It’s not just the Elite. Fantastic Age-Group racing in Estonia starts the race for medals

It’s not just the Elite. Fantastic Age-Group racing in Estonia starts the race for medals

By Paul Groves on 07/02/17 at 3:55 pm

Age Group athletes make Otepää a great Race


The Organisers, led by Siim Ausmees and with the backing of the Estonian Triathlon Federation were thrilled by the way that the positive reports last year showed their race back in January 2016 to have been so good. This year, word got around. Athlete spoke to athlete, friend spoke to friend and amongst the Federations maybe, there was a suggestion that Winter Triathlon, although with a small following, really does have a place on our calendar.

Siim was there to ensure everything went OK, even though it was his wedding anniversary.

Look back in time and you will find numerous European and World Cups. Perhaps if we focus and look forwards we will see this happen again. Clearly there are many out there who run in the snow. We know there are many who put the road bike away in the winter and get out their trusted MTB and there are event some who can ski.

There is an argument that “Winter Triathlon is a European thing”, yet we have had positive comments from Australia, USA and Canada suggesting that there was, is and will be interest in those regions.
If “Winter Triathlon is a European thing” then it is possibly because we do it so well here and because we have such good athletes here. Well then, let us lead and let others follow. Otepää this year was where everyone headed to and Otepää was where the medals were fought for.

The start list was almost double the size of 2016 and once again the small city of Otepää, tucked away in the South of the beautiful country of Estonia became alive with athletes from all over Europe. Some flew to Tallinn and Tartu, some drove. Everyone enjoyed the warm Estonian hospitality and the well-organised ski centre at Tehvandi, where numerous Cross Country World Cup and biathlon events are held.

In the 16-19 category it was a gold for the home nation as Raileen Lelle in her first ever international event.  Brother Ragnar Lelle made it a family affair.

The medals kept coming for Estonia in the next category (20-24), with gold and silver going to Aveli Tättar and Kairit Veri, who was here to defend her ETU and ITU 2016 titles. It was also the chance for the first of many Russian medals with bronze going to Yulia Milenia, the 2012 ETU Champion, to the delight of her father, Andrey Gudalov.

For the men, Andres Nopps won bronze in the U23 category last year but opted to race AG this year. Gold medal for him. There were no women racing in this category.

In the 25-29 Age-Group it was gold for the Eastern neighbours with Andrei Milenin taking the title and making father-in-law Andrey Gudalov very proud. There were no women racing in this category.

Next up, the 30-34 category saw Italy, Estonia, Latvia and Russia race. The event was co-hosting the Latvian National Championships and there was a lot at stake. In the early stages of the race it was Oskars Cimermanis who showed a clean pair of heels with powerful running that took him in to T2 way ahead of the Italian, Fabrizio Garetto. We all know that triathlon is not just about the three disciplines of either swim / bike / run or run / bike / ski but also those all-important moments in transition. It was here that Garetto edged ahead of Cimermanis but behind them was Edgars Kokorevičs whose time in transition was brief for both T1 and T2. Garetto, on the bike was taking command. With the ski coming and with his speed on the snow, it looked good for Italy. Cimermanis was faster on the bike than his teammate but the final leg saw Kokorevičs pull past him. Gold to Italy with silver and bronze being shared by Latvia.

In the 35-39 Categories we were treated to a wonderful race that brought together former World and European champions. Quite amazingly, the former World Champions were both British women. Kerry McGawley and Sam Toop have in the past held world titles in Winter Triathlon. McGawley in Zeltweg and Toop in Freudenstadt (2008). McGawley also held the ETU title in 2011 in Ostersund, where she is now based. Just back from warm weather training but already with a substantial amount of ski training under her belt, it would not be a certain victory, as both Brits would be facing defending title holder and local favourite, Luise Puu. She would be joined by Pille Muni who won the 30-34 category in 2016 and now, racing her first year against the “older ladies” had a clear advantage.

