Head-to-head racing is an intimate situation with nowhere to hide. Your competitor hears your breathing and can sense when you are struggling. No words need be exchanged.
If you are feeling good in a head-to-head battle you get consumed with one question: when am I finally going to drop this pest. If you are struggling to hold pace another thought grips you: just take another step. Just take another step! But if it’s an equal volley, likely both of you are trading punches trying to get the other one to crack.
I’m not sure which of these best describes a head-to-head battle I had at the Nice International Triathlon with Simon Lessing in 1993. So, let me tell you the story and you can decide.
Simon Lessing would be hitting the Promenade Des Anglais for the first time to contest for the crown. He was the reigning ITU Olympic Distance Champion and one of the deadliest runners in the sport. Growing up in South Africa, he was weaned on a country of incredibly fast distance runners. That early experience would serve him well in Nice.
We’d only had one other matchup before our June 13th battle in Nice. It was an Olympic distance race on an extremely hilly, technical course in Embrun, France. I crashed while leading the bike. Fortunately, I got up and kept going anyway.
That race took place one year earlier in 1992. Even though I was leading at the moment of the crash, Simon was closing fast. Hitting the pavement didn’t help pad my lead in the least. In the end he nearly ran me down. He certainly got my attention. Lessing just put himself on my list of athletes to never, ever underestimate. A year later when I heard that Simon would be racing in Nice, I knew he was an immediate contender.
He is a stronger swimmer than I am. So he was out of the water ahead of me. Lessing also put together a great ride that year. I never once saw him on the bike. News about time gaps was incomplete. I never really knew where he was.
In general I’m not a great descender as you heard in my story from Embrun. I can climb with just about anyone, but I’m pretty cautious heading down the other side. In fact, I’d only had what I would consider nine days in my entire life where I descended with any kind of skill and courage. Those nine days were at my previous nine Nice International Triathlons. I wanted to make this my 10th great descent!
My speed was about as fast as I knew I could go without much risk. But what I didn’t know was that the line I was going to draw (which was completely different than when there were cars on the road during training) would take me directly over pavement that had these two strange wavy buckles in it. And they were hidden in shadows.
It forced my front wheel up off the ground. It was so far off the ground and I was going so fast that it missed hitting the second buckle. I thought this is it, I’m going down!
Your back tire can skip up off the road like that and it’s fairly easy to recover. But when a front tire leaves the ground, especially when you are descending at high speeds and leaning heavily into the turn, it’s usually a guaranteed crash.
But the Nice gods were watching. My tire came back down on the ground and stuck like glue. It didn’t slip out even though my weight was way too far inside the arch of the curve and I’d been thrown even further into the lean. My record of descending in Nice amazingly stayed at 100% perfect!
Still a bit rattled from the near crash as I came into transition I tried to reset my brain. I threw on my running shoes and turned to head out onto the run course. Just as I turned I saw something that at first completely baffled me. It was Simon Lessing just standing there looking at me. You normally don’t way up for your competition, but that’s exactly what Simon was doing.
(Stay Tune For Part Two)
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I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.