Knowledge and Power

How Cameron Wurf can take the Kona crown

[DM]

He’s the fastest ever athlete to ride the Kona coast plains and to go all the way to the end of Ali’i Drive in 2018. Here’s how the former Olympic rower and Professional Cyclist intends to win the most prestigious title in triathlon.

It could have been the view from a hilltop villa from the lower slopes of the Haute Provence in southern France. To the right was a birds-eye look at an unspoilt beach, with deep-blue water washing onto the pristine sandy beach, then inland, lagoons surrounded by green fertility. To the left were wineries that provided the foreground to hills that stretched as far as the eye could see.

The sun was shining and, only small and sporadic suggestions of cloud hung in the air – triathlete paradise! But I wasn’t taking in any European splendour, I was in Mount Rumney, just outside of Hobart in southern Tasmania at the home of Australia’s Cameron Wurf, the most aggressively moving Ironman triathlete in the world right now.

The view inside was even better, and not only of the sprawling vistas through floor-to-ceiling windows! We triathletes love our bikes, so it was eye-popping stuff to see the stealth-like Team Sky Pinarello Dogma parked right next to the one-of-only-a-handful, custom crafted Pinarello Bolide TT, both sporting the finest trimmings provided to those at the very top of the game.

Cameron was in town following a whirlwind season that saw him rack-up, among other distances, Ironman races. Included was an 8-hour 30-minute win at the challenging Ironman Wales, a second place at Ironman Sweden just three weeks earlier to secure his professional spot for Kona, and of course the Ironman World Championships where he validated his reputation as one of the most dangerous Ironman triathletes with his record-breaking bike split of 4:12.54, onboard the very Bolide I unashamedly caressed in silent appreciation.

In Hawaii, he finished 17th – a more-than-creditable effort considering it was only his second go (his first was in 2015 as an age-grouper), and first as a pro. But, really he was there for the win. While this might sound a little pie-in-the-sky for an athlete as green as Cameron was to the ways and whims of the Kona course, when you know the guy, and you know what he can and has done, you can’t help but feel it was totally possible!

Rowing days: Where all things started for this elite, multisport talent. [DM]

 

Wurf came to Ironman via the very upper echelons of sport, first competing at an Olympic level in Rowing before moving into a professional cycling career that has so far seen him race some of the biggest road and grand-tour races, including the famed Paris-Roubaix classic, the Vuelta a España, and the Giro d’Italia.

Now, as his stable suggests, he rides alongside the current dominating force on the UCI World Tour, Team Sky and more importantly under the watchful eye of Sky’s Head of Performance Support, Tim Kerrison, the man whose fresh ideas based on hard sports science have seen Team Sky become who they are today.

As well as coaching Tour de France winners to multiple victories, Kerrison, native to Queensland, previously worked with Commonwealth, World and Olympic champions in rowing and swimming. Kerrison is Cameron Wurf’s kind of guy – or is it the other way around? Either way, we are clearly witnessing a force to be reckoned with – a force that may well launch the current performance paradigm in Ironman triathlon to the next level, and way beyond!

While talking to Cameron, I was continually, and I have to say delightedly, struck by his self-belief. For him, there is, and always has been, only possibilities.

He is totally buoyed by the exciting state of endurance sports right now and is loving his role within a world that is seeing such achievements as a sub-2-hour marathon now clearly within reach, and his 4:12 ride in Kona is hopefully just the beginning.

“Come in here; check this out.” A large tin shed sits adjacent to the entrance of his open and relaxed hill-top property. Inside, among those various items of paraphernalia we all seem to keep, there’s a weights machine and an indoor trainer, both of which face a particular wall of vertically corrugated tin.

“If I decide to do something, I write it here,” he said pointing to the wall. And there it was – Wurf’s brief yet definite plan for success. ‘ATHENS GOLD’, ‘LE TOUR’, and ‘KONA’, written in large type so as to remain at the forefront of his mind. Aside from Athens, these goals are all works in progress. “I want to win a stage at the Tour (De France) one day, maybe in 2019, and I’d love to go back to the Olympics for the time-trial, and Kona is obviously what I’m working on now.”