From the very start McGawley took control. Her opening 12:40 for the run, a minute faster than any of the other contenders, was followed by a sift T1 and then she built upon that lead with an impressive 19:54 out on the bike. A three-minute lead gave her a chance to relax on the final segment but there was no stopping her now and she added almost another three minutes for the ski to not only win her category but also to be the first Age Group woman to cross the line.

Behind her came a battle between Puu and Toop. The Briton was faster on the run but then lost out on the bike and ski. It was silver to Estonia and bronze to GB. A quite historic moment then saw two British women on the podium.

Amongst the men there were two more Brits. Would their presence create any interesting challenges for the Estonians, Latvians or Norwegians? Well, race favourite was Estonian, Valdur Jaht. A top ten placing in the National Championships for long distance triathlon he had a proven record of stamina but this course, relatively short, was an “into the red” in terms of heart-rate and might just be too short for him. As things turned out his biggest threat came from Team GB with David Lamb following him into T1 and then losing only a few seconds out on the bike. The final ski segment saw the Briton post the fastest split with an impressive 12:41, a second faster than Jaht but not enough to cut into the Estonian’s lead that had been built up on the run and bike. Behind Jaht and lamb came the battle between Estonia and Latvia, with Erko Kurvits, 2016 gold medal winner showing greater power on the bike and ski but not quite having the legs on the run. It was a brave effort from him but he just missed the podium behind Latvian, Andris Laganovskis.

Especial cheers went up for Ray Morgan. Out on the skis and a binding snapped. He ran with the skis to the coaching area and, with great support from the team and having previously checked the rules, he knew that he could change two poles and one ski. One ski was all he needed and bravely he set off to finish the race. Easy to give up but having travelled such a long way, he was determined to finish.

For the 40-44 Women it was an Estonian clean sweep with gold going to the defending champion Maris Kaarjärv. She faced Jelena Bondarchuk, who took silver in 2016. It was Kaarjärv who dominated but Kairi Ustav was able to push hard enough to take the silver, leaving Bondarchuk with the bronze.

One of the biggest age-groups was the men’s 40-44. With athletes from Estonian, Latvia and Russia all going for gold, it was always going to be exciting. The lead changed again and again as the race unfolded. First into T1, wearing Latvian colours, was Martinš Alksnis. He was just ahead of teammate and defending champion from last year, Vjačeslavs Žunda. Žunda has this year moved up an age group and he soon put in a powerful ride to pull ahead of Alksnis. Their efforts were not able to keep the lead, however, and it was Margus Sirvel EST along with Mārtiņš Lukstiņš LAT who were creating a lead that would ensure places on the podium. Sirvel’s second transition lost him valuable time and it was Lukstiņš who with a massive statement out on the ski course comfortably took gold. Behind Sirvel’s silver came Russia’s Aleksei Ponomarev.

The women’s 45-49 category would again see the two Baltic States of Latvia and Estonia chase the medals. A comfortable lead on the run took Latvia’s Ingrida Smite into the lead. She maintained the power on the bike and eased up only on the ski to take gold. Silver went to Estonia with Kaja Tättar who finished with a flourish on the skis. Bronze went to Latvia’s Monika Lemese.

The men’s race was again popular, with athletes from Estonia, Latvia, Russia, Great Britain, Italy, Germany and Slovakia. The pace was intense for the run, with Latvia and Germany securing pole position. It was Alvis Krilovskis who led. The only real threats he faced came from Russia and the host nation. Silver went to Russia’s Aleksei Muravev and, following a spectacular ride, bronze went to Marek Antoniak, who improves upon his 2013 4th place in Tartu.

With the 50-54 category, we were delighted to see Claudia Bregulla-Linke GER, the current World Champion arrive to see if she could add a European title to her collection. She would be racing against the highly experienced Russian, Nataliya Sila-Novitskaya, ETU Champion in 2013 and 2015, with a silver in 2016. On the slippery course, it was the German who showed greater pace and gold went to her collections. Silver to Russia.

