By Jay Prasuhn
The ITU pro racing world is a strange, insular place. The athletes are lithe but young. Limitless but malleable. Amid a sterile series replete with ties and blue carpets and federation excess, athletes stake entire careers on a single day in the Olympic Games. Living under the thumb of national teams (and often coaches of multinational training squads), there’s a devout focus on training, rest and nutrition. And not much else. Love it or hate it, it’s what it takes—the establishment says—to be a champion.
Athletes are feted by the federation like show horses, herded into hotels at races for meetings, told where and when to be for dinner. High performance directors issue race-day directives as if making a tactical military strike. It’s because every World Triathlon Series event is a practice for that one day ever four years. The stress is palpable. Athletes walk to the pontoon wearing one of just two expressions: murder or fear.
Flora Duffy rolls in. The pride of Bermuda (population 61,000, or just slightly more than half the attendance of the Rose Bowl) blows by it all. She didn’t prep at some isolated camp in northern Spain or southern France. She grabbed some local Boulder buddies—Cam Dye and Olympic cyclist Evelyn Stevens for her prep.
While her ITU opponents from Australia or the United States or Germany arrived to the venue after being booked and financed by their national federation, Duffy scours Kayak.com for good rates on flights and hotels, and books herself.
The unassuming nature of the process in a discipline so rich in pomp and circumstance suits her just fine. “I don’t have a budget for a mechanic or a massage therapist. The Bermuda Triathlon Federation funds me as best they can, but I’m happy to have it the way it is; I don’t know any different,” she says. “To go grab dinner when I want, to not have to do any team race strategies? That’s definitely a plus.”
On race day, if she’s lucky, her coach or fiancé will be there to carry her bags as she sets up her rack. As she boards her Scott Foil to preview the bike course, national team coaches—eyes always tracking the unassuming, friendly islander—tell their charges almost in unison: “Go and follow her lines.”
“It’s funny,” Duffy’s coach, Neal Henderson, says. “Because she’s from a tiny island, there’s no entourage, no ‘machine.’ We use little pieces of support here and there, but otherwise, she can make the call on things. I think if she had the whole ‘high performance’ thing behind her, it might make things worse.”
Duffy never used to have that kind of attention going into a race. Now? She’s used to it. Going from “podium hopeful” to winning two ITU World Triathlon Series races (Stockholm and the Grand Final in Cozumel) will do that. Beating Gwen Jorgensen for the ITU Series Champion title last year will do that. Becoming one of the sport’s sharpest, quickest cyclists with breakaway power that sticks through the bike and run speed that carries her to victory? That’ll garner that level of attention.
But that’s just half her story. Because unlike her ITU competitors, she’s going to do the same thing at her next Xterra race: Book her flight, find a hotel, check her gear, start her race.
And she’s gonna dominate there, too.
Duffy is a triathlon unicorn; she succeeds in pro racing in a way that’s incredibly rare. Jorgensen is incredible at ITU racing. Holly Lawrence is an ace at the 70.3 distance. But Duffy? She’s just good at triathlon. Period.
She’s “good” in the same way Mark Allen was “good” when he won the ITU’s debut Olympic-distance World Championship in Avignon, France, and the Hawaii Ironman World Championship in 1989. Allen, Michellie Jones, Mike Pigg, Jimmy Riccitello and Greg Welch all represent a class of athlete in the 1980s and early 90s that raced all facets of triathlon. ITU, Xterra, Ironman—if there was a start and finish line, they were in. One could consider Javier Gómez as a contemporary muse as well. They all seem to share a similar ethos: Race hard, from your heart.
Duffy would’ve fit in nicely in 1989. In an era of the specialist, Duffy is a throwback.
“Flora is a three-sport athlete,” says Henderson. “She’s capable of being great in all three disciplines, in different ways.”
A respected cycling coach (he coaches BMC pro and Tour de France maillot jaune wearer Rohan Dennis), Henderson is a triathlete himself and works with a handful of multisport pros. He also sees that the days of the bluecollar, multisport-born triathlete (not farmed from single-sport talent) are disappearing.
So it’s refreshing, he says, to see an athlete like Duffy develop— ground-up—in tri.
“We’ve seen great swim/runners who can’t get out of the continental level of racing. And we’ve seen runners who don’t have an adequate swim who find it difficult to succeed in triathlon. But someone who’s involved at a high level at all three sports? I believe there’s a place for someone to come through youth tri and succeed, like a Hunter Kemper or Nick Radkiewicz. That’s a different animal.”
