EUROPEAN DESTINATION RACES
LONG COURSE RACING
RACE COURSE DESCRIPTIONS
Having come to the U.S. from Europe over 50 years ago, going “home” to race has a growing special attraction for me. I hope these short race descriptions that I find interesting will spark some hops across the pond.
At the D3 Christmas Party this year just as I was getting to leave, I had a great chat with Team D3 athlete Jason Surface and his wife about Ironman Wales. It confirmed what I had discovered this summer, races are different in Europe. You already know about this if you have ever watched Le Tour de France. One word explains it, SPECTATORS! AKA Fans, rabid fans at that. It changes the whole dynamic of racing.
My experience this year with real crowds was Challenge Roth. This race it’s the largest Ironman distance race in the world when counting spectators and participants. Over 250,000 watch the race and there are over 5,000 participants (including relay teams). And, no, the comma is not in the wrong place. If you spread that crowd out over the 140 miles of the course that’s one person every yard. But they do tend to congregate in the hot spots, like Solar Hill in this picture. Hopefully, this has got your interest for a destination race in Europe. Personally, my next one is Ironman Ireland in Cork. I learned it’s full already with 2,500 athletes.
Just to be fair with the rest of the world and the USA, there are plenty of great places to race. And if driving is an option, that eliminates one of the ugly things about going outside the U.S., air travel.
DESTINATION RACES TO CONSIDER
I seem to have picked out some tough races from the many options in Europe. The reason is that the ones I picked are also some of the most spectacular. There are some ‘easy’ ones, but to be honest, there really is no such thing as an easy triathlon. The hilly ones are just slower. And if you are going to take a long trip you might as well go to someplace special.
Roth (140.6) – Early July
I do have to start with Roth. As mentioned, there are over 250,000 watching the race these days. Everything about the race is spectacular. The swim in a canal that makes it possible to get from the North Sea to the Black Sea by boat is closed Sunday morning for the race, kind of like closing the Mississippi to barge traffic just to allow 3,000-4,000 people to go for a swim. The bike takes you through a magic farmland and small villages with beer gardens full of screaming fans. The run starts in Roth, heads into a forest that at other times might seem like something out of the stories of the Brothers Grimm but during the race is overflowing with more fans, along the banks of the canal with medics on patrol in boats, and back into Roth past several beer gardens, all full of fans. The swim is flat, the bike hilly but more a constant up and down than big long hard hills and the run is not flat but again no killer hills. And it is fast, all the Iron distance race records are held in Roth. Here is a video of this year’s race. My AG started in that first wave with the Pros.
Wales (140.6) – September
I had to pick this second after my conversation with Jason and also from feedback from another D3 athlete, Mark Cooke. From the video it looks like Roth, and Jason and Christine did say that the spectator support was amazing. Unlike Roth, this is not a fast course and not for the faint of heart. The bike and run courses are hilly. Specifically, the bike is very hilly with 6000+ feet of climbing. The swim is in the ocean, with water temps around 60 and the ocean can get rough. But, how can you not get inspired? This is the country of the legend of King Arthur, the birthplace of St. Patrick (if my history is right) and the place from where the English launched their first invasion of Ireland (I know that is correct, I’m Irish).
IronMan Cork (140.6) – Late June
It is full in 2019, but could definitely be worth going to watch this year. The largest contingent of athletes is coming from North America. Like Wales, the water is cold and potentially rough. Looking out on the swim course the next big land mass to your south is Antarctica. The bike is not as extreme as Cork, a bit over 3,000ft. That’s a lot in Ireland where the highest mountain is 3,400, about. The run is dead flat, 4 times through the town of Youghal. Here is the promo video for the race. If you want to see what Youghal looked like when I got thrown out of the local hotel’s restaurant when I was 7 (complained about the food) stream a copy of Moby Dick with Gregory Peck on your TV or take a look at this video. Youghal has lots of history including being the home of the infamous Water Raleigh who introduced tobacco to Europe.
Challenge Davos (70.3) – Middle July
The name should explain it all. Davos is a major ski resort in Switzerland, translated, that’s 1,770 meters of climbing (for Boulder residents that’s a climb up to Ward). Hard? Yes, but you will enjoy every minute of the spectacular views. The run will be a relief from the hills but not the views. The swim in July should be comfortably warm for North Americans. Here is an animated video of the course.
Time Alpe d’Huez (140.2km) – Early August
Staying in the Alps, this one is unique. It will certainly appeal to Tour de France fans. The swim is comfortable in wetsuit waters at about 2,500 ft. The course climbs to about 6,000 ft on the bike, for a total elevation gain of 10,500 ft. Then run is at 6,000. No question a tough race but the location is spectacular, check this out. Have a Fondue feast when you finish.
IronMan Lanzarote (140.6) – May
I am getting the really tough races out of the way first. This one is Kona in Europe, well actually off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic, but part of Spain. It comes complete with volcanoes like Kona except you go up the ones here. There are 5 major bike climbs for a total of 8,200 ft of climbing, but the run course is dead flat. The water is surprisingly cool, but comfortable in a wetsuit. It’s 64-66 degrees, with the warm tropical sun on your back. It is spectacular in the same way that the Big Island is spectacular but with an added twist. When you look down from the top of some of the climbs (watch this video) you can see where you swam, and the people look like ants.
IronMan Copenhagen (140.6) – Mid August
If you want a big city race this is a good one, and it gets you out into the picturesque countryside on the bike. It’s not as flat as you might think, a bit over 3,000 ft of gain on the bike. The run is only just over 300 ft of gain and never more than 40 ft about sea level. This city is a biking capital so you will feel right at home training before and even going for a fun ride after. Here is what this race looks like.
IronMan France (140.6) – End of June
A bit like Lanzarote, IM France has a flat swim, the water is warmer and a flat run. The bike is the attention getter. The race has a fabled history that goes back to the days of Mark Allen and Dave Scott. Mark dominated this race (long before it became an Ironman) winning 10 times. Slowtwitch interviewed Mark about the race when it did become an Ironman in 2017. Here is along video covering the race. If you want to see one of the major, and very old resorts of Europe, coming here to race is a great excuse.
Some other thoughts:
If going to some places other than Europe is your thing check out this Bucket List from Active. It does include a couple of my favorites. My list above is obviously far from a complete list of races in Europe. If big city races are an attraction, Frankfurt and Hamburg Ironman events should be looked at. London hosts an Olympic distance event that would make for an interesting diversion on a tour of England.
One of the things that makes European races special is the condition of many of the roads. I think the billiard smooth roads of Challenge Roth is one of the reasons it is so fast. Think of the video you have probably seen of the Tour, only when you get up into the high points of the climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees do the roads get really rough (and some of the Irish roads apparently).
The reason for the spectator support is, I think, because the Europeans still enjoy going out for a picnic. When I think about this, I always think of a photo taken during Stage 1 of the 1998 TdF in Ireland. It was pissing rain and blowing like stink. There was a wonderful shot of a large group of lad’s sitting on a stone wall leaning into the wind and rain, pints of the Dark Stuff in their hands and the Peloton flashing past. We do get some great support at races in the US but we are not quite that crazy. Besides, we would get arrested here if we carried around large glasses of Guinness on a race course.
Simon Butterworth recognizes that in the big picture attitude over age can make the difference in many aspects of this sport. There are times in triathlon that to see improvements you need to slow down and spend some time working on your technique – which requires a great deal of discipline. So does having a coach and following the plan written for you. The best coach in the world can only be of help if you’re ready and willing to do the work. Simon is a USAT Certified Coach, USMS Swim Coach and Training Peaks Certified Coach.