By Paul Groves on 29/01/17 at 3:07 pm
In 2016, the Winter Capital of Estonia welcomed a small group of athletes who raced in spectacularly cold conditions but in bright sunshine for medals and glory in the ETU Winter Triathlon Championships. Estonia has previously hosted this event but for the first time the world-famous stadium in Otepää was the focus.
Tucked away in the south-west of the nation, the town comes live in the winter months and then carries on with all sorts of summer activities for those who enjoy being outside, running, cycling and of course triathlon. The feedback from last year was so positive that the ETU Executive Board had no hesitation in awarding the Championships for 2016 back to this city.
Conditions could not have been more different. Much warmer than last year but with a bit of a thaw came a chilling wind that froze the melted snow and created long sheets of ice that presented a real challenge for the LOC and the Technical Delegate, Eugène Kraus. The bike course had to be changed for the safety of the athletes. Even local residents remarked that they had never seen such ice.
So, out of the stadium and then to the nearby roads but with a rolling road closure put in place by the LOC and with support of the local authorities. “Plan B” certainly saved the day.
For some, it was a short journey as once again there was great Estonian interest in the race. For others, it was a drive from Romania of over 1,700km and for some it was the nightmare trip with all sorts of problems on the border.
Well, eventually everyone got there but for one athlete, faced with Kafkaesque bureaucracy on the border, instead of arriving on Friday evening, a lengthy detour meant he arrived just 70 minutes before the Elite Men’s start and without sleep.
It was the Junior Men who lined up first as the temperature held at Zero Degrees Centigrade. The race favourites would be the Russians but it would be a battle for them between Kirill Kvitko, Dmitriy Pilyugin and the two Aleksandr Vasilevs (one born in 1998 and one in 1999). Against them would be the young but powerful cyclist and skier, Davide Ingrilli and of course home favourite, Henry Räppo.
With penalties to be served for missing the Race Briefing, the race was going to be tough for some.
Amongst them was Kvitko.
It was the fast pace over icy tracks that led the Italian into T1. He was shoulder to shoulder with Estonian Johannes Sikk and on their heels were the two Vasilevs.
As they led out onto the bike it was the two Vasilevs and Sikk who had used the transition to their advantage.
As the riders worked together and a group of five worked hard to keep ahead of the others. Pilyugin, Ingrilli, Sikk and the Vasilevs were in control.
It was now that the Italian and Sikk had to work, because now they were on snow, the well-trained Russians were pushing the pace.
It was Aleksandr Vasilev, the elder who took the title, with Ingrilli edging ahead to take silver. Behind him there was a rush for the line that saw sprinting in the final metres between two more Russian athletes. It went down to photo analysis to get confirmation that it was indeed Kvitko who had just managed to get the leading ski boot to the line ahead of Pilyugin. Even at breakneck speed and the pressure of the race, these two young athletes knew exactly how to finish the race and each of them lunged forwards with their boot.
The Junior Women started a couple of minutes after the Junior Men. Amongst them were of course the powerful Russians but also athletes from Slovakia, Poland, Austria and Estonia.
As the men disappeared into the fog, the women were lined up and called to the start line. Some were relaxed. All were ready.
They were off. Race favourites were once more from Russia, with Polina Tarakanova being strong in the final discipline. She was against Iulia Skriabina the world silver medal winner from 2016, who was faster on the run. She has the same pace as Slovakia’s Lydia Drahovska SVK who would be hoping to improve on her 4th from last weekend in Cheile Grădiștei. From the very moment the start horn sounded, it was Tarakanova who led.
She was out on her bike way ahead of the others. Drahovska and Skriabina worked together on the run and were soon out chasing. Tarakanova was comfortably ahead and now with her strongest discipline, she had the podium and gold in her sights.
She crossed the line with a massive lead over the chasing medal hopefuls and it was the time lost in T2 that robbed the Slovak athlete of a chance of silver. That went to Skriabina.
These juniors raced first thing in the morning when the chill was at its greatest. They raced hard and they raced well. The future is theirs.
