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Mon 17th Feb 2020
Sebastian Kienle wants to race the best
Posted by: John Levison
Posted on: Wednesday 4th February 2015

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Ironman World Champion wants to race the Brownlee brothers...

Germany's Sebastian Kienle is one of the giants of the sport of triathlon right now. Winner of the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in both 2012 and 2013, Sebi added the big one last year, progressing from a debut fourth in 2012, third in 2013 to becoming Ironman World Champion at Kona in October 2014. Chances are that he'll arrive on the Big Island later this year as favourite to defend that crown too.

I recently sat down with the very likeable World Champion who was in the middle of an early season training camp at Playitas, Fuerteventura, combining his 2015 preparations with time with one of his sponsors, Orca.

We talked changing Kona tactics, puncture frustrations in Bahrain and the ever increasing standards at the Middle distance - where Sebi hopes "a couple of guys from Great Britain" will soon join the rest of the world's best...

Before we talk about Kona, I'd like to ask you about a strength of yours which I think many people overlook. Of course, they always say Sebi is an awesome biker - and clearly, you are (!) - but, there also other athletes that can also bike hard. For me, I think your real strength for triathlon is that you can bike really hard, but also then run very strongly after doing that. Where to you think that ability has come from, or is it related to specific training sessions that you do?

Firstly, I agree with you, that is the real strength. That's the strength that makes you win races. You don't win races on the bike, it's always on the run because that's the last part of a triathlon. I know I'm not the best runner in the field, but I also know that I can be a very good runner if the cycling leg was really hard for everybody. Where does this ability come from? Well, first of all it's a history of racing - for the last 15 years I've always had to go hard on the bike because I'm not a very strong swimmer, so I'm not used to anything different. It has always been like that for me; go very hard on the bike and try and hold on in the run, so that helps because I have done it for so long now in my past races. It's normal for me.

Of course, I do some specific training for it too. Triathlon training and racing involves a lot of efforts involving muscle fatigue, and so I try to combine strength training with cycling training for example. I'm not doing a lot of long runs for instance - I think in the last year I've done three 30km runs... and two of those were in races! I do a lot of brick sessions though, running faster than I do in an Ironman. Of course, everyone is doing sessions like that too, but you also have to do it in the right way.

Sebastian Kienle Kona 2014 ©Richard Melik
©Richard Melik /

After Kona I was out at Challenge Bahrain, and you said at the press conference that you were still feeling motivated, were still ready to race and then you had to pull out on the bike with a puncture. I read after that you said something along the lines of having your 'best legs ever' at the time, so how frustrating was it to have to pull out of the race?

I don't know if it was my best legs ever... but I did feel really, really good actually! I guess on some days you are almost wishing for a flat tyre when things are not going your way. For example, when I was in Mont Tremblant (at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships), you probably would have seen me smiling on the roadside with a flat, as I'd have loved to have a reason to quit that race! In Bahrain it was the other way around, but that's just how the sport is. Of course it was frustrating, but there was still the rush from Kona, feeling awesome and indestructible... but then with the flat tyre that feeling came to a pretty harsh end! That wasn't a great way to end the season, but you have to be able to put things into perspective. For example in Frankfurt, honestly, I think I won the race because Jan (Frodeno) had three flat tyres, and he than had another in Kona, but I think overall it should all balance out over your career.

Sebastian Kienle after Challenge Bahrain

After Mont Tremblant this year, having won the previous two Ironman 70.3 World Championships, you said after the race that you had no excuses, nothing went wrong, you were fit and prepared - but just couldn't produce the performance you wanted. Given how you bounced back at Kona, it appears that you were able to quickly put that behind you and then focus on performing at Kona in October. Would that be fair comment, are you able to quickly move on to the next race in that sense?

Not really... I think it is something I'm actually really bad at! When I have a great race it's usually pretty quickly that I forget about it, and move on to the next challenge, but after a bad race it is very difficult for me to focus on the next one. The time in Kona, the first three weeks was actually really tough - and not just for me, but also my coach. My mood was not very good and I was having a lot of doubts about all of our preparations and stuff. A couple of days before Kona though it turned around, I had some good sessions and the mood was going up again. My girlfriend arrived a few days before the race too, and soon it was much more like previous years when I was just excited to be in Hawaii and racing all of those guys in one of the greatest events in sport. I was pretty happy that it all came good at the right time.

Sebastian Kienle ©Richard Melik
©Richard Melik /

Do you think you are particularly suited to Kona? You've raced three times now and finished fourth, third and first, yet if you look at the majority of pro's racing - with very few exceptions - historically it tends to be a long learning curve, usually with some 'explosions' first time out, and then having to work your way up to a top ten before even starting to think that the podium is realistic.

I think it definitely is a good race for me. It's no secret that for some people Kona is a very difficult event, and for others they benefit from the conditions. For example I always thought I would have problems racing in the heat, but then I won my first 70.3 World Championship in brutal conditions in Las Vegas, which was way hotter than Kona. The courses are quite similar too - rolling hills, wind, and the bike course suits me because the hills are not so long that I need to lose extra weight for example. You are also able to separate the field a lot by going up to Hawi, where you have the strong winds from the side, going slightly uphill. You've seen it before that strong bikers are able to win in Kona if they are able to hold it together on the run. Other people may possibly have more talent and work just as hard, but are unable to display that in Hawaii.