Duffy’s existence on ITU’s WTS circuit is somewhat peripheral. She’s looked at as something of an alien. The last few years, the countries with the most national federation and Olympic team money to throw at high performance directors, recovery tools and team tactics gives themselves a greater mathematical chance (so they say) for wins.
Duffy is a team of one. It’s precisely how she wants it.
“I find it funny,” Duffy says, “when an athlete is always pointing a finger toward a high performance director after a race. I look at it like ‘Hey—I just did it.’”
While half the field thinks she’s an aberration, the other half is in awe. “I admire the way she races,” says American and fellow ITU pro Katie Zaferes. “Whether there’s a group with her or not, it doesn’t matter; she puts it all on the line every single race.”
Duffy cut her teeth in Bermuda doing a bit of everything, and doing it on her own: running, swimming and local group bike rides, “We’d do bike skills camp in the summer working on skills, zigzagging between cones, picking up water bottles while rolling, little things like that.” As Bermuda hosted an ITU World Cup years earlier, there was infrastructure from the Bermuda Triathlon Association to foster young triathletes into the sport. Duffy began organized racing in 2005 and found success just a year later taking second at ITU junior worlds. She raced the World Cup circuit, chasing the same dream as her competitors: an Olympic berth in Beijing in 2008, and maybe more.
After a rough year of subpar results, Duffy went to Beijing for her first Olympics injured. She was a DNF, lapped out on the bike. Dejected, she took the next year off from triathlon completely. But there was an upside to a disappointing Olympic debut: she met pro cyclists Taylor Phinney and Rohan Dennis on her flight to Beijing. And the guy sitting next to them.
“She was seated behind us and said, ‘Hi, I’m Flora from Bermuda, I’m going over for the triathlon,’” Henderson recalls. “We chatted briefly and that was that; I watched her race, but didn’t think too much more of it.”
A year later, Henderson’s office line in Boulder rang. “Hi, my name is Flora. I met you on that plane to Beijing. I’m not doing triathlon currently, but I am interested in cycling.”
In 2009, Duffy left boarding school in Bermuda and headed to the outdoor mecca of Boulder, Colorado. While studying at the University of Colorado, she decided to race bikes, and queried Henderson about coaching her. She was thrown into the deep end against top international pros including Evelyn Stevens, Mara Abbott and Alison Powers. “Neal put me into crits, and when you’re racing in Boulder, where you have a lot of the best women in the country racing bikes, you better learn. If you want to hang, you learn to take the corners like they do. Before she retired, Evelyn Stevens said, ‘You’re one of the only triathletes I’ll ride with.’”
It wasn’t long before she asked Henderson if she could run again, just for some therapy. Henderson acquiesced, on the condition that her progression would be slow and easy. Then Duffy asked if she could jump into some of his tri group’s swim workouts a few times a week. “I said sure, jump in.”
After just over a year away from the sport, she was back, and looking to rejoin the WTS circuit. That fall, for fun, she did her first Xterra, in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Says Henderson: “She came back and said, ‘That sucked, I’m never doing that again!’”
Never say never.
It wasn’t until 2015, but the combination of Duffy’s balanced skill set and her fast-developing above-par cycling acumen led Henderson to encourage Duffy to play the bike card in her WTS races: attack the typically placid lead bike group, establish a solo or small group breakaway, and… see what happened. Her confidence in using her weapon was growing. Sometimes it didn’t pan out, but sometimes it worked, as she exhibited when she scored her first ITU win at the 2011 Pan Am Cup in Mazatlán.
“It takes a lot to develop the confidence to know you can do that,” she says. “But I did know that, at some point, I wanted to be on the podium, and that I had better figure out how to have the race suit my strength.”
Her next Olympic effort—the London Games in 2012—didn’t pan out, either, but it was just bad luck as a crash in front of her took her down. She hoped for much more, but finished a dismal 45th.
A year later, with Duffy nursing a stress reaction in her foot at year’s end, Henderson suggested she pass on the ITU Grand Final; there was something else he had in mind. A change of gears. “I told her the Xterra World Championship in Maui was in a few weeks. I said, ‘If we literally don’t run and just do a few uphill runs on trails, you’ll have enough to do well there,’” Henderson says. “It took some convincing, but she said, ‘I’ll give it a try.’”
She finished third.
“With that race, she rediscovered racing well and having fun,” Henderson said. “And, I’d say, it reignited her career.”
