We’ve all done it. At some point in any athlete’s life they will inevitably sign up for the wrong race or make some sort of organisational blunder. What Elliot Birkbeck, Ironman, father and general cycling zealot did on the other hand was quite spectacular. Already an accomplished triathlete and sportsman Elliot accidentally signed up for the World Championship qualifier triathlon at Dorney Lake in the summer of 2018. Much like a patient going in for a routine operation that took a turn for the worse, Elliot thought he was entering a normal tri only to be thrown in at the deep end.
He tells me this as we roll through the sunny (and gravelly) lanes of the Chilterns in Oxfordshire. His local hills. Fondly recalling the race he lets slip that the beautiful Canyon Aeroad between his legs was but a twinkle in its fathers eye when he secured the coveted entry into the age group sprint distance world championships. Instead he takes pleasure in the fact that his superior training and clear physical strength brought about the result he needed as he rode a 12 year old aluminium Trek Alpha adorned with 10-speed Shimano Tiagra to glory.
A humble and relaxed character off the bike, Elliot is not one to blow his own trumpet, instead he lets the watts do the talking. His ‘do I really need it’ approach to bike tech and training is something we love. In a sport where in many people’s eyes money means speed Elliot’s pre purchase mantra of ‘couldn’t I just train harder’ is certainly very refreshing.
With the World’s approaching at the end of August Elliot’s training is just about at its peak before a well timed taper which should leave him flying in Switzerland. We caught up with him on one of his most intense days to see how we should be doing it.
He tells me that one of the things he most likes about triathlon is the variety in training. He also lets slip that he is secretly an exercise addict and trains every day of the week. It was no surprise then that the day we went to see him he was doing all three disciplines, four if you count the canoe paddle to his favourite swimming spot!
Along with the variety in disciplines to train as a triathlete you are also able to do different sessions in each. For Elliot a week of training consists of some short intervals on the bike but also a longer endurance ride, likewise he does some running sessions on the track and also a longer xc run. This is once again mirrored in his swimming training with a technical swim, intervals and also a longer swim each week. We were there for his longer swim, hence the canoe.
In order to grab the best shots of Elliot gliding through the deep green Thames I piloted the canoe whilst Dan wielded the camera. Unsurprisingly given my weedy cyclist arms and Elliot’s strength and current form we struggled to keep up when he swam upstream, only when he turned around at the halfway point could we get close enough and stay with him.
Dan and I were tired enough from paddling so having finally docked our trusty ship and found out what Elliot had in store after lunch we were horrified. The stuff of nightmares, or if your Elliot dreams. 7 minutes full gas on the bike followed by a 1 km all out effort on foot, repeated 3 times. The word pain cave took a whole different meaning as Elliot donned his lycra and prepared himself for the upcoming challenge.
It didn’t take long for beads of sweat to appear on his forehead neither for his breathing to deepen. Apart from the occasional swig from a Breakaway bidon he was focussed. Once you’ve raced an Ironman you know how to focus and for Elliot 7 minutes can’t of felt like long. Having said that this format of triathlon is raced at a much higher intensity and therefore has its own challenges. One of these being the legality of drafting.
With longer distance races being solo efforts there is little consequence to your position coming out of the swim as you are then racing the clock on your own. However, as Elliot carefully explained, if you come out of the swim in a group and all start the bike leg together then you can work together to grow the gap to the field. Just as in a breakaway during a road race there are tremendous energy savings to be had through drafting. Leaving you fresher for the run and with a gap to riders behind. This has been Elliot’s biggest swim training motivator having seen the benefits a group in the bike can bring.
With the hard work done and the sun beginning to set it was back to being dad for Elliot. But what about the race?
Taking place in Lausanne, Switzerland there is sure to be stunning scenery, not that Elliot will be focussed on that. The swim, bike and run will be a whirlwind of noise and energy for the athletes as well as anyone there to cheer them on as they fly round the centre of town. There are a couple of punchy looking ramps to the bike section that will surely sting the legs.
We are in awe of the level of training, hard work and dedication that goes into preparing for a triathlon such as this and having spent a day with Elliot where we were knackered by the end of it just taking photo’s we can’t wait to hear how it goes on the day!