Just after the Juniors, we had the ParaTri start. This year we had athletes from Great Britain, Romania, Russia and Spain and for them the problem of the 2016 cold had gone, to be replaced by very difficult and slippery conditions on the run and bike. The immensely talented Romanian athlete Robert Tamirjan was philosophical but clearly sorry that the bike course had been taken off the technical and snowy course and put onto the open roads. His power on two wheels was seen last year in Târgu Mureș where he earned accolades from the hugely-experienced Rafa Solís. The Spaniard was racing here for the second time and had, like many, come with much more layers of clothing than was really necessary. They were joined by GB’s Russell White, current GB Champion (PT3) and making his first international outing on skis. Also on the start line were the two Russians, Anna Plotnikova and Alexandr Ialchik. Plotnikova would have to rely upon her upper body strength to push herself along on the skis, using the traditional method and following the prepared loipe.
From the start it was clear that Solís was going to push Ialchik, even though he was in a different category.
Ialchik was supreme on the run and overtook many of the athlete who started ahead of him. All athletes were supported by the crowds around the course.
Way ahead as the run ended was Ialchik. Solís was close but not close enough. Tamirjan followed. White was next.
Solís chose to wear warmers on his toes for the bike. White followed with Plotnikova behind. Ialchik was by now in a commanding position
Tamirjan had ridden hard and posted the fastest bike split but he still had work to do on the skis if he was to get close to Solís.
It was Ialchik who crossed the line first to win gold in his category. Behind him there was still a gold to be won between Solís, Tamirjan and White and it was the faster running of Solís that had given him the advantage over the Romanian. Gold once again to Spain, silver to Romania and bronze to Great Britain.
The Transition Area was cleared and prepared for the next race. Elite and U23 athletes lined up in the fog to check in their bikes and skis. The beautifully wide transition area offered more than adequate space for each athlete and with each lap of running and biking passing through it would be the focal point for this much awaited race.
It was here that we finally met up with Pavel Andreev and heard the full story. He had planned to cross the border from Russia into Estonia but had been held up on the Russian side. Finding this route mysteriously blocked he drove down through Belarus, then to Latvia and up onwards to Otepää. He had arrived at the hotel at 08:50 for the 10:00 start. Without sleep but full of determination he was there to defend his title and represent his country.
Joining him on the start line would be teammates Pavel Yakimov, 2 times World Junior Champion, 2 times World U23 Champion, 2011 ETU Junior Champion and 2012, 2013 ETU U23 Champion and Elite bronze medal winner in last year in Otepää and the 2010 ETU U23 Champion and top 10 finisher here last year, Dmitriy Bregeda. The Italians, fired up from last weekend’s race in Romania were here. Daniel Antonioli would be hoping to turn the tables on Giuseppe Lamastra and Norway’s Øivind Bjerkseth and Kristian Monsen would be flying the Norwegian flag. The race was also the Latvia Championships and cross-country ski expert, Oskars Muiznieks was hoping to impress his Federation President, Vilnis Prieditis who was cheering on his athletes.
The U23 Men started with the Elite Men. Favourite for the title was the 2013 ETU Junior Champion, 2014 World U23 silver medal winner, 2016 European and World U23 Champion, Roman Vasin. He would be doing his best to keep control of the 2016 World Silver U23 medal winner, Davide Vuerich who would be working with his teammate, 2014 World Junior Bronze medal winner, 2016 European Junior Silver and 2016 World Junior Bronze, Marco Liporace. Vasin would be supported by his young teammate, 2016 World and European Junior Champion, Anton Matrusov and joined by Kirill Tarakanov.
Estonian hopes rested upon Arthur Kooser.
It was going to be tough out there. Tough for those who had rested and even tougher for those who had been denied sleep.
Without losing too much energy, it was Andreev who led the men into T1. The bike course would be a long opportunity for the pack to chase and possibly catch him. Teammate Yakimov was well-placed to help out.
Vasin led the U23 and was well-placed to help out at the very front with Andreev of he could catch him.
Muiznieks had a great run and, if he could stay with the pack, would be in for a chance of an appearance on the podium. Antonioli came into T1 comfortably ahead of Lamastra but with the bike and ski ahead, had he done enough. The Latvian was having the race of his life and was leading the pack around sections of the course.
A chance to look back and check to see just who was following him showed that the race favourite was tucked in with Monsen and Bregeda; a dangerous mix.