Duffy was hooked. The ITU circuit was and remains to date her priority, but Xterra became her fun personal project, a diversion from the rigors of the ITU circuit. She managed to keep ITU low-key on her terms, and Xterra became her grounding agent.
If there was one more key component to Duffy’s recent trajectory both on the road and in the dirt, it was when she met Dan Hugo. A fellow Xterra pro in 2013, Duffy went from training on occasion in Boulder with the South African to coffee dates, to dinner and dating. “Her laid-back character has always been attractive and wonderful,” Hugo says. He retired from racing two years ago, but as a global marketing director with Specialized Bicycles, he’s often working events around the world that Duffy is racing. It became a perfect parlay: morning breakfast and prerace taper runs with Duffy, then off to work at the venue, then cheering her on during the race.
“I did my training with him that first year we dated and I was like, ‘Holy hell, I better learn if I wanna keep up!’” she says with a laugh. “I had that good technical road background, but riding on the trails with him took me out of my comfort zone. I did most of my Xterra learning with Dan, and there was so much: tire pressure, suspension, what tires to run on different courses.”
Realizing the raw talent early on, Hugo relished finding holes in her approach and finding solutions. “We looked into what nutrition can offer, and she eats incredibly healthy, but some were small things like blood sugar management, learning about insulin and what refined sugars do. That was a big shift. That magic was there before I came into the picture, but it was nice to just looking into some of the details.”
Hugo threw his experience into optimizing Duffy’s program nuisances. Nutrition. Gear. Training. Tactics. “She trains well, but she races on another level,” he says. “And that tactical side, those discussions, I’ve enjoyed being a part of.
“But to be clear,” Hugo adds, “I don’t think we’re anywhere near the ceiling of what she’s capable of. Watching her progression has been pretty awesome.”
The team approach put another arrow in her already loaded quiver. She not only showed dominance on the road with individual race tactical planning, she was displaying it on the dirt as well, with an ability to keep the power down on the bike while being technically adept at picking through rock gardens or over wet roots. After her third-place finish at the Xterra World Championship in 2013, she returned win in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
“Some of her ability to ride a mountain bike comes somewhat naturally,” Hugo says.
“Dan has a full-time job, but it’s special that he’s able to share in this journey with me,” Duffy says. “He was there with me in Rio and Cozumel. I know it’s a rare thing, but it’s nice to have him there when he can be there. It’s nice to have someone to go to dinner with!”
With a newfound confidence, Duffy’s podium results began to improve in 2014 and 2015. But the 2016 season, after years of slow, steady progression, saw the floodgates open; she became a star.
With the ability to dynamically attack, she would gaining 10 seconds instantly, and if you missed the move, good luck in your quest for second place; with run programs coming from noted South African run coach Ernie Gruhn (who worked with Simon Lessing late in his career), she consistently held her T2 advantages right through to the finish with consistent 34- and 35-minute 10 km runs after a hard, sometimes solo ride.
After just missing the podium at Abu Dhabi and Gold Coast with fourth-place finishes, she finished third at Cape Town, testing the women with a solo breakaway. “I was caught with 1 km to go, but at the same time I was learning how to take risks. It was a whole new learning curve,” she recalls.
Says Zaferes: “She races with so much confidence and passion. The race in Cape Town always sticks out in my mind. She finished third, but the fact that she had the guts and was willing to do a break by herself on the bike, I respected so much. It doesn’t even matter that it didn’t hold; it was the fact that she gave it a shot and tested her strength and abilities.”
She was then second at Leeds. Then, in a stunning show of force, she went on a solo breakaway on the bike to take her first WTS victory in Stockholm. She began her Rio Olympic taper by winning a World Cup in Montreal.
“Gold Coast was a defining moment that set the tone for the season,” Duffy says.
“We took a risk with a breakaway. Helen won the race, but it was the first time Gwen had been beaten in ages. I felt like we were changing ITU racing, just flipping it on its head.”
Going into the Games as the WTS series leader also put her in as a favorite to earn Bermuda an Olympic medal. But a huge pack out of the water in Rio was on Duffy’s heels immediately, most notably American golden girl Gwen Jorgensen, who was perched safely on Duffy’s shoulder. Several hard efforts on the hills by Duffy and Swiss hopeful Nicola Spirig were covered again and again by the desperate group behind. There would be no breakaway. Duffy’s medal chances waned.