The men’s race was a perfect example of how power does not always equate to victory. Technique is all-important out on the ice and snow and it was Estonia’s Urmas Utar, 2009, 2013 and 2016 ETU champion and 2011 World Champion who reigned supreme.

His opening run of 11:18 took him into T1 with a commanding lead. Swift transitions were not his forte and he lost time over the other athletes in both T1 and T2 but when moving, he was unbeatable. 16:34 on the bike and 11:59 on the skis took him not only to gold but also to outright victory over all the men. Missing the podium by 40 seconds in Cogne in 2014, Roman Iakubchik made it to silver this year with time to relax. Bronze went to the 2016 bronze medal winner, Estonia’s Aivar Veri.

Latvia collected more titles with the gold medal win by Ineta Aulika in the 55-59 category.

The men’s race would be exciting. Ivo Grabmüller has held World and European titles. Up against the powerful Russian Age Groupers, who we now see regularly race the winter and summer circuits, he would face the defending champion, Oleg Sukhodolin and Andrey Sharygin who collected silver at this race in 2016 and a bronze in Zeltweg. It was neck and neck between Grabmüller and Sukhodolin. A marginally quicker transition took the Czech out onto the bike course ahead of the Russian but soon the greater power on the bike of Sukhodolin took him ahead of Grabmüller. Sharygin also proved to be stronger on the bike and it was Russia, one and two when they came into T2. Grabmüller had done enough to be assured of bronze but ahead of him the two Russians were fighting for the title. Sharygin’s pace on the skis was immense but he had lost too much time earlier on and he missed out by just 14 seconds.

In the 60-64 category, it was a clean sweep for team Germany, but only just as the battle for bronze was nearly lost to their southern neighbour. Karin Schulz has a long history of Multisports. A 2008 long course world title from Almere and in 2013 from Belfort and European titles in 2009, Prague, show her stamina for long distance events. Off-road racing added more titles to her collection, with Strobl Am Wolfgangsee in 2013, Zittau in 2014 and Schluchsee in 2015. Silver medals were added at the Worlds in 2015 in Sardegna and in 2016 in Zeltweg. She was racing against 2007 ETU Winter Triathlon Champion (Triesenberg-Steg) and the silver medal winner from Zeltweg but now moving up an age-group, Petra Scholler. Alongside them was Marianne Grünebach, 2016 ETU Long Course champion (Poznan) who maintains a regular podium presence in winter triathlon as well as long distance racing. Current world champion from Austria was Marianne Hergouth. She comes to the race with the confidence of holding two world titles; both from 2016. Zeltweg on home soil and then, down-under at the aptly-named Snowy Mountains for the World Cross Triathlon Championships. It was Schulz who took control of the run and pretty much won the race with her first leg. Bike and ski followed and the only threat came from Scholler whose fast finish on the skis was not quite fast enough. It was the battle for bronze was a thriller. Grünebach’s lengthy T1 saw her position under threat and with the thundering pace on skis from Hergouth bearing down upon her, she managed to grasp bronze with only 20 seconds spare.

Amongst the men and it was Iskandar Shakhov who was seeking to defend his 2016 title and add to his collection of world and European medals. In 2016 alone, he raced in Otepää, Zeltweg, Aviles, Lisbon and Cozumel. Along the way he collected a gold and two silvers as well as some wonderful global experience. Up against Bohusla Melicherčík and Eugen Õis he would have to race hard and fast to secure his defence of the title. He did just that and from the first steps he was in command. A comfortable gold to Russia and then it was a solid silver for Slovakia and bronze to the host nation.