Vasin’s early command of the race had been taken and he was now alongside Kooser. For the next lap the Muiznieks tucked in behind the Russian machine, which was being pulled around the slippery bike course by Monsen and it was indeed Monsen who led them into T2 as the fog hung over the stadium.
Andreev had recently raced the Russian National Cross Country Championships and on skis he was always going to be the man to beat. Would his epic journey here be too much?
It was Bregeda who was first out to the mount line with his skis. But then Andreev was ready for the final race to the finish line.
Behind him there was drama as Muiznieks forgot to put his helmet in the box provided. Rather than face a time penalty out on the course, a loud shout from his coach sent him back to the bike, where he carefully placed the helmet in the box, out of harm’s way. Valuable seconds lost after all the hard work he had done on the bike. His power as a cross-country skier would now be put to the ultimate test. He was up against the world’s very best, Pavel Andreev.
Out of the corner of his eye, Bjerkseth could see the U23 race leader. Vasin had re-taken control and would be company for the Norwegian out on the skis.
Andreev had ripped the race open. He had powered away on the snow and was building his lead.
Nothing could stop him. He gave a masterclass in racing and takes his fifth European title to go with five World titles. It was Bregeda who would join him on the podium but with his cross-country skills shining it was Muiznieks who had taken the silver.
The U23 was a Russian clean sweep with Vasin taking gold. Tarakanov held off Matrusov to tke silver. They received their medals at the evening ceremony.
The Elite and U23 Women would also be racing together. Defending World Champion from Russia, Yulia Surikova would have stiff competition from Austria’s Romana Slavinec. The former world U23 champion and bronze medal winner in Zeltweg last year, is now working and although her employer gives her time to train, she must nevertheless juggle a working life with all the training that goes with world-class racing. The big threat to them both would come from former World and European champion, from the Czech Republic, Helena Erbenová. Her return to the snow has created quite a lot of excitement and everyone knew she could really create some excitement at the front end of the race. The dynasty that is the Grabmüller Family was represented by mother and daughter in the Elite and by the father in the Age Groups. Šárka Grabmüllerová with 23 podium finishes and fresh from her silver medal last weekend in Cheile-Gradistei was joined by daughter, Aneta Grabmüllerová, 2010 and 2011 World Junior Champion, 2010 European Junior Triathlon Champion and the 2016 World U23 Cross Triathlon Champion. Medal hopes indeed for the Czech Republic. Coming to the race with a gold medal won just a few days ago is the Slovakian long-distance specialist, Kristina Lapinová. Would this be too much after her powerful and energy-draining race last weekend?
For the Elite Women it was Slavinec who had pushed hardest on the run. Just behind her came Surikova and Erbenová. It was these two who worked hard to catch the Austrian but Lapinová was not far behind.
Slavinec kept up the pressure and although the chasing athletes could see her, they just could not catch her. Erbenová made sure that her return to the sport would be noticed by everyone and it was Surikova who found herself working to the max to keep up with the Czech.
Slavinec held her lead to T2 and then set off on the ski. They all knew that Surikova had a time penalty due to her failing to put her running shoes into her box and so it was that immediately upon leaving T2, the Russian headed to the Penalty Box for those long seconds. It was out on the skis that Erbenová’s power and skill came to the fore as she caught Slavinec and kept Surikova away. Gold and the title once more to the Czech Republic.
Slavinec can take home a silver medal to show her new employer and her family and Surikova settled for bronze.
For the U23 Women it was Rogozina who took early command, with a great run. Over a minute clear, she was able to take her time and avoid any mistakes in T1.
Behind her came Baiguzova but she would have to have the ride of her life to catch Rogozina. Once out on the ski course, Rogozina was unbeatable. Nearly four minutes quicker than Baiguzova she had it sewn up and cruised to an easy victory. For Sakhno it was a bad day at the office and any hopes of her winning a medal were lost when she cut part of the run course early on in the race. Although she crossed the line third, the disqualification gave the bronze medal to Kristina Biriukova RUS.
As for the U23 men, the medals were presented at the evening ceremony.
In a couple of days time we will have the Age Group report and photos up for you.
Find more details about this event - 2017 Otepää ETU Winter Triathlon European Championships