything for sure. So, I will work for the next couple of weeks and hope to have a good race there in the Gold Coast,” Mola said of his hopes for the Grand Final.
The women’s race was dominated by the British and US girls from the outset of the swim, with Jessica Learmonth leading a group of four out of the 1.5km swim – opening up a commanding lead that kept the chase packs at bay.
The frontrunners pushed on and created a giant gap that only increased after each lap. While a strong chase group was behind, which had names such as Ashleigh Gentle (AUS), Rachel Klamer and Ai Ueda (JPN), they could not gain any ground and entering the second transition they had a gap of about three minutes.
After a swift T2, all five British women blew out of the gate and ran together trying to get away from the other 8 athletes and it was Vicky Holland who prevailed as the strongest of the nation.
American Katie Zaferes set her sights on picking off the competition one by one and was able to run down four ahead of her.
Holland held a 20-second lead and was never threatened as she ran into the finish line to collect her third WTS win of the season and fourth podium of 2018. Her victory puts her in a solid position at a chance for her first WTS World Championship title next month on the Gold Coast.