The Rise of the Everyman: How Triathlon Is Changing.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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As Ironman participant numbers continue to swell and average speeds come down the pro athlete marketing methodology is less relevant.

Age grouper Dan Stubleski of Washington, Michigan has won the overall race at the 2015 Ironman Florida in a time of 8:36:06.

Stubleski’s time would have won the Ironman World Championships in Kona as recently as 1985 and beat Ironman legend Dave Scott for the overall World Championship. Perhaps more impressive is that, if Stubleski had done this time at Kona in 1997, he would have been second overall to German sensation Thomas Hellriegel.

Dan Stubleski’s incredible performance is made more remarkable by the fact that Stubleski is not a pro athlete. He’s “just a guy”, an everyman. Given, Stubleski’s training and dedication are anything but average. But what Dan Stubleski has accomplished demonstrates something significant about triathlons: Pros don’t matter as much in triathlon anymore. The sport is changing. Dramatically.

The age group performance of Dan Stubleski at Ironman Florida, a non-pro Ironman, is an outlier, an exceptional effort that recalibrates our perception of what age-group “hobbyist” athletes are capable of.

Without realizing it Stubleski brought to life the fictional plot of one of endurance sports most enduring classic tales, The Purple Runner by Paul Christman, in which an amateur wins the London Marathon and breaks the two-hour barrier. It’s an enduring fable, a Cinderella story, and Dan Stubleski made it real. Ask any triathlete in Michigan with a social media account who won the Ironman in Kona and they probably can’t tell you. Ask them who won Florida, and they’ll tell you it was Dan Stubleski.

Another thing Stubleski’s performance reinforces is the notion that the triathlon industry is increasingly out of touch with their consumership. Bike companies still focus their promotional campaigns on sponsored “pros” paid six-figure amounts.

That approach isn’t relevant to the average triathlete- the middle 80%- anymore. In fact, one could argue a personality like everyman-hero Dan Stubleski is significantly more marketable than a six-figure pro. And, if I were a big bike brand paying performance bonuses to my pro triathletes, I would do well to ask these pros, “Have you sold anything lately? This age group guy just stole your headlines.”

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Michigan age group triathlete Dan Stubleski at the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

Triathlon has evolved into a participant sport, not a spectator sport, analogous to softball and bowling leagues. People want to do the sport, not watch the sport. As a result there is widespread demand for less expensive, more comfortable bikes- not more $10,000 superbikes hawked by paid professional athletes.

Consider this: British triathlon coach Russell Cox published a pragmatic insight into how fast triathletes are really riding at Ironman. His website, www.coachcox.co.uk, displays the data.

Cox discovered the median bike speed for the Men’s 40-44 age category at Ironman Florida, one of the fastest courses in the U.S., was only 17.5 MPH.

Major bike brands generally test and develop their marquee “superbike” in wind tunnels at speeds that are over 30 MPH, nearly twice the real world speed of the average age group triathlete. Giant Bicycles showed wind tunnel comparisons for a bike speed of 50 kilometers per hour or 31 MPH on the webpage for their new Trinity Advanced Pro.

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And while numerous bike brands continue to argue, “aero is everything”, and aerodynamics are a compelling performance component, they are a tired sales component that consumers have become increasingly cynical of. Witness any triathlon Internet forum thread that debates wind tunnel white paper claims. These discussions are cyclical and never ending. There are no clear winners.

The middle 70% triathlon bike buyer is not asking, “Which bike is the most aerodynamic?” They are asking, “What is the most versatile, comfortable and the best value?” The industry has done a dismal job of addressing those questions.

Part of the reason why triathlon bike marketing has been so monotone is a lack of willingness to market triathlon bikes in any other way than the tired “Ours is best in the wind tunnel, here’s the white paper to prove it” approach. The problem is, when every bike manufacturer claims their bike is the fastest, all of them except one are wrong. Consumers can’t tell who is telling the truth, and for the most part, the data isn’t relevant to the 17.5 MPH athlete anyway.

In a room full of bike brands shouting about aero speadsheets and wind tunnel “data” someone needs to whisper about comfort, value, convenience and ease of use.

The triathlon industry hasn’t learned much from contrarian marketing successes like REI’s recent “Closed on Christmas” or Apple’s iconic PC-killing campaigns. Every ad reads the same, claims to be the fastest. Until someone breaks the mold of sameness in triathlon marketing the way Dan Stubleski broke the tape at Ironman Florida then it all just sounds the same, and increasingly, triathlon buyers have stopped listening to the same old pitch.

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5 comments
  1. Raymond White said:

    1. Pro’s were not allowed to race at IM Florida this year so I don’t think he “stole” any headlines.
    2. IM Florida and IM Kona are 2 completely different races. That’s like comparing a flat stage of the tour de France and a mountain stage. “Well they averaged 25 mph on this stage but only 18.6 mph on this stage.” times are irrelevant.
    3. There were multiple other IM triathlons this year that had amateur only fields with an amateur winner , why no publicity for them? IM Boulder, IM Maryland, IM Louisville, IM Lake Placid, etc.
    4. Pro’s definitely don’t make 6 figures unless you are the top 10-20 in the world.
    5. You make some great points about bike marketing.

  2. I made up my own mind years ago. I started tris at age 57. Now I am 72 and have never used a tri bike in competition. I have owned one and got rid of it. Truth for me is, that I enjoy biking too much to compromise comfort, and safety for a few minutes. Goodness, I am just trying to finish before midnight not set land speed records. At my age I fear an accident might be more costly so I don’t do aerobars at all. In fact – and I realize I will be stricken from the triathlete book of life for this – but, I don’t use clipless pedals either. I use mountain bike flat pedals. I want to be able to get keep my feet loose and that has prevented a couple wrecks in the past. And I still can average over 17 -20 mph on triathlons despite my lack of adherence to marketing doctrine.

  3. While his performance is impressive, to compare an IMFL time to Kona is ludicrous! That is like saying my Boston Marathon time would have won the Pike’s Peak Marathon for the last 10 years.

  4. Tom, I’m guessing you missed my comment in your email, no big deal it had a couple of autocorrect/typos. Here is an updated version for you to approve.

    Tom, to be honest you are totally over reacting here. There were NO professional triathletes at Florida this year, there was no pro prize purse offered by ironman and no category for them to register in.

    Dans time and win is impressive, but put in context, a couple of years earlier, IM Swiss then 6x now 7x winner Ronnie Schildknicht had a poor Kona race that year, decided to regroup and after coming 2nd at the Austin 70.3 flew to Panama City and recorded to win and record the then fastest ever North American Ironman time of 7:59:42

    In 2013, the last year Florida was a full pro race, with the same time,Stubleski would have come 22nd, a full 45 minutes after the winner.

    You make some good points, but your main premise is totally flawed, sub-8hr Ironman times are not uncommon and to go from 8:36 to sub 8 is a massive leap.

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