Sunrise on the Barren
Plain of Heroes
Editorial by Tom Demerly.
When a star is created there is
an enormous generation of cosmic energy. The energy
hurtles into the surrounding void, casting shadows
and giving light to places where there was none.
I saw the formation of a star. Witnessed the birth
first hand, I didn’t need a telescope. I saw
it with my naked eyes, right before my eyes. And
it was an incredible spectacle.
I watched history being
made in a small way. What I saw people would still
be talking about for years. I replay it in my head
several times a day. I see it the way you see an
accident, in slow motion. Time dilation they call
that. Like when you can see a bullet fly downrange
from a rifle barrel on a damp morning. Ever see
that ultra-high speed footage of the bullet hitting
the apple? It seemed like that.
This is the story of
A few weeks before Ironman New Zealand someone showed me
a photo of a man’s bike. He was obviously a crackpot
since his bike setup was absurd. Ridiculous. This guy was
doing Ironman with handlebars so low it looked like you couldn’t
even ride around the block. It was stupid. You and I both
know you can’t ride 112 miles like that. The guy who
owned this ridiculous bike probably wouldn’t make it
past the first lap on the bike.
I added another spacer under my handlebar stem to raise my
handlebars. Hey, I’ve done three Ironmans, this was
my fourth. I know you must be comfortable to have a good race.
That foreign guy’s bike was ridiculous.
I got to New Zealand for my race. People were talking about
the guy. Others had seen the picture. A few people had seen
the guy’s bike in person. Yeah, he really was going
to ride his handlebars that low. Can you imagine? Ridiculous.
Didn’t anyone tell him? This is Ironman. You just don’t
do that here.
Then someone said they had heard stories about the guy. He
had been doing some incredible training. His name was “Sven”
or “Be-orn” or some such thing.
Yeah right. We’ve all heard this before. The “pro
from Dover”. They never materialize. It never pans out.
Just another poser waiting to be sacrificed on the altar of
distance and wind that is Ironman. And now, on a ridiculous
bike position doomed to certain failure, and subsequent humiliation.
Some more stories surfaced. And more people were talking.
It was the topic of discussion at breakfast: “Did you
see that guy’s bike? Is he actually going to try to
ride it like that?” The grains of this fable were being
ground through the rumor mill.
Race morning came. His bike was in the rack with the pros
alright. But their handlebars were all higher than his were.
Under the blaring floodlights of the predawn transition area
people gawked and pointed at the one bike in the transition
area with the impossibly low handlebars. Clearly this man
was a joke. Everyone knew it. But he went through the motions
on race morning like everything was normal. Like maybe he
knew what he was doing.
My race started and I had my own affairs to attend to. Swim,
change, ride, eat, drink , pee. All the stuff you have to
do and pay attention to during a race. I got on my bike after
a quiet swim and started out into the New Zealand Middle Earth
as the clock impartially ticked away.
I should be seeing the race leaders
at some point riding back toward me on their return from the
turnaround. That will be cool. I’ll try to pick out Scott
Molina or Norman Stadler or Ken Glah or Cameron Brown. Those
are the real players at this race. I had forgotten about that
joker with the low handlebars.
It happened on a flat section. The pavement was rough and
I had a strong tailwind, meaning coming back this way would
be a strong headwind. My computer said I was going 31 mph.
Full cry. My bike was perfect. I was going good. It was cool
and slightly damp. Everything going according to plan. I should
hit the turnaround in about 15 minutes if I keep my head down.
When you see a motorcycle coming toward you slowly it is
either a camera or an official. There was no rider with him,
but the cameraman was holding a big TV camera, shooting something
slightly to the rear of the motorcycle. They were going pretty
fast into the wind. Motorcycles can do that. Wish I had a
motorcycle for the trip back into this wind.
My angle changed. I saw something behind and beside the motorcycle.
This red and white thing. It looked like, well, like a fighter
plane crouched against the holdback on the catapult deck of
an aircraft carrier deck waiting for the shooter to give the
wave to launch the aircraft.
His head was buried and his arms were big but pointed toward
the ground. Behind him were two legs, turning around slowly-
I went up on my base bars and looked behind me. What the
hell? That can’t be the leader. Where’s Brown?
Stadler? Glah? Byrn? Molina? Did that guy turn around early?
I was distracted now. What was going on?
A long time went by. Way too long for that guy to have been
a part of the race. I thought about it for a minute. Sometimes
TV producers need to get some “color” shots for
the telecast, maybe just an athlete riding along or some artsy-fartsy
footage of a rear wheel rotating on the pavement. That’s
what they were doing: It was a set up shot by someone not
in the race. They were probably shooting footage of his rear
wheel as it turned over the rough pavement. This would be
what you saw every time they cut to a commercial. That certainly
explains why the guy had his head so low- looking between
his knees at the rear wheel. He was watching the shot, helping
the cameraman. That explains it.
