Ashleigh Gentle will dive straight into the eye of the tiger in the opening round of the World Triathlon Series in Abu Dhabi on Friday night (Australian time).
After her break-out year in 2017 which saw Gentle finish the WTS in her best ever second place after notching her first Series victory in Montreal, she will join the who’s who for round one.
Waiting on the start line in the women’s race will be nine of the top ten women in the world who will line-up in the amazing Yas Marina F1 circuit in what is sure to be a competitive opener.
The men’s race will also be the “who’s who” with Australia’s top ranked WTS athlete and Commonwealth Games team member Jake Birtwhistle and Rio Olympian Aaron Royle amongst 10 of the top 12 men, led by world champion Mario Mola (ESP).
Gentle will meet back-to-back World Champion Flora Duffy (Bermuda) and long-standing New Zealand star Andrea Hewitt and her own Australian Games team mate Gillian Backhouse in what will be a classic Commonwealth Games preview.
Gentle’s in-form training partner Natalie Van Coevorden, second to Emma Jeffcoat in the Oceania Championships in Devonport a fortnight ago, will complete the Australians in the field.
Gentle has spent her off season between the AIS in Canberra in the altitude houses and Wollongong under coach Jamie Turner while Backhouse has been between home town Armidale in NSW and Hong Kong, where former QAS coach Stephen Moss, is now the new head coach.
The world-class fields are set to tackle a Sprint Course - 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run to kick off the 2018 season – the same distances as the Commonwealth Games.
A season that will feature stops in Bermuda, Yokohama, Leeds, Hamburg, Edmonton and Montreal before wrapping up in September with the Grand Final in the Gold Coast. Not to mention a season that will mark the start of the road to Tokyo 2020 Olympics, with the qualifying period.
Gentle’s breakthrough coincided with her decision to link up with Turner.
“Last year was a great year for me. I have been the bridesmaid quite a few times in World Series races,” Gentle said upon her arrival in Abu Dhabi.
“So to come away with a victory in Montreal was obviously a massive highlight for me.
“It’s nice to be back in Abu Dhabi as well, I wasn’t here last year so I wasn’t able to experience the F1 track.
“I was here two years ago, but I wanted to come back and start my season and just like Jonathan Brownlee (GBR) and a lot of other athletes I wanted to test myself with the best in the world and see what I can do in the Commonwealth Games.
“It’s been a really exciting (build up to the Games); I can remember the countdown from like three or four years ago when Gold Coast first got elected to host the event.
“It’s such a big thing for our city. It’s really great to be a part of that for the whole way through it and to think its only six weeks away is crazy, it has gone by so fast!
“I am really looking forward to testing myself on Friday and also just pushing these last few weeks to see what I can do in front of my home crowd.
“I know It's such a unique experience and I really just want to make sure I embrace it and soak it all up”
Gentle admitted Abu Dhabi is definitely the first big test of the year.
“Training has been really consistent and each day I have given it my all and I have gone to bed knowing I trained as hard as I could and we’ll see how I fair when I race against all the other women, but I think I am in a good head place knowing I have done some consistent work and where I can improve before the Commonwealth Games.”
The men’s race will see Australia’s number one and Commonwealth Games representative Jake Birtwhistle who will be joined by Rio Olympian and 2014 Glasgow Games bronze medallist, Royle.
Birtwhistle produced an extraordinary 2017 – a major break through year for him too - where he finished 12th on the WTS after finishing second in Hamburg, miscalculating the run a lap too early but still finishing second in Edmonton and spearheading Australia to gold in the World Mixed Teams Relay Championship in Hamburg.
The star-studded line-up will feature double World Champion and 2016 WTS Abu Dhabi winner, Mola also facing his first race of the season the way he likes - a fast and furious sprint race.
This could also play into the hands of Birtwhistle, who will back himself against the best if he puts himself in the frame in the shorter run distance.
Birtwhistle has been training with renowned international coach Joel Filiol – a squad that also includes Mola as one of his training partners.
And Royle has also been in England with his international squad, which also includes the sport’s biggest names, Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee- with Brownlee, fifth on the 2017 WTS in this field in what will also be a perfect warm up for the Commonwealth Games.