Some movies start with a scene frozen in time, paused just before the climax and then rewind to the beginning of the story for the build up. If the 2015 Triathlon Gerardmer were a movie it would begin with the prize banquet and the moment just before Hector Guerra pops the cork off his 1.5 liter bottle of champagne. Catching a glimpse of him ripping the foil, I hopped (or hobbled) off stage and the rest of the guys from the top 8 stepped back towards the race committee. With nowhere else to turn and revenge in his eyes, Guerra aimed the bottle at the front table consisting of 8 people, 6 were members of my family and 2 were family friends.
I was excited to return to Gerardmer, where I won the ITU European Long Course Championships in 2008. It’s a family run race and I was particularly excited to share this race with my father, Paul Gambles, and family friend Kim White, who were both with me on the start line four days after they arrived from Australia. A week earlier I had raced the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Austria, my first race back after a break from running due to injury. It sounds funny to say but the World Championships were a test for Gerardmer. I needed to know I could run pain free for 21km and Zell am See showed me that I could.
Sylvan Sudrie was the man to watch. He is the current record holder and was going for his fifth long course title in Gerardmer, France, his home country. Manuel Kung, renowned as one of the fastest swimmers, was also there so I positioned myself between the two. Then the gun went off. I was no match of Kung’s speed but managed to sit comfortably in the lead group. I conserved my energy for what is the hardest half distance bike course I’ve had the pleasure of doing.
After a fast transition, I mounted my Trek Speed Concept in third position. Within 2km we started our first climb.
A few things I’ve learned about Sudrie from racing him for many years:
- He likes to race by himself from the front
- He’s a very good climber
- He descends like a professional cyclist
Knowing these things shaped my strategy for this race:
- Stay with him on the climbs
- Hang on for dear life on the descents
- Make him hurt on the flats
This plan worked perfectly and I managed to shake Sudrie halfway through the ride.
Getting a lift from leading, I continued to push on but little did I know the race was just beginning. With 20km to go I saw Hector Guerra, the former professional cyclist who started triathlon after his two-year ban for EPO, behind me. I had just broken away from Sudrie, who has the bike record on this course, and Guerra passed me on the climb like I was my mum riding to the coffee shop.
I started the run with a 3-minute deficit and 6 minutes in front of the chase group. Frustration and anger fueled the first of three laps of the run. Frustrated that I was not in my top run form, and angry that the race was being led by a drug cheat.
I managed to reduce my deficit to 90 seconds by the start of the last lap. I’m happy to say that a major part of my rehabilitation has been training in Newton Shoes. This is due to the responsiveness of the shoe which has helped to improve my overall efficiency. I believe the shoe complements my running style and I am looking forward to seeing what I can do in them as I continue to get my running back on track.
I gritted my teeth and ran as hard as I could, in the end I was 13 seconds short of catching Guerra. It was a bittersweet finish and despite what the French media fabricated, I was happy with my performance but disappointed with the outcome.
Back to the Banquet
As I heard my name called at the prize banquet I was faced with the dilemma athletes have when they share the stage with people who have been convicted of doping. I did not applaud for Guerra, and along with most of the other pros on stage I did not shake his hand. It’s a small but obvious statement letting him know that we don’t want him, or any other doper, in our sport. As professional athletes there are a lot of things we can’t talk about publicly; contracts with sponsors, race officials we can’t challenge, and people who cheat to win and think they deserve the prize. Sometimes the only thing we have is our actions and I can sleep better at night knowing that I race with integrity and dignity.
Unfortunately my act of defiance did not come without conflict. The minute he was handed his magnum bottle of champagne he feverishly went at the foil, even using his teeth to ensure that he had it open while we were all on stage. Without any of us in clear shot, he turned on my family and friends and sprayed them all in champagne. This obvious act of retaliation was the most unprofessional and immature display I’ve ever seen from a “pro”.
My father was the first to respond. Despite the fact that my Dad had to pull out of the run due to a back spasm, he quickly and without hesitation threw a plastic water bottle at Guerra. He also slipped on the floor, which was now covered with champagne. Guerra managed to soak everyone and everything at the table, including Kim who raced the day before, and my seventy-year-old uncle visiting from England. I can’t repeat what Sage said as she confronted Guerra, but he left soon after. We moved to another table and no one came to clean up the mess. Needless to say it was the most entertaining prize banquet I’ve ever attended.