No women raced the next category and so it was for the men, 65-69, to provide the entertainment. Defending Champion, Anti Oot EST would face the multi-talented Hans Peter Grünebach who this year had the company of his wife. It was the German who had the advantage over the Estonian as they entered T1 but a very slow transition from Grünebach lost him that advantage. He soon caught up on the bike and entered T2 ahead of Oot. Having raced here last year without his wife, there was momentary confusion when he tried to rack his bike in the wrong Grünebach position. Her ski boots would never have been comfortable and he lost valuable seconds in T2 but his ski power was such that when he crossed the finish line he was way ahead of Oot. However, the title was not to be his in Otepää as way ahead was the Latvian Andris Dainis. He had taken a massive lead on the run, built upon that on the bike and did not slow down for the ski. A superb victory for Latvia in the presence of the Latvian Triathlon Federation President.

70-74, yes we had athletes in this category racing too. The defending champion Steffen-Luis Neuendorff GER, who added the ETU Cross Duathlon title to his collection and a bronze from the Snowy Mountains Worlds in 2016, was clearly the man to beat. He would face Austrian, Anton Hergouth whose wife we saw earlier and who too races long distance as well as Winter Triathlon. It was Neuendorff who led into T1 but both he and Hergouth had slow transitions and this allowed Estonian, Mati Kallemets to take advantage and lead out onto the bike. Once they had joined him on the icy track, both Hergouth and Neuendorff caught and overtook the Estonian. For Hergouth, the final discipline was a gift and he pulled away to take gold. Behind him, the German again had a slow transition and this gave the advantage to Kallemets who took silver ahead of Neuendorff’s bronze.

Amazingly, there were still two more Age Group categories that were represented at these Championships; the Men’s 75-79 saw the medals chased by German and Estonian athletes. Missing silver last year to Neuendorff and this year moving up a category, it was Ilmar Tagel EST who would hope to improve. His first run was strong and led him into T1 ahead of Günter Birnbaum GER. Birnbaum was absent from the race last year but with a 4th in Zeltweg, a bronze in Kalkar and a 4th in Aviles, added to his 2015 ETU title in Castro Urdiales, we can see that he has the strength. Behind came Arno Jaal EST. Tagel kept up the pressure and had established a good lead by the time it came for the skis to be fitted. His gold medal took him to the top of the podium with Birnbaum secure in silver and Jaal making up the Estonian double.

The last person to cross the finish line was not the oldest. The oldest athlete to race this year was from Germany. The oldest athlete got some of the loudest applause, not only as he finished but also at the awards ceremony that evening. Reinhold Wolter GER, is a legend. Born in 1936 his is immensely powerful and has a huge following in our sport. With European titles in 2012 in Valsesia, 2013 in Tartu, 2015 in Reinosa and 2016 in Otepää, Wolter is also World Champion, 2013 in Cogne and 2016 in Zeltweg. 2017 was again his year.

So, Winter Triathlon is alive and kicking in Europe. Two great races in January. Estonia and Romania providing good and challenging courses and great venues that really offer value for money to the athletes and quality snow and racing conditions to ensure a true run, MTB and ski experience.

Medals were won. Old friendships renewed and new friendships created.

I shall give the final word to the British Team Manager, for the simple reason that it is so rare to see the Brits at such events. Keith Jenns and his team have put Team GB on the medal table uncharacteristically early in the season. “GBR Winter Triathlon 2017 brought the biggest GBR winter team to Estonia since 2009 in Gaishorn Austria. A few members were lucky enough to have a week’s training in Norway prior to the competition which proved successful with Kerry McGawley overall woman's winner and Gold in AG 35-39. Other medals went to David Lamb (Silver Medal in 30-34 AG), Sam Troop (Silver Medal in women's AG 35-39) and Russ White (Bronze Medal in PT4). Congratulations go to Ray Morgan and Nick Smith for competing in their first championships. If anyone in the UK is interested in Winter triathlon, please contact me, Keith Jenns on keith@britishtriathlon.co.uk"

For the full results lists, please click here.

Find more details about this event - 2017 Otepää ETU Winter Triathlon European Championships