For the Elite Men, this was time for a showdown. Olympic places are secured and now it is a chance for the most select of titles, European Champion. On the start line were a number who had held this coveted title. On the start line were some new kids on the block who thought that today, perhaps, there was a chance of changing the old guard with the new.
On the start line was also Javier Gomez. Would he have the pace? Would he take risks in a race so close to Rio? Would the rain cause upsets out on the bike course?
So many questions. So much tension. So many athletes and the quayside, with thousands of spectators. Really, this was the place to be. As the athletes were announced the cheers rose for the home nation’s athletes but you could also hear the shouts and cheers from groups of spectators who supported individual athletes.
As if any more excitement was needed, the heartbeats echoed around the quays. Then there was silence ….
So still … and then the explosion of muscles pushing off the pontoon, the crashing of the water as 61 sets of neoprene hit the water and then the arms and legs pulled and kicked away from the crowds out into the calm waters.
The turn buoy was really a place in hell for some as the leaders accelerated away from it leaving those to fight their way around the sharp turn.
Leading out as usual, was Richard Varga SVK. He swam safely and in front but was beaten into T1 by Spain’s Francesc Godoy. He had a lead of just a couple of seconds. Gomez had a bad swim and was over ten seconds off the lead. He later said it was a tough swim and he made a mistake by not staying closer to the front.
Soon enough though a big pack formed. Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt, with an early-season clutch of ETU and ITU medals, has raced back to back weekends from Madrid, to Cagliari, to Yokohama and then to a domestic race in Dunkerque. He was in the chase pack and doing more than his fair share to try and bridge the gap, which a one point was 41 seconds.
The crowds lined the streets. The cheers could be heard back at the Arena. At the front of the lead group was Switzerland’s Andrea Salvisberg. He looked strong and was first to leave T2. His lead of 40m was enough to delight the crowds but as they left the arena, the cheers were loudest for Gomez who looked determined and who appeared to have played the most strategic game for years.
His work in the pack, urging and pushing and making sure the pace never dropped, had taken his group far into the lead. It was all going to be down to the run but would there be a risk if he kicked early?
After the first lap he did just that. He caught Salvisberg and ran for a while with him but then really pushed.
It was only Russia’s Dmitry Polyanskiy who could hold pace with him and the two pulled further away from the Swiss athlete. Back down the pack two Portuguese athletes were being urged on by their home crowds. João Silva lives only a short distance from the Arena and the crowds were going wild as he and João Pereira seemed to be making their way towards the podium. As each lap took them through the Arena they seemed to get re-charged. Was it at all possible that they could medal?
Gomez was supreme. He had timed his race perfectly. His kick away from Salvisberg was at just the right time and the right place but he had to make sure he had created enough space to take him away from his old rival from Russia. Gomez entered the Arena and the crowds went wild. The cheers were deafening and he cruised down the blue carpet, enjoyed the welcome home and held the finish tape high.
Behind him, Polyanskiy added a few metres to his run by misjudging the final turn. His run pace was enough to give him silver and Salvisberg held on for his best Championship place ever.
As they were enjoying their moment, the crowds erupted in a frenzy of cheering as a sprint of 80m to the finish saw three athletes cross the line in three seconds. Silva’s 30:57 was the fastest run of the day but not quite enough to give him the glory of being first Portuguese athlete. That went to Pereira but he in turn was outrun by the Italian Alessandro Fabian.
With Rio so close, Gomez has made himself heard. With Europe dominating the start lists at the 2016 Olympics and having seen this race today, well, it is going to be an amazing race.