With workouts supplied by their coach, Arnaud Quesnel and Kimio Bazett set off on a three-hour bike ride on a recent Friday afternoon. Their elbows rest on special supports attached to their handlebars, and their torsos are stretched out and tucked low in an aerodynamic position for speed and efficiency as they hammer out the miles on Garden Highway.
Along the way, they’ll be checking all kinds of data on their high-tech GPS sport watches – their heart rates, their speeds, their power output – and how they relate to their targets for that specific workout. It can all seem very technical and precise.
Reaching speeds of 25 to 30 mph, they then do what most tuckered-out cyclists would never consider. They quickly change clothes and go for a long run. Quesnel and Bazett are part of a growing wave of serious amateur triathletes, which includes swimming, cycling and running, all in varying distances from short “sprint” races to full Ironman events that notoriously culminate with a full marathon.
The sport can be time-consuming, expensive, highly competitive and physically demanding. As extreme as it may appear, a triathlon seems to appeal to all kinds of amateur athletes, and the fastest-growing segment is women. The number of triathletes grew rapidly for several years in the early 2000s, according to USA Triathlon, the sport’s national governing body, thanks in part to the exposure the sport received when it became part of the Summer Olympics in 2000.
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While the numbers nationwide have leveled off in recent years partly due to a “market correction” after major growth spurts, the number of triathlon events continues to grow. The first major local event of the season is the relatively short sprint distance ICE Breaker Triathlon on April 16 at Folsom Lake’s Granite Beach.
In Sacramento, triathlons have become so popular that a store, Rocklin Endurance Sports (161 Sunset Blvd., Suite 200, Rocklin), is devoted entirely to triathletes and their need for all kinds of gear.
Quesnel, 50, who owns a trucking logistics company, started participating in triathlons about five years ago.
“I was doing a little bit of swimming just to relax. Then I was helping a friend lose weight and I got a bike,” he said. “One day, I saw a sign at the Natomas Racquet Club for triathlons and I started running. Putting it all together is the hardest part. Maybe the challenge is to see what I could do. Maybe I didn’t do enough sports when I was young. Now I have time to do it. I tried it and got hooked on it.”
He became so serious that he went through four special triathlon bikes, upgrading each time until he recently purchased a pro-level Cervelo P5. With special carbon wheels, aerobars, a built-in power meter and other features, the bike is worth close to $10,000.
“We hear stories of people who do their first triathlon on a mountain bike – I actually did my first triathlon on a mountain bike,” said Lindsay Wyskowski, spokeswoman for USA Triathlon based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money on the sport, but we actually have a pretty affluent demographic.”
A 2009 USA Triathlon membership study showed the median income for amateur triathletes was $126,000.
Bazett, co-owner of the popular midtown restaurant and bar Hook & Ladder and the bars Golden Bear and Bottle & Barlow, concedes he is something of an extremist. He transitioned from ultrarunning – races of 50 or more miles – to triathlons only when his orthopedist told him to try a new sport because his surgically repaired knee was wearing out.
“I was at this place in my life where I wanted to be a little more practical, so that’s what I did,” Bazett said.
But practical is a relative term. Bazett and Quesnel both have paid coaches to help them match their training with their goals. And they both work out six times a week, often for hours on end. A full “brick,” for instance, is a triathlon-specific term that refers to a session in which all three disciplines are trained. It takes the better part of a day to get through it all. The time-consuming nature of the sport can sometimes chip away at a personal life.
“For me, it has caused problems. I’m trying to get better at that,” Bazett said. “It used to be that our long brick was Sundays. You get to Folsom Lake, swim for 40 minutes, then change and go running, then change again and get on your bike. I wouldn’t get home until after 3 p.m.. It cost me relationships. Now I’ve adjusted so I do my long workout on Fridays so I have Sundays free.”
Joyce dela Cruz, a human resources professional who describes herself as a “recovering Type A,” began running in 2001, cycling in 2012, and has since taken up triathlons for the fitness and the challenge. She did several sprint triathlons and is aiming to complete her first Half Ironman, also known as a 70.3 (referring to the total mileage).
“The bonus is a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “Working out for me is a real stress reliever. It helps balance me out because work is so hectic.”
For many triathletes, one of the appeals is the sense of community, according to Richard Burns, a former high school teacher and football coach who opened Rocklin Endurance Sports about three years ago.
“I would say the biggest rise in popularity is women – by a long shot,” Burns said. “I think the group aspect is appealing. They feel comfortable. In the cycling community, it can be extremely competitive and there’s some chippiness. With triathlon, it doesn’t seem to be that way. It seems more welcoming. Everyone is there to do well and have a good time.”
Said dela Cruz, “I think I’m just happier because of the people I’ve met. I’ve made some really great friendships. You gather, you work out, you drink beer. I think women find it’s just a great way to connect with people. Everybody is there to push themselves and have a good time.”
Like Bazett, many go into triathlon because their bodies endure less overall wear and tear and a more balanced physique. Workouts are spread over swimming, cycling and running, so chronic overuse is less of a problem than for athletes who focus only on running or cycling.
“Triathlon is the original cross-training sport,” Burns said.
It can also be much safer than traditional road bike racing, which takes place in large, fast-paced packs where crashes – and injuries – are much more common. Many triathlons don’t allow drafting, and crashes are rare.
Jay Newton, a Rocklin police officer and competitive cyclist, participated in triathlons for a time but found his swimming and running were inferior to his bike riding. The married father of five said he does find the relative safety of triathlons appealing.
“I tell people that I’m one good crash away from going back to triathlons,” he said with a laugh.
The origins of triathlons can be traced to relatively short swim-bike-run events in France in the 1920s. Modern triathlons in the United States started with San Diego’s Mission Bay Triathlon in 1974, when 46 people competed. Longer and more extreme events flourished, including the Hawaii Ironman in 1978 with a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike leg and a full 26.2-mile marathon. Now dozens of Ironman races take place throughout the world, including several in the United States.
Bazett, 39, who last year finished 13th in his age group at nationals in the Half Ironman distance, said he appreciates