By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
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.”
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.
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.