The ITU World Triathlon Series made its' annual trip to Yokohama this month where professional tri-athletes from all over the world competed in the fourth event of the triathlon season.
The first event of the season was held in Abu Dhabi (UAE) in March, before races in both Gold Coast (Australia) and Cape Town (South Africa) in April. The Yokohama race came at a crucial time in the season and is followed by five more this year; in Leeds (England), Stockholm (Sweden), Hamburg (Germany), Edmonton (Canada) and Cozumel (Mexico), respectively.
The event, christened 'High Speed in the Harbour' by the organisers, took place over the weekend of 14th -15th May and saw hundreds of competitors racing over two different course lengths. Saturday saw the Elite Women, Elite Men and Paratriathlon races while Sunday was host to various age group races and the relay. The 'Standard Distance' race was 51.5km long, consisting of a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike and a 10km run while the 'Sprint Distance' was exactly half the distance.
The focal point of the weekend's activities was in Yamashita Park, right in the heart of Yokohama's stylish pier district. The swim consisted of two laps in the harbour, the bike took the tri-athletes as far away as the famous Cup Noodle Museum, and the run culminated in a breathless sprint back into Yamashita Park. The 51.5km route showcased many of Yokohama's great tourist attractions while also treating the thousands of triathlon fans in attendance to a thrilling day's action.
Apart from the 2010 season, Yokohama has been a host of one of the 8-10 events that make up the ITU racing calendar since 2009. This year's iteration bore particular importance as it was the final selection event before this summer's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The ITU lists 295 men and 257 women as potential qualifiers for the sport's prestige event in Rio, but with only 55 places available for each race. All the athletes competing in Yokohama knew this race was their last hurdle in almost two years of gruelling races to make it into the coveted top-55 to qualify, with several spots coming down to the wire.
The women's race was won at a canter by American Gwen Jorgensen; winning here for the fourth year in a row. She broke away from the main pack early in the run and never looked likely to relinquish her lead. The main focus of the women's race however was not on the rampaging American, but on the eight Japanese athletes in the rest of the field. Buoyed on by the home fans, local favourite Ai Ueda put in her best performance of the season to finish in third, much to the delight of the roaring grandstand.
The men's race was a slightly more competitive affair, but one with an equally predictable result. Series leader Mario Mola of Spain was eventually too strong for both Crisanto Grajales of Mexico and Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway, but with all three members of the podium finishing under 1:48.
Unfortunately, none of the 7 Japanese men taking part could do enough to qualify for the Rio Olympics but they were cheered home by the vocal support nonetheless. Led by Ueda, however, the women's team will be sending a very impressive tally of 4 tri-athletes to Brazil come August.
While it will be another year until the world's best tri-athletes return to Yokohama's historic harbour, there isn't long until the next one in Leeds or until the greatest show of them all; the Olympics themselves.