“Nicola’s a diesel,” Duffy said. “If she had a bit more pop, we might’ve been able to do something, but we were both up there like ‘I don’t know what we’re gonna be able to do.’” What could’ve been didn’t happen; Jorgensen buried herself to ensure she was within striking distance out of the water and on the first lap of the bike. Job done, she kept Duffy on a short leash, ensuring the battle would be waged on the run.
Jorgensen went on to win, with Spirig taking silver. Duffy finished eighth. Missing a medal in Rio was the only blip in her season—the only result all year where she finished anywhere below fourth place.
Thanks to the course previews and the mental prep stuff she did with Red Bull, there were things Gwen did fantastically that paid dividends,” Henderson says. “Flora was disappointed, but I saw it as a success. I mean, c’mon… consider that in Beijing she was lapped out. Listen to how crazy that sounds: Flora was lapped out. And she was 45th in London. So that was two disappointing Olympics. Sure, tactically the race in Rio didn’t unfold as we expected. But to finish eighth in an Olympic Games? I wasn’t disappointed. The entire country of Bermuda had her as their medal hopeful, and that pressure was real.”
Duffy did regroup to sew up the one thing she worked all year for: the ITU Series season crown. At the Grand Final in Cozumel, Mexico, Duffy and Henderson did the math on where she needed to be on points to win the season crown. Duffy tossed the points and focused on watts, willing her way to another win, while Jorgensen, in a post-Olympic hangover, took second. Duffy was world champion. “Getting that trophy in Mexico, that was the coolest moment of last year,” she says.
It’s not lost on Duffy that she’s changing the game. “I think before last year, a lot of people could get away with sitting in the pack,” she says. “But I think what I did, as well as Helen [Jenkins] and Andrea [Hewitt], Helen after the race was saying ‘Flora, how was my cornering, because all winter I was working on it, saying I need to be able to corner like Flora.’ I said, ‘It was awesome,’ and she was like ‘Yessss!’”
This year, Duffy expects that all the national team and international squad coaches will be back at the drawing board, putting the athletes through a crash course in bike racing, from how to apex a corner to setting up a U-turn. Not only because Flora will be playing her ace card. So too will Nicola Spirig and other intrepid athletes like Briton Jessica Learmonth or Andrea Hewitt of New Zealand, athletes who have exhibited a penchant for attacking on the bike and seeing it through to the finish. No longer does it have ITU have to be, as Brett Sutton once so eloquently put it, a wet 10 km.
“ITU used to be a swim, get through the bike and then run. But I think it’s evolving. A few people are catching on,” Duffy says. “This season you’ll see a couple more people being aggressive on the bike. Gwen may be out this year, but she has gotten substantially better. It’s gonna pressure some of these girls to ride their bikes, and a few will come around.
“I hope they don’t!” she adds with a laugh. “I like it the way it is now!”
Any post-Olympic year is always something of a wild card, and 2017 is no exception. Jorgensen and Jenkins are each taking a year off to have a child. A collection of women like Jodie Stimpson, athletes that missed out on the Olympic Games, are out to make a point. For Duffy, it’s standard operating procedure. As expected, she will be defending her Xterra World Championship title for the fourth time at year’s end; she’s already qualified by virtue of her victory at Xterra South Africa in late February. And as last year, there will be a premium on podiums and wins through the WTS season, again in the hopes of defending her series title. She’ll bounce between her and Hugo’s home in Boulder, their space in South Africa and family in Bermuda.
“It’s always a weird year,” Duffy says. “Without Gwen there, the racing will change, and I’m glad to have my own hand in that change as well. It’s nice that it’s changing; the sport needs to evolve, right?”
She’ll have her own twist to the year as well. In early April, Hugo took Duffy on a run with an overlook of the entirety of Stellenbosch. Then he knelt and gave her a diamond solitaire. “Now I find myself busy planning a wedding and looking at wedding dresses!” Duffy says with a laugh.
And beyond? The Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 are still the main target as she continues to ride the ITU merry-go-round, stirring up the pot. But while Kona holds no sway over her (“The 70.3 distance appeals to me, but Kona’s not the dream, at all,” she says in a resolute tone) triathlon isn’t the only consideration.
“Even before Rio, there was talk about Flora racing her mountain bike in Rio. And it’s not out of the picture for Tokyo,” Henderson says. “Of course, having focus on triathlon in Tokyo is the biggest priority, but if she so chooses, there’s an opportunity there.”
Quite the throwback thing to do.