The keys to success are two-fold; the first is quite simply his decision to do it, and the second is knowing what he has to do the achieve it! This was certainly the case when he made the transition from rowing to cycling. Wurf was forced to stick to dry land while his wrists recovered from surgery. To stay fit, he started riding, and as he had always suspected, he loved it and found as he raced more and more, he was good at it. He eventually found himself at the AIS European base near Varese in Italy, headed by Australian coach Shayne Bannon.

“I told him about what I wanted to achieve. The first thing he told me was to get my head out of the clouds. I thought about it and realised he was right – it was unrealistic to think that I could ride at the worlds (UCI World Championships, that is) in my first year on the bike. He called me a couple of days later and in true Shayne style – very matter of fact and to the point – he explained that if I wanted to mix with the big boys, I had to prove myself.”

This was music to Cameron’s ears and the fuel to the fire in his soul. “If I could ride and complete two stage races, which he nominated, and then race a time trial in France and win, then he’d let me ride the World Championships.”

So, he raced with the development team in Europe to fulfil his stage-race obligations. The final step was to win the 2007 Chrono Champenois time-trial in Reims, France. He was first, 0.8 of a second faster than his nearest rival and had earned his spot at the World Championships.

From there, professional contracts with some of the big name professional teams followed, including Liquigas riding for Ivan Basso, and Cannondale, and he lived the cyclists dream for a number of years until having a change of heart at the end of the 2014 season.

“I decided in 2015 that I didn’t really want to just end up in a domestique role.

I felt I had more to offer the world, and with the blessing of Cannondale I took a year off.” Perhaps it was the constant pursuit of excellence from a young age, or his years riding professionally in the Italian cycling system, overcoming the language barrier and always striving to demonstrate his worth, but Cam, well, he needed to break free a little; find out what talents lay beneath the obvious.

If we thought riding professionally was a dream, his new role as brand ambassador for Cannondale was heavenly! He spent the next year or so cruising the world, attending races, and riding in charity events. He even went on an all-surfaces ride from Boulder Colorado through the Rockies to Moab Utah with fellow pro journeymen Taylor Phinney and Angus and Lachlan Morton to create Thereabouts 2, the second instalment of the Morton brothers’ epic free-spirited cycling films. It represented the epitome of where Cam was with his career, and it helped him find his own place in the wider peloton of the sport. He arrived at 2:30am, travelling from sea-level to the Colorado altitude, unpacked a brand-new Cannondale Slate gravel-grinder complete with a Lefty front shock, and hit the road later that same morning, “… but knowing the type of journey we were about to undertake, it seemed perfectly fitting.”

And the boys were out to play like kids let out of a classroom at lunch. Cameron was even pulled over by local highway law-enforcers not too far into the first day’s roll-out after feeling the effervescence of their natural competitive juices. Phinney had (naturally) attacked approaching the crest of a 3000m-plus high climb, before descending the other side as if smelling a stage victory in a grand-tour. Not wanting Taylor to have all the fun, the boys, led out by Cameron, broke the generous freeway speed limit in answering Phinney’s challenge.

Teeming snow over massive Rocky Mountain passes, bridging the gap between ridable roads on foot through waist-deep snow, clogging every mechanical part on their bikes with sticky mud, even banding together as a group to achieve 45km/hour for 60km to aid Cameron in riding his Slate with a seemingly unfixable rear flat on a tubeless rim, all became essential ingredients to the success of the journey.
The true meaning of Thereabouts 2 came not so much from its difficulty, but from its truly voluntary nature. The ability to break free just doesn’t exist in the upper-most level of professional cycling.
A rider’s talent is harnessed by the team for success, whatever that may be. But from Boulder to Moab, and everywhere in between, no one was telling Cameron or the other guys which road to take.
As Lachlan pointed out: “Because we decided to do it, we just made it happen …” There it was again – decision, action, success: in pertinacia victoria! Add this to the camaraderie, and Thereabouts 2 was quite the panacea. Said Wurf: “It’s amazing what can happen in 24-hours on a bicycle if you just go out and enjoy the ride.”

