One of the deepest fields of the year brought forth some of the best racing—one with tight see-saw battles. Pretenders and hopefuls. Dreamers and workers. In the end, it was work that paid the bills. Luxembourg’s Dirk Bockel of Team Uplace outlasted a class field to win the men’s race in 8:01:02, while Switzerland’s Caroline Steffen kept the throttle open all day in the women’s race to push back any contenders and claim victory in 8:57:57 Sunday in Melbourne, Australia.
As Ironman’s Asia-Pacific Championships, the race rated highly among pro athletes for its larger Kona Points Ranking points offerings as a means to get to the Hawaii Ironman World Championships. The day was largely a cool affair, run under a thick blanket of clouds, with steady northerly winds that would dog athletes on the southbound sections of the bike, but would provide a nice tailwind push to runners as they headed home on the marathon for a finisher’s medal.
The men’s race saw itself shaped right from the outset in the swim. A fast pace led by specialists Ben Sanson, ITU convert Harry Wiltshire and Team Uplace’s Axel Zeebroek helped break the men’s group in two, with Aussie Craig Alexander and Belgian bike powerhouse Marino Vanhoenacker relegated to a second pack two minutes adrift out of St. Phillip’s Bay. Aussie race hopeful Luke McKenzie and Austrian Michael Weiss exited the waters in fragmented groups of ones and twos even further back.
And that lead group was formidable: with Zeebroek turning the turbines at the front of the leading bike group, it was a collection of heavy hitters including reigning Roth Challenge champ Bockel, Matthews, Australian three-time ITU World Champ Peter Robertson, along with fellow Aussies David Dellow, Paul Ambrose, Courtney Atkinson and Christian Kemp (AUS), and Britons Phillip Graves and Dan Halksworth.
“It was good to see at the turn a couple of the big hitters were a couple minutes down, and Axel (Zeebroek) was grinding, grinding, grinding up front—he just stayed up front all day,” Matthews said.
Through the first 56 miles of the bike, the chasing second group that included Alexander was making no ground on the lead group, and in fact absorbed a few first pack riders like Atkinson and Halksworth. While Alexander was at his limit with what he could do, Vanhoenacker decided to bridge the two-minute gap—the blast past the lead group, chasing late bike getaway duo of Zeebroek and Dellow.
“At the 90k mark Axel really put the hammer down and stretched the field. Axel got away and I was hanging on for grim death,” Dellow said.
The run became an exhibition of urban warfare. Zeebroek blasted out of T2 ahead of Dellow, whom he quickly reeled in and dispatched at the eight-mile mark.
Vanhoenacker, for second-best 4:24 bike split and his valiant effort to escape the bike packs, started the run in third, but would fade from the hard early pace.
Just as soon as he had the lead, Dellow was joined from behind by Matthews at the 19-mile mark. Dellow surged and slightly gapped Matthews.
But behind those two, Bockel was slowly, silently reeling in the two ahead playing cat-and-mouse. At the 20-mile mark, Bockel captured Matthews. And with just three miles left, he seized the lead from Dellow. Moments later, Dellow again was relegated as Matthews passed him for second position.
A strong, steady effort delivered Bockel one of the finest victories in his career as he ran up the finishers chute. Passing under the finish gantry, Bockel grabbed the tape, dropped to his knees and held it aloft overhead. Certainly, the impact of winning a regional championships against many of Australia’s finest athletes was not lost on him.
“You come here, you know what you’re messing with,” Bockel said. “This is Crowie’s territory. It’s Macca’s territory. I knew what I was getting myself into.”
Pushing Bockel to the line, Matthews (working under the guidance of his new coach, Craig Alexander) took an impressive second just over a minute back, also claiming a crown jewel on his palmares, besting a second-place finish at Ironman Arizona a year and a half ago. “Ah—number one,” Matthews said, rating the result.
An exhausted Dellow held on to take the final podium placing. Michael Weiss, who assembled the day’s fastest bike split (4:20:50) and backed it with a solid run, was unable to reel in Dellow, finishing fourth, 38 seconds behind Dellow. Aussie pre-race favorite Craig Alexander recovered from the swim and bike to run a day-best
The women’s race looked like it would be a two-woman affair quite early on. With her compromised collarbone and shoulder from her bike crash last year, Mary Beth Ellis exited the water alone in the lead in 50 minutes flat, Steffen exiting second two minutes later an Aussie Rebekah Keat coming out in third another minute back. With the next swimmer—Canadian Angela Neath—out another six minute further back, it seemed to be a sealed fate.
And it looked that way throughout the balance of the bike, as Steffen rode up to Ellis, and the two led the way together throughout the 112 mile ride on the Eastlink Tollway.
Behind, things were brewing. Riding alone all day, Neath had her head down, systematically chipping into the leading duo. At the end of 112 miles, it paid off; she was within seconds of the two leaders, and stood to be a threat to the two veteran Ironman pros. Steffen, however, was intent on controlling her own fate.
“At T2 there were four girls within one minute,” Steffen said. “I was like ‘ya know what? It’s my race.’ I wanna go for it. I don’t know how I’m gonna finish, but I want to take the risk.’”
Steffen surged away from Ellis and the risk paid off. She gained about a minute, then slowly extended the gap, growing it to upwards of four minutes late in the run.
Behind, Ellis was contending with a dogged Naeth, whose day-best 4:51:20 bike helped her make up a deficit out of the water. She seized second place early in the run, but the more experienced Ellis let her have it—then less than a mile later, took the position back.
“I wasn’t too worried,” Ellis said. “Angela’s going to be a great Ironman talent—hopefully after I retire—but right now, she just needs more long runs and long bikes.” To wit: Naeth faded back immediately, ultimately finishing sixth.
As Ellis tapped out her rhythm, Rebekah Keat too picked off the eager Neath, and was in position late to take third. But American talent Kim Schwabenbauer was just over a mile back at the start of the run, but was tearing up the shoreline marathon.
Steffen came across to take the win handily, and Ellis claimed second with as much ease. Schwabenbauer would capture Keat in the final miles of the run to claim third, with Keat taking fourth a minute in arrears.
2014 Ironman Melbourne
March 22, 2014, Melbourne, Australia
2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run
1. Dirk Bockel (LUX) 8:01:02
2. Paul Matthews (AUS) 8:02:14
3. David Dellow (AUS) 8:03:07
4. Michael Weiss (AUT) 8:03:46
5. Craig Alexander (AUS) 8:05:47
6. Marino Vanhoenacker (BEL) 8:08:25
7. Axel Zeebroek (BEL) 8:12:35
8. Christian Kemp (AUS) 8:14:10
9. Christian Kramer (DEU) 8:15:10
10. Peter Robertson (AUS) 8:16:30
1. Caroline Steffen (SUI) 8:57:57
2. Mary Beth Ellis (USA) 9:02:15
3. Kim Schwabenbauer (USA) 9:10:06
4. Rebekah Keat (AUS) 9:11:06
5. Asa Lundstrom (DEN) 9:16:09
6. Angela Naeth (CAN) 9:21:11
7. Mareen Hufe (DEU) 9:21:40
8. Michelle Duffield (AUS) 9:34:30
9. Tracy Douglas (AUS) 9:40:41
10. Tine Holst (SUI) 9:47:30