The start of the bike leg in Kona tends to see a big group of fast swimmers going hard, very hard (too hard in many cases!), on the bike in the first hour. When you follow the race and look at the splits, typically you see that the 'bikers' like yourself don't gain much time on that lead group initially, but after 90 minutes or so the gaps tend to fall rapidly. In some ways does it benefit you being on your own during this time to focus on your own pace while lots of those up the road are blowing themselves up at a speed they can't sustain in the lead group?

I got to train and speak to Chris Lieto a few years back while he was still active (Ed - Lieto finished second in Kona in 2009 and was another highly regarded 'biker'), and he said that the race doesn't even start until 50km into the bike. You might make up 20 seconds or something if you are lucky in an hour and half of riding at the start, but then suddenly you'll gain two minutes in 20km. If you look at the times, the last few years the run times have been relatively slow, but the bike times haven't improved hugely - it's just being ridden more tactically, and in a more aggressive manner.

I think more people know now that they won't be the fastest runners in the field, and so take their will look after chances on the bike. In 2012 there was me and Marino at the front, in 2013 me together Luke McKenzie and Andrew Starykowicz and last year myself with Maik Twelsiek, so there are always a couple of guys who will make the race harder at a certain point at the race - but it's not really overall a much faster bike ride but a more tactical one. I think between 80 and 120k the race is really, really hard, and that's is when it is decided whether someone will make a group or not. It's just changed the dynamics of the race a little bit I guess. Behind that, now tend to see athletes coming in in ones and two's - and if there is a 'group' at all, it might be 10 or 15 minutes back.

Sebastian Kienle ©Richard Melik/
©Richard Melik /

How do you see the depth of quality of racing now at the 70.3 / Middle distance, as it seems like there are now more athletes coming along who really have no weaknesses across the disciplines?

Absolutely, also with the Challenge Triple Crown Series there is a lot of money involved and that attracts more people from short course racing. Of course I hope to see a couple of guys from Great Britain there too! It's great for the sport, it's like the melting pot between short and long course, and of course you can race it more often. Racing is the fun part, that's why I train. I want to do more at the 70.3 distance, because even though I won Kona and some people say I had a perfect year, I disagree because I'm missing some very good 70.3/Middle Distance results. I couldn't show it in Bahrain (DNF), in Mont Tremblant (18th) or Utah (10th) - so that is where I'm going to put a little bit more focus this year, because I think it also benefits my long course racing. I love that distance, it's going to be more competitive and I'm going to have to inprove a lot if I still want to win races there. You can't expect to win those races just by riding hard and put together a decent run - you've seen that with Javier Gomez in Mont Tremblant. You can't expect to put six minutes into him on the bike and then hold on, he's got no weaknesses. It's the same with Jan Frodeno and I suspect Alistair and Jonathan if they want to come and play a little bit with us as well. I love to race against the best in the world, and this distance is the best opportunity to do that because those guys are not going to do an Ironman a year before the Olympics.

What was the reaction in Germany after winning Kona - the difference between returning home as a third place on the podium in 2013 and as Ironman World Champion in 2014?

I always thought "the winner takes it all" is something only people in the U.S. said...but the difference between third and first was huge! It was very nice, very busy too, but in a good way - I definitely enjoyed the attention for a little bit, but I'm happy that it is not too much, like a soccer player not being able to go into the supermarket without 20 body guards or something!

Kona Dream speedsuit ©Shane Harrison

Germany also as such a heritage in terms of Ironman, with Normann Stadler, Thomas Hellriegel and others, so adding your name to that list must have been very pleasing?

Of course, those guys really paved the road for me too. They are the reason I am good at what I am doing. They used to race at home a lot too, so I was able to race against them in my younger years, and of course they were role models for me. Not only that, media wise they paved the road because there was already more attention on the sport than if there was no previous history. People lose interest if there is nobody from that country doing well, so it was a big help to me that triathlon and Ironman in Germany is well known because of guys like that.

Sebastian Kienle

Finishing off, we're out here with the Orca team and the new wetsuits they have just released which I've been able to try (see reviews of the Alpha and Predator). How are they working for you?

You know, it's always difficult because people will always think "yeah, but he gets paid to say nice things, and if they were shit he'd still say they were nice!", but I'm very honest with things like that. When I changed my wetsuit partner two years ago, I was testing 10 or 15 different wetsuits because I struggle a lot in wetsuit swims - even more than non-wetsuit swims - so the wetsuit is a really crucial part for me. I think people need to try it for themselves, but for me they are the best things on the market right now. They are so flexible, and also for me there are a lot of wetsuit swims which are borderline temperature, so with the thin arms you are not overheating, yet at the same time with the titanium layer in it you don't get cold in cooler conditions either.

Sebastian Kienle

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