Ironman triathlon had been on Cameron’s mind for some time. Cannondale had suggested he do one seeing he was still on their payroll, and Ivan Basso had supported the idea, citing his strengths were perfect for a ride like Kona. While he wasn’t quite there yet, he was to receive a few timely nudges from some very influential people. It was during a charity ride in Aspen shortly after Thereabouts 2 that Cameron had a ‘D and M’ with Lance Armstrong. The topic of conversation surrounded Cam’s year of fun, to which Lance opined there was plenty of time to be living that way at 50, and that perhaps, right then and there, he was wasting his talent just at the age he should be using it. A coin of a meagre value dropped that started his mind racing as to what he should do – get a real job on Wall Street to utilise his economics degree was one option, as was getting back into professional cycling. Another was to do that Ironman, more as a challenge than a career move. And the freedom offered by the individuality of triathlon, a place where he could utilise his powerful two-wheeled talent, appealed to him.

Kona 2017: Cam Wurf validated his reputation as one of the most dangerous Ironman triathletes with his record-breaking bike split of 4:12.54. [KV]

 

But the clincher – a priceless gold coin this time – came when he met a guy by the name of Bonner Paddock. “I listened to Bonner. He has cerebral palsy and he’d done the Hawaii Ironman. He broke 27 bones in his feet and, two years later, he was telling me this story – he still had two fractures in his feet. I told Cannondale to sign me up to the next Ironman.”

Of course, it was Cannondale’s preference that he actually train for it, but Cameron was adamant that he do it sooner. The story of Bonner Paddock gave him a unique perspective. In a strange way, Cam felt that to delay doing the Ironman because he needed to train somehow took away from the effort displayed by Bonner, and in fact would be “disrespectful.”

“So, there was one in about two weeks’ time (August 2015) in Whistler, and I went along and did that … and qualified for Kona as an age-group athlete.” He, in fact, did the tough Whistler course in a very creditable 9:20, placing ninth overall and first age-grouper.

His 2015 Kona experience was made all the richer after he broke three bones in his own foot after striking a rock during a Valentino Rossi-esque move rounding a bend on his bike at a MTB festival.
A subconscious nod to Bonner perhaps, but it was what it was – and it was enough to finish, despite a lack of training owing to the foot injury (not to mention the foot itself hadn’t totally healed), and enough
to push for a come-back for a real shot at glory.

Several months of toying with triathlon training followed, learning to swim better, and some over-exuberant running mileage that led to a calf blowout that again had him questioning his direction. We can all be thankful then, when we compare the combined swim and bike times (excluding transitions) of Cameron’s November 2016 Ironman Arizona effort to that of Jan Frodeno’s fastest ever Ironman distance triathlon at Challenge Roth (7:35.39 if you don’t mind), also in 2016. We mightn’t have had Cameron Wurf in the sport anymore if the numbers weren’t good enough for him, as it was the Arizona race he decided was to be his make or break Ironman. “I thought, if I can’t be in the front pack and get off the bike pretty quick, then I’m just going to scrap it – I’m not even going to bother learning to run.” Knowing his run was still to develop, the idea was to show himself that he already had a firm platform upon which to launch a marathon good enough to challenge for a win at any Ironman race, Kona included.

Swim with the best: Cam Wurf turned to the expertise of Dennis Cottrell (Grant Hackett’s former coach), to help improve his swimming. [DM]

 

So, where Frodeno blasted out a combined swim/bike of 4:53.29 to set up his incredible 7:35 and change, Cam’s AZ comparative combo of 4:55.37 (made up of 49-minute swim and a 4:05 bike) demonstrated that his marathon launch pad was indeed solid. It sealed his total commitment to Kona for 2017 and booked our own front-row spots in front of our various live-streaming devices to watch the story unfold.

