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Javier Gomez and Michael Raelert haven’t raced one another for over five years and Germany’s Challenge Bahrain champion couldn’t even recall the last set-to, a non-drafting race in 2009 in Los Angeles where the four-time ITU world champion came out on top.
The rare head-to-head of the two foremost middle distance triathletes in the world is one of the most intriguing aspects of Friday’s inaugural Challenge Dubai, the first of a Triple Crown of events that Challenge CEO Zibi Szlufcik today confirmed would pay $1,000,000 to anyone who wins the lot.
The prize purse for this first instalment is a guaranteed $300,000 and that’s the type of carrot that brings 65 professional men, including Britain’s Ritchie Nicholls, Fraser Cartmell, Dan Halksworth, David McNamee, Joe Skipper and Will Clarke to the Middle East. More planned to follow, but a field of this size always sees drop-outs, with the notable ones being Raelert’s countrymen Andreas Dreitz (Bahrain runner-up) and 2008 Olympic champion Jan Frodeno.
The interest in Raelert, 34, is that with the Brownlee brothers sticking steadfast to Olympic distance racing as they prepare for Rio de Janeiro next year, there are few professionals that can hold a torch to Gomez at the half-iron distance. That’s not to say the field isn’t stacked. In-form Australian Tim Reed was third in Bahrain and powerhouse swimmer Andy Potts has made a rare excursion from North America.
Add former 70.3 world champion Terenzo Bozzone, Eneko Llanos, James Cunnama, Luke McKensie, Pete Jacobs and Bart Aernouts and there are still a dozen other contenders who will fancy a podium stab.
Threat on the flat
Yet it is Raelert, who on a flat, fast course should be the biggest threat to Gomez whose ITU World Series ding-dongs with Britain’s best mean he’s raced the 1.9m swim, 90km bike and 21.1k distance sparingly and remains unbeaten. His toughest test came in warding off Frodeno as he captured the Ironman 70.3 world championship in Mont-Tremblant, Canada last year – a feat made more impressive given he‘d retained his ITU crown the previous week.
But Raelert is staggeringly fast too. A two-time Ironman 70.3 world champion himself, no-one will have been more welcoming of the financial investment from the UAE that has led to the money-spinning racing (in triathlon terms) here, in Oman and Bahrain, where he clocked a remarkably 3hr 36mins 4secs in December. Even if no man or women takes the $1,000,000, the guaranteed prize purse in Bahrain will still rise from $500,000 to $800,000.
This is not two boxers verbally jousting before the slugging commences, though. Gomez’s stature is such that his potential nemesis comes across humble, edging towards awestruck. “For me, Javier is the best athlete in the world and it doesn’t matter at which distance,” Raelert says. “It’s an honour to sit next to him and race against him – a dream come true for myself. He’s the guy with the target on his back and I’ve never seen Javi have a bad race.”
Raelert instead prefers to talk up a continental battle of sorts, where the ring-rusty Europeans will take on the Antipodeans already deep into their racing season.
“It’s Europe versus Australia,” he says. “Our first race of the season and no-one knows where we are for form, but given we have Javier, it might be a happy ending for Europe.”
Having accepted the invite to race in Dubai just a week before opening his ITU World Series campaign in Abu Dhabi, Gomez, 31, was in no mood to undermine the generosity of his hosts, chiefly the UAE vice-president an ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maaktoum, and crown prince of Dubai and chairman of the sports council, Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
“I’ll race more in the Middle East whether I win or not,” Gomez says. “It’s going to be a busy year, but it’s been busy for the last 10 years. Still my main focus is the Olympics in 2016, but with this race in February and Bahrain in December it doesn’t impact too much on the World Series.” And pushed on whether he could win only one title in 2015, which he’d go for, Gomez, ever the diplomat, replied: “It would have to be the Triple Crown.”