Want to get your teeth into something? Need an event with more bite? Want to chill out “Transylvanian-style”? Well, if we are lucky enough to have another ETU or ITU event in the forests above Târgu Mureș, a 16th century town tucked away in the deepest heart of Transylvania, then put this event in your diary.
Last year saw the Balkan Championships and following on from that the small but dedicated organisational team travelled to Spain to see the event in Castro Urdiales. They witnessed the tough course and the friendly atmosphere amongst the competitors in what was the first ever ETU Cross Duathlon Championships and then, after much work, delivered this weekend an event that will have inspired so many.
23 nations raced here on the deceptively tough course. For many the gentle ride around the bike course in the days before the race suggested that it was going to be “pretty easy” but many had miscalculated and the biting run that took them around the plateau more than made up for the fast and easy sections of the bike course.
With the weather forecasts predicting doom and gloom, there was an air of apprehension. If the rain fell then it would really be a “tough day at the office”; not only for the athletes but also for the Technical Officials and for the small army of volunteers around the course. The atmosphere was buzzing on Saturday amongst the Age group athletes. There was more at stake this year with the greater number of nations competing and those who had won in 2015 were facing potential challengers.
They lined up, the music stopped, the heartbeats kicked in and then they were off. All Age Group athletes together. An early lead was established by a break away trio from Germany, Johannes Franzky, Romania, Marcel Balan and Great Britain’s Jim McConnel. On home soil, it was Balan, with the crowds behind him who gradually pushed the pace and was able to make it to T1 ahead of Franzky. McConnel kept them both in view and with a clear break behind him was able to have a clear run through the first transition before setting off for the bike course.
This is no ordinary event. Within 50m of the start of the bike, the athletes crossed a small railway track that had been packed with logs and then dropped down onto the tracks below. Some were confident; some were enthusiastic, one forgot which side his rear brake was and paid the price. As usual, the first question, “Is the bike OK” was met by smiles from the medical team. For this event, the LOC had a specialist mountain rescue team and ATV evacuation if needed. Despite the very challenging nature of the course, there were very few injuries.
Amongst the older categories, 60+, the athletes were all racing a sprint distance. Due to the stress that would be put on them all if they had followed the full-distance event, they had all agreed that a shortened race would be safer. Within these categories, we had 4 athletes. GB’s Richard Hardy was up against Constantin Apostu ROU and it was clear from very early on that Hardy had pace and was going to use it.
His lead over the Romanian after the first run was a clear 5 minutes and he simply did not slow down. With family members shouting encouragement and with supporters all around the course, he crossed the line comfortably to take his gold and to set a new standard in racing and to greatly improve upon the bronze from 2015.
Back to the longer event and out on the bike we could see that the athletes were pushing as hard as possible. As they came through for their laps some were covered in mud, some had torn their race uniform, some had cuts on their legs but all looked determined to finish.
On the very fast section, where the medical team had a specialist unit for direct evacuation to the nearby hospital it was Simon Ward GBR who had a spectacular crash right in front of the medics and the Technical Official who had been stationed there. Having hit the ground with some stunning force, his first question was not the usual one; instead he wanted to know if anyone had filmed it. An evacuation to the hospital later revealed that he was probably one of the luckiest of the day as he escaped with bruising. A DNF, but what a classy one!
The race continued. Balan continued to put pressure on Franzky but the more experienced biker from Germany took advantage out on the course to forge ahead and soon he had the lead.
Carving through the pack was Denmark’s Henrik Søeberg. Out on the bike he was in command and posted the fastest split for all Age groupers. This took him into second place overall.
Despite losing a bit of pace on the final run, he had done enough out on the bike to stay ahead of McConnell and also fellow Brit, Ross Smith, who was racing the same category as Franzky.
The finish line was ready and it was an overall victory for Franzky. The British supporters had watched McConnell tear down the run but few had seen him overtaken by Smith out on the bike and so it was Smith who crossed in third place to take bronze behind Denmark’s Søeberg, who won his Age group ahead of McConnell. In the younger category, 20-24, it was once more the bike that made the difference and Milosz Czechowicz stormed through to cross the line fourth overall.
Medals were being won by Denmark, Poland, Romania, Germany, France, Slovakia, Great Britain, Turkey, Ukraine, Belgium and Netherlands. All the while, the women were racing and it was no less exciting.
As they started, it was a British double-header with Sharn Hooper and Claire Hitchings taking the lead but then the Spaniards came back and working hard together, Isabel Maria Merlos Rodrigo and Gema Raga Ruiz came into T1 almost a minute ahead of the two British women. Despite a tumble in the muddiest section of the course, Hitchings, already with an impressive collection of international triathlon medals, posted the fastest bike split and this took her over 5 minutes ahead of the Spanish.
With the short but still tough final 2,75km run, Hitchings had only to hold it all together to ensure not only an Age Group gold but also victory and the finish tape for the Women’s Race.