As previously mentioned, it’s classic Cameron Wurf to follow a concrete decision with seeking out the knowledge and method on how to turn the decision to succeed into reality. For example, to learn to swim with greater efficiency, Cam visited and worked with Dennis Cottrell, former coach to none other than 2000 and 2004 Olympic 1500 metre gold medallist, Grant Hackett (among other famous swimming names). And to really help things along, he swam alongside Chinese swimming sensation, Sun Yang, also coached by Cottrell, and the first male swimmer in history to earn Olympic and/or World Championship gold medals at every freestyle distance from 200 metres to 1500 metres.

The greatest influence, though, has been Tim Kerrison. At the junction between what Cameron wants to do, and what Kerrison thinks is best lies the greatest possibility for success, and together they work towards it. “I would have never done Wales for example if Tim didn’t suggest it, and when he has taken charge it’s gone well. It’s no coincidence that following my time with the team (Sky) it has always followed with a good result.”

Ironman Cairns 2017: Cam Wurf finished seventh, backing up his impressive ride with one of his best running performances (3:02:35) [KV]

 

From June last year, the results got better and better. Ironman Cairns produced one of his best running performances (3:02:35), “… then I finally put it all together in Sweden and Wales, and that was on the back of being with or around the team.” Wurf clearly performs well in such an environment, having been “institutionalised”, as he puts it, since entering elite rowing programs at the age of 15. To have someone like Tim telling him what to do gives Cameron a huge feeling of security and confidence. And it’s the job of Team Sky to win, and scarcely any team does it better. “That’s their job, and Tim loves his job, and their gratification is in your success.”

Thus, 2017 was very much a year of discovery. The goal at the outset was to race as much as possible and to make sure, at all costs, he earned that rack number on the Kona Pier. Sometimes going to a race was geared more towards learning than achieving results, or building on the lessons of a good result. After his second-place Kona qualifying effort at Ironman Sweden, for example, the natural tendency for most triathletes would have been to rest-up, then start preparations for Hawaii. But it was Kerrison’s belief that it was far better to go to Wales three weeks later and nail down the processes that lead to the Kalmar result. It’s an attitude very much born of a pro-cycling psyche – learn and develop, and keep learning and developing, even if that means failing in the process.

Why? Well, Tim Kerrison is a big believer in failure as a primal learning opportunity. “Look at Bradly Wiggins,” explains Wurf of Kerrison’s reasoning. “When he arrived at the Tour in 2010, they were aiming to win, and it was a disaster!” Wiggins, after what he described himself as a “fluke” fourth place in 2009, placed a thoroughly disappointing 24th in 2010. “But Tim believes it was the best thing that ever happened to Sky. They learned they were doing the wrong thing and they had to change it, which they did.” After unfortunately crashing out in 2011, Wiggins triumphed in 2012, and the rest has been Team Sky history, placing Froome atop the podium in Paris four times thus far.

Hawaii was part discovery too – he had to just put it on the line. He had to know how he would perform if he rode at a record pace. He had to know what would happen when he attacked out of Hawi.
He does know what happens when you ditch your drink bottles late in the bike-leg like it was the end of a grand-tour stage, and don’t drink enough leading into the marathon. And now he has the bike record and those experiences. Important also is that the success is shared and appreciated by the whole of Team Sky.

I was shown two examples to illustrate this. As Cameron was winning his first Ironman in Wales on the 10 September, Team Sky were riding the final day of the Vuelta a España, with Chris Froome resplendent in the winner’s red jersey. Cameron was sent a short video from Kerrison with a message from Froome, congratulating him. “Congratulations Wurfy,” said Froome riding toward GC victory in Madrid surrounded by the rest of the Sky team, “you deserve it mate.”