A long time went by.
Maybe 10 minutes had passed. Then I saw the race leaders.
I saw Norman Stadler on his new black Kuota carbon fiber
bike . I saw Cam Brown, Molina was there- looking good. I
think Gordo was in there too, big guy, always in the action.
Another fella, maybe Glah. That was about it for the leaders.
Pretty cool. It’s fun to be in the race with these guys
and see the leaders, even if they are already a half-hour
up the road from me.
I reached the turnaround point and headed back into the wind.
It was pretty tough. Going 31 mph on the way out was easy
but now going 19 mph on the way back took a lot of work.
I was catching riders regularly, especially into the headwind
where a little extra fitness, good bike position and a dose
of determination make all the difference. A man on a red Kestrel
KM40 came into view and I began to overtake him.
“See the leaders mate?” He asked me.
“Ahhh,” It was hard to find the breath for a
conversation pedaling into the headwind. “Yeah, Stadler
on the front….”
“No matey, they’re off by ten minutes. It’s
Bjorn. He’s giving them a right whacking.”
The guy with the low handlebars. Unbelievable. It was him.
Clearly he was on a suicide mission to scorch the bike course.
He was in the lead by an enormous margin.
Well, of course, that wouldn’t last.
At the beginning of the second loop someone in an aid station
shouted to one of the other riders “Bjorn Andersson
by over ten minutes!”
The man on the low handlebars was still in the lead. And
Now you and I both know that Ironman is not won on the bike.
It’s won on the second half of the marathon. Hellriegal,
Zack, Leder, Larsen and others have shown that. Go as hard
as you want on the bike- we’ll see you again later on
My bike ride went according to plan pretty much and I got
in the changing tent for the run. I vaguely heard someone
talking about “Bjorn Andersson’s 18 minute lead.”
Well, that couldn’t be right. He couldn’t put
18 minutes on the best guys here at Ironman New Zealand. Impossible.
I figured it was a mistake.
Bjorn Andersson averaged 24.6 mph on the bike course in Taupo,
New Zealand and climbed off the bike after 4:33:12. He simply
kicked ass on the bike. His bike position on his Cervelo P3
was radically low and pretty darn unconventional- just like
his bike split.
To an uninformed observer like me it looked like Bjorn Andersson
was taking a huge risk with that position. What I didn’t
understand (until now) is that it was business as usual for
Bjorn Andersson. He had trained extensively in that position.
He had done the research, done the refinement, done the long
hard miles. It wasn’t a fluke it couldn’t have
been. You can’t bluff your way to a good Ironman.
Bjorn Andersson did get caught by a charging Cameron Brown
for the win at Ironman New Zealand, and Cameron Brown’s
awesome run is almost as much of a story as it Bjorn Andersson’s
sensational ride. But that’s another story…
But everyone knew Cameron Brown. This was his fourth Ironman
New Zealand victory. To many of us Bjorn Andersson was a surprise
of the most pleasant kind. In the limelight he was humble
and reserved, certainly not accustomed to the entire fanfare.
But the fanfare came.
The press all reported on Bjorn’s incredible ride.
His name showed up in magazines, websites and Internet forums.
Women posted pictures of themselves on forums to “inspire”
Andersson in his training. His sponsor, Cervelo Cycles, posted
news of his triumphant ride on their website. Ad s showed
up proclaiming Andersson as the “Oberbiker”, a
foreign language moniker that, loosely translated, means “Super
Cyclist”. I disassembled the front end of my Cervelo
P3 and re-configured it as a “Bjorn” bike with
ultra-low handlebars and a radical aerodynamic position. Hey,
given enough time, maybe I can learn to ride in that position
Bjorn Andersson didn’t win Ironman New Zealand. His
incredible ride and unusual bike position did create quite
a stir though. At Ironman Hawaii last October athletes (except
for Norman Stadler) took criticism for racing too conservatively.
Fans and athletes felt they keyed off each other too much
and didn’t just “go for broke” and let the
cards fall where they may. Bjorn Andersson went for broke
at New Zealand. He laid all his cards on the table face up
when he got on the bike in Taupo, and played his best hand.
And what a hand it was.
It is performances like Bjorn Andersson’s that make
this sport sensational: The audacious surprises that sometimes
seem to come from nowhere. It’s part of the reason why
this is never boring, and constantly new.