Behind her, also showing great power on the bike, was Hooper. Between them they had broken the Spanish lead and so it was a top level showing from the British women. Gold for both of them but a first and second overall.
The Spanish athletes would not go home empty handed as it was Merlo who came over the line in third place and with Raga just 2 seconds behind they had dominated their age group.
Medals were won by Great Britain, Romania, Spain and Germany.
As the age group athletes were finishing the Technical Officials were checking in the Elite and U23 Women. Athletes from 7 nations would compete and amongst them were two of the Elite medal winners from last year.
Well, both gold and silver medallists in the women’s Elite have returned. Margarita Fullana Riera ESP, Olympic bronze medallist in 2000 as a mountain-biker would face Great Britain’s Louise Fox who won silver behind her in Spain last autumn. Russian winter triathlon specialist and current World Champion in the incredibly tough run, MTB and ski discipline, Yulia Surikova, was racing and wonderfully supported by her husband and daughter. Spain also brings Rocio Espada Vazquez who last year just missed out on the medals. Long-distance duathlon specialist from Slovakia, Kristina Lapinova also comes with a background of Winter Triathlon. It seems that the cross-over between these two equally tough sports is going to be a strong feature as Cross Duathlon grows. From Latvia came Anastasija Krūmiņa. She would be racing for the title in the U23 category. New to the ETU family and new to racing, she was clearly nervous but kept her cool as the tension built towards the start.
The women lined up and from the moment they shot away from the start line it was Surikova who was setting the pace. On her heels was not the defending European Champion, who was racing in a borrowed uniform after a last-minute problem with her own, but instead it was the Slovakian, Lapinova who looked relaxed as she ran. Fullana was in third and suddenly the discussion was, “can she catch up on this pretty technical course?”.
Surikova claimed the first run and set off into the woods but early in the lap, her drinks bottle fell out of the cage.
The woodland tracks were mostly under the cover of the trees but she would still need fluids. The aid station, available to all, was on the bike course just after the lap through Transition and for the experienced bikers grabbing a bottle and riding was not a problem.
Just over 30 seconds behind her was Lapinova who had the length of T1 between her and Fullana.
The Spanish champion was now on familiar territory and soon enough had caught up to and passed both Lapinova and Surikova. This year she had a battle on her hands because although the lead was maintained she was not making the impression out on the bike that she had in Spain where she had a three minute advantage. As she came into T2 in the lead we could see Lapinova heading down the long tree-lined avenue and less than two minutes behind. Surikova, perhaps suffering from the heat and the dropped water bottle, was clearly in bronze and although Fox had made up some places on the bike, it looked like her medal chances were gone. Cutting through the pack after a struggle on the first run was Espada. Could she catch the Russian?
With transition behind her, Fullana had only to hold it together on the short run. She did so and almost strolled down the blue carpet to take the finish tape and her second European title.
Lapinova, to the delight of the small but very vocal Slovakian supporting group, came over the line 90 seconds or so later.
Surikova dug deep and pushed all the way to take bronze.
Espada had to settle for yet another 4th place but was later full of compliments for the race, which she thought was a shade long but which had such incredible atmosphere. She also thanked organisers and the public for supporting the event so well.
After the race, Fullana had to fly home, so the medal ceremony was brought forwards. She was now relaxed, “On my way back home with this second title of European Cross Duathlon Champion.
Extremely hard race and most of it during the run segment with a very critical uneven section. There were almost 10km in which I tried to keep up with the incredible fast pace of the Russian athlete, World Champion in Winter Triathlon and the Slovakian who is several times champion in LD triathlon, duathlon and Ironman. I think they have been the 10 hardest km of my life. I only had in mind grabbing my bike and try to create an advantage without difficulties. After the second lap this was like a never ending race after more than two hours of race. Transition was extremely fast and with just ¾ of the race left and having some cramps and a colossal blister in my foot, the only thing I thought was keep it up, keep it up. I was so conscious of the Slovakian, who was running as if she was being chased by a vampire. In the final meters I was weaving in and out and at only 50 metres from the finish line I was just almost walking. Usually I don’t make this kind of statements, but I have suffered so much that I had the need to share it with everybody.”
Day one was over … aches and pains all around, including the volunteers and Technical Officials who were out on the field of play for over 12 hours.
Was it muddy ?
It was for some!
A very big thank you to the Organisers and their team of photographers who worked with us to capture these moments. Check out their many albums and some video here.
Related Event: 2016 Târgu Mures ETU Cross Duathlon European Championships
|Results: Elite Men|
|1.||Xavier Jové Riart||ESP||02:08:00|
|2.||Joan Freixa Marcelo||ESP||02:09:54|
|Results: Elite Women|
|1.||Margarita Fullana Riera||ESP||02:33:43|
|4.||Rocio Espada Vazquez||ESP||02:42:43|
|10.||Ilinca Maria Tempeanu||ROU||03:46:00|
|Results: U23 Men|
|1.||Xavier Jové Riart||ESP||02:08:00|