The second came from Fausto Pinarello, the head of the same-named Trevisio based bicycle master-builders and sponsor to Team Sky, congratulating Cameron after he broke the Kona bike record. In reference to the Pinarello Bolide time-trial frame, Fausto writes, “Congratulations! With all the victories with Chris (Froome), the hour record with Bradly (Wiggins in 2015) and now your performance in Kona, I couldn’t be happier with where the brand is and what that bike has achieved.”

There’s a definite quid pro quo symbiotic relationship between Cameron Wurf and the Kerrison/Sky/Pinarello organisation – in fact, every facet of the Team Sky outfit of which Cameron has equal and full access to. Cameron was brought into the team as both the aspiring Kona contender we know and an extremely reliable, loyal and ultimately strong training partner to the leading lights of the Sky team. Quickly he formed strong bonds with Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, both of whom have great trust in his ability to push all of their limits to such levels required to race hard for 180km or win any race on the UCI WorldTour.

After truly demonstrating his worth as part of a team that went out on a limb to support his Ironman ambitions, the goal for 2018 is to win Kona. And let’s face it, it’s a bit of a plunge for a cycling team to throw all of their resources at a triathlete. But let’s also not forget Team Sky only does things to win. If the masterminds behind Sky’s success couldn’t see the potential for the Kona win, they wouldn’t be supporting it.
As far as swimming and running goes, he regularly performs measured swim workouts focusing on the techniques and tricks learned from Cottrell and Yang aimed at swimming solid sub-50’s with efficiency in the front pack, and as well as having learned his lessons from too much running in 2016, keeps his running strong, consistent, and specific – which of course means a healthy number of race-specific bricks. Having already run a three-hour marathon, we can expect a continuation of marathon improvements, and with his own self-knowledge of both what he wants to achieve and what he needs to do to win, I have no doubts his running is on a trajectory that will see his performances echo those of his cycling ability – which is exciting for all of us!

As I write, Cameron is training the house down on Kona-like terrain (but with more hills) in Tenerife, joining Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and others from Team Sky for a training camp. Earlier in the year, he and Thomas joined forces for some strong miles in and around Los Angeles, California – Cameron’s home away from Tasmania – and he has recently returned from a several weeks long stay in Big Bear, also in California where he trained at altitude, producing some impressive numbers that point squarely at significant improvements – sessions such as pushing 350 Watts for two hours on a stationary trainer – impressive on its own, but at above 2000-metre altitude, it’s just that much better.

His race-schedule this season is much like 2017 in its apparent unpredictability. But the Kona crown is the firm goal. The road he takes to get there ready to perform at his best will be decided by both Tim Kerrison and himself as the year progresses. His first race (at this stage) will be Ironman South Africa, where last year he was first off the bike. Following that, the Ironman world will be his oyster. Where he and Kerrison believe he will both do well and learn something, will probably be where he races next.

Watch this space: When Cam Wurf sets his goals, he does so to acheive them. With Sky Team backing him, winning at Kona just got a whole lot more achievable. [DM]

 

Cameron is under no illusion he is still learning the Ironman game. But he possesses the enviable characteristics of humbleness and humility, and with these, he is progressing fast. He also knows the work that anyone puts into their training, and the knowledge gained from it can be just as valuable to his own learning as it is to their own. Talking to Cameron is an open two-way street – as candid as he is with his own training information, he is thoroughly interested in what you do and how well it works for you. If you want to know how to become the fastest rider ever to race up and down the Kona coast, he’ll let you know how he did it. But you have to be prepared to spend six years on the WorldTour as a pro-cyclist, battle with the best in the European classics, and to race a couple of Giro de Italia’s for three weeks at over 3,500km each, and over some of the greatest mountain passes in world cycling. At least, that’s how he did it.

Will he win the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championships? Of course, that remains to be seen. If there existed a gage though, it would be Cameron Wurf’s faith in Kerrison, his own ability to do what needs to be done, and the track record of Team Sky and Tim Kerrison. They both quite simply know how to win. As Cameron says: “If there was a brick wall at the finish line of a race, Kerrison would work out how to get us over it first.

 

IMAGES: Duncan McKenzie and Korupt vision

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