Are Ironman’s virtual 70.3 Worlds qualifiers a good idea?

In an effort to increase the cachet and add an indirect revenue stream to its fledgling virtual racing offering, Ironman has dangled the carrot of qualifying for the yet-to-be-rescheduled Ironman 70.3 World Championship in New Zealand.

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It’s the latest initiative from the race organiser that has witnessed tens of thousands of triathletes sign up to compete or complete its free weekly virtual challenges on either the turbo and treadmill or by uploading data files.

As part of its Ironman Virtual Club, slots to the postponed 70.3 World Championship in Taupo can now be won through a four-race duathlon series – comprising one 70.3 distance and three standard-distance race formats – with points weighted towards the longer distance. For the 70.3, a 5km run replaces the 1.9km swim. A 3km run starts the shorter event.

The Championship Series kicks off with its VR10 challenge this weekend (5-7 June), with each event having to be completed within a 12-hour period and the top three results counting. It’s free to take part, but while it might add a welcome incentive for many triathletes, it also raises yet more questions over the veracity of virtual racing that can be largely brushed aside when it’s just for fun.

Launched in partnership with training set-up Rouvy, Ironman VR was announced on 1 April and was no April Fool – although if you were to put too much faith in the results you might be taken for one. It was hastily and understandably rolled out in reaction to Ironman’s Covid-related quandary. After all, few industries are hit harder by a pandemic than global events organisers. Timing for its cash flow running dry could hardly have been worse. Ironman was already facing legal proceedings from investors over a disappointing share flotation, and was on the cusp of pushing through an agreed sale to new owners.

Ironman does deserve credit for acting swiftly, though, and all too aware of potential for result manipulation, the organiser is now ratcheting down and set to introduce new rules that will weed out eyebrow-raising performances and attempt to give virtual reality racing increased credibility.

It’s already split its offering into Classic and Challenge divisions, the latter for the more serious contenders and the one that will be used for Ironman 70.3 Worlds qualification. In this class, cycling is restricted to the stationary bike on Rouvy (not on the road), with runs conversely having to be completed outdoors (not on a treadmill).

Without losing ourselves in the weeds of this, Ironman CEO Andrew Messick has pledged to imminently release updated rules including pulling together an ‘e-racing bio athlete passport’ that will provide a holistic look at individual race performances and assess if any mistakes (aka cheating) has taken place. The forensics mean results won’t be posted until the Tuesday following the weekend’s racing.

Ironman is trying a fail-fast policy and prepared to make tweaks as it goes. If it doesn’t pass muster for the community, Messick says his instinct will be to “shut it down”, the chief exec being well aware opinions remain divided about whether virtual racing has any compatibility with the traditional side of the sport.

Certainly, many professionals, while embracing the concept of virtual racing with Ironman or the popular pro Zwift races, have been at pains to point out it shouldn’t be seen as a proxy for regular racing. The Professional Triathlon Organisation recently pulled back from attempting the 2020 Collins Cup in a virtual format on Zwift.

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As for the prize on offer, Ironman is not a brand associated with subtly, but this is about as light-touch as it gets for morphing virtual racing into real world scenarios. It’s been reported by triathlete.com that only ‘around 100’ [Ironman Will Award 70.3 World Championship Slots At Virtual Races]  slots will be given out initially – a tiny percentage for a 70.3 world championship that is typically packed with 6,500 age-groupers over two days of racing.

Of all the potential triathlon races for 2021, it also has to be one of the more questionable to take place, particularly with anything close to resembling an international field. New Zealand, helped by its geography, is just about the gold standard for managing Covid, and staging a half-Ironman with triathletes flying in from all over the world won’t rank highly in the Kiwi’s health-centric list of priorities.

So, while purists becoming hung up on Ironman handing out a handful of Taupo spots cheaply shouldn’t be an issue, what might be more concerning to traditionalists is if this is the direction of travel for triathlon, and the thin end of the wedge.

If Ironman can make VR racing work just enough, it’s only a short hop to attaching sought-after places for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, and with two editions planned for 2020, in February and October, and scarce opportunities to qualify at ‘real world’ events there are currently a few going around.

It might also be worth noting that Ironman’s modus operandi is to demand entrance fees immediately after qualification, when the adrenaline is still pumping. Given its track record for refunds and that future races currently hang in the balance, you might want to give some considered thought before handing over the cheque.

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