Alex Yee and Ai Ueda deliver at Cape Town's World Cup curtain-raiser
South Africa’s beautiful capital city was once again the setting for ITU’s now traditional Elite triathlon season-opener, the Cape Town World Cup, where the warm February sunshine was offset by some blustery wind and cold waters to keep the athletes on their toes.
With men’s race number one Richard Murray (RSA) and USA’s Chelsea Burns forced out through illness, the start lists looked to leave another home-crowd hero, Henri Schoeman, and Netherlands’ women’s number one Rachel Klamer with opportunities to get their respective seasons off to winning starts. The reality was remarkably different, with Japan’s experienced Ai Ueda stepping up for the women’s gold and Great Britain’s newest talent Alex Yee producing his first World Cup triumph, both thanks to exquisite runs.
Japan's Ai Ueda delivers Cape Town magic
Having never broken into the top three on this compact Cape course, Rachel Klamer appeared to have a steely determination to put her hot-weather training in Namibia to the test. The wind was whipping around the V&A Waterfront Harbour as the athletes took to the start, but the water remained largely flat for the wetsuit swim and finally the curtain went up on the 2019 season.
From the opening strokes of the swim it looked as though Netherlands’ Maya Kingma and USA’s Summer Rappaport were again going to shine in the water, but Spain’s Sara Perez Sala, Tamara Gorman (USA) and Fuka Sega (JPN) were all a cap’s width away up the steps and into T1.
Kingma looked at ease in the opening throes of the bike, the initial twists and turns suiting her well before the four-lap loop around Green Point stadium saw Klamer join the leaders to form a strong group of six.
Behind them, India Lee was spearheading a chase group that included Ai Ueda and Miriam Casillas and was making some inroads on the gap, but despite their best efforts it still stood at 20 seconds at the bell. That had shrunk to 16 seconds by the time they had emerged from T2, and it was clearly time for Ai Ueda to deliver another of her trademark runs in the heat, wasting no time in closing down the gap.
While Ueda still had plenty to give, it looked like Klamer was fading, feeling the effects of recent illness as the race wore on, but Rappaport remained in control with Gorman for company. At the final u-turn, however, Ueda was shoulder to shoulder with the Americans, and then dropped Rappaport at the final water station with plenty still left in her legs.
Rappaport couldn’t respond but by now was assured of the silver, crossing the line 7 seconds off Ueda and 13 seconds ahead of Gorman, who was delighted to start a new year with a podium after a difficult 2018. Elsewhere in the field, the 2018 Youth Olympic Games Champion Amber Schlebusch struggled to find her groove early on but dug in for a spirited run to finish in 28th. The irrepressible Carolina Routier (ESP) was back on the start line for the first time in nearly 12 months to finish 20th and an incredible run from Gillian Sanders earned her 5th behind Klamer.
Britain's Alex Yee shows his mettle in season starter
Finishing second to Richard Murray for the past two years, South Africa’s own Richard Murray was looking to step up to the plate in the absence of the race number one and he was predictably in pole position out of the swim and onto the 20km bike, Slovakia’s Richard Varga and Russia’s Igor Polyanskiy for company.
The field had not strung too far out across the chilly, wind-swept swim and that would be the story of what quickly became a fascinating sprint-distance race.
First, it was Schoeman who looked determined to seize control, pushing a lead group of nine cyclists onwards. With him were Delian Stateff (ITA), keen to put his off-season with the likes of Mario Mola and Vincent Luis to the test, and Israel’s powerful Sagiv, behind them a huge group just six seconds back which in turn was being hunted by a third group including Britain’s Yee.
At the bell, there was just 17 seconds separating the top 42 athletes, and with the ever-rapid runner Yee among them, it was always going to be a tall order for the leaders to keep him at bay.
By the time the riders were homing in on T2 the packs were almost together as one, albeit still fronted by home favourite Schoeman. Yee wasted no time as he negotiated T2 and embarked on his favourite run, putting down the hammer immediately and picking off the field.
Then, rather than waiting on the more experienced Schoeman’s shoulder, Yee pressed yet further and incredibly had opened up a 6-second gap at the bell.
That then stretched despite the strong headwind, while behind a battle was on for silver and bronze. USA’s Tony Smoragiewicz was looking to banish his bad Cape Town memories from last year, and he pressed Schoeman hard, while there, too was Joao Silva of Portugal and Germany’s Justus Nieschlag. As Yee continued to stretch his lead, so the fight for podium places grew even more fierce.
The Brit eventually took the tape by 16 seconds, and it was Smoragiewicz who delivered the strongest sprint finish to claim a brilliant silver, edging out the Portuguese Silva into third.
photo credit ITU