Fifteen teams lined up in Lisbon for Friday’s Mixed Relay Olympic Qualification event, where the likes of Brazil, Denmark and Norway knew that a podium finish would be a crucial step in their bid for a place on the first ever relay start at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
With eight countries including World Champions France, the USA and Australia among those already qualified and not starting in Portugal, the door was open for an even more unpredictable relay than usual, and it was the strong Belgian squad of Claire Michel, Jelle Geens, Valerie Barthelemy and Marten Van Riel who came home with the gold, Italy and Switzerland scooping up the remaining quota places available with silver and bronze.
It was still far too tight to call at the halfway mark, as Norway and Denmark both looked well placed to launch an assault on the precious podium, but by the time Van Riel came out of the water and Max Studer slipped in transition, there was no doubt as to the podium three, a dramatic sprint finish for second seeing Nicola Azzano home just ahead of the Swiss.
“They put me in the perfect position for the last leg, I just had to finish it,” said the Belgium Hammers’ Van Riel. “I went all out and it is just phenomenal to finish first.”
Ireland’s Chloe Pollard had put in a great swim as the first leg got underway, Melanie Santos close behind for Portugal in second and followed up the beach by Italy’s Angelica Olmo and Lotte Miller for Norway.
It was a long run into transition, and by the time they had mounted their bikes, Belgium and Brazil were nearly 15 seconds back, Spain also looking to make up ground. Pollard then dropped to the back of what had quickly become a large lead group up the first hill before it began to break up on the fast downhill, headed by Miller.
An incredibly efficient second transition from Alberte Kjær Pedersen saw her out on the run with daylight behind on the first of two 850m laps, Michel and Switzerland’s Alissa Konig giving chase. As they approached the first (non-contact) handover, Olmo was also flying, closing right up on Pedersen.
With the likes of Kristian Blummenfelt, Fernando Alarza and Jelle Geens out next for Norway, Spain and Belgium, it was always going to be a breathless second leg, but they took their time closing the 30-second gap to leaders Denmark, Switzerland and Italy, not helped by the strengthening current in the water.
The chasers managed to haul back the lead to 20 seconds. Unlucky Brazil had wetsuit issues that halted their race, and it was Geens, Alois Knabl and Alarza working well together on the bike. It was the Dane Emil Holm first out of transition having gained some precious seconds over Gianluca Pozzatti, and then Geens and Blummenfelt got to within 14 seconds with one lap to go of the run.
The lead was reduced to a whisker as Blummenfelt and Geens charged towards the handover zone to pass the honours to Solveig Lovseth and Valerie Barthelemy , and it was the Belgian who produced a fine swim to move into striking distance.
Italy’s Alice Betto still had 7 seconds over Barthelemy and Denmark’s Sif Bendix Madsen as Norway dropped back, Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig now 13 seconds off the Italians and soon taking charge of the bike in an effort to close in on the leaders.
The Italian advantage was 10 seconds at the bike bell, Norway and Spain by now over 40 seconds back in 5th and 6th place, Austria and Portugal looking well out of contention nearly two minutes down.
Just a lap later, Betto was caught and there was nothing between the front four as they hit T2, where it was Spirig fastest out onto the run. Barthelemy was doing all she could not to let Swiss star get away but it was still Max Studer who had a 9-second lead over Marten Van Riel as the final leg got underway, Spain’s Miriam Casillas crashing by T2 to effectively end the Spanish challenge.
Denmark and Italy were just 17 seconds back at this stage, while Gustav Iden got into the water 75 seconds back from Studer and surely with too much to do to find a podium spot for Norway.
Out of the water, Studer had been all but caught by Van Riel, Henrik Klemmensen for Denmark going well as a huge podium began to look within reach only for issues in T1 to hamper his flow, Nicola Azzano moving into third for Italy
The unfortunate Studer also slipped in transition and van Riel seized the opportunity to break out ahead on his own.
It was another trademark ride from the powerful Van Riel as he put 27 seconds into Studer and Azzano by the bell, Klemmensen by now too far back to be able to maintain the podium challenge.
Azzano had a great T2 to set out on the run with precious seconds over Studer, but neither had any realistic chance of catching Van Riel and it was the Belgian at the tape by 50 a remarkable seconds.
An incredible sprint see-saw then played out between Italy and Switzerland before Azzano eventually was able to dig in one last time and earn the Italian silver ahead of Studer, Iden for Norway taking fourth, Klemmensen and Denmark in fifth.
“It’s a big accomplishment for a small country but we’ve been strong and this is great motivation going into the Games,” said Belgium’s Barthelemy. “Our sport coordinator said he would tattoo a hammer on himself if we podium, so I think we can already start putting together some sketches,” added Geens
“We are incredibly happy and proud and we knew we needed that podium and really performed as a team,” said Italy’s Azzano. “We pushed very hard together, i’m so so happy,” added teammate Betto
“We are very happy with third and Olympic qualification for the team,” said Switzerland’s Spirig. “My goal was to give Max the best position I could and I pushed hard to get back to Betto and then on the run the same. It is very exciting to start in a team in my fifth Olympics, and the young athletes are very excited.”
For the full results, click here
|Results: Mixed Relay|
|1.||Team I Belgium||BEL||01:23:58|
|2.||Team I Italy||ITA||01:24:48|
|3.||Team I Switzerland||SUI||01:24:48|
|4.||Team I Norway||NOR||01:25:50|
|5.||Team I Denmark||DEN||01:26:12|