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Sunrise on the Barren Plain of Heroes
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom in beach transition area/
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 what happened.

 

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.

It was a man.

His head was buried and his arms were big but pointed toward the ground. Behind him were two legs, turning around slowly- gently almost.

He shot by and was gone.

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.”

It hit me.

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 pulling away.

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 the run…

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.

It wasn’t. He did.

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 too.

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.

Thank you Bjorn. You gave us all something to see, something to talk about, something to write about and something to remember. That’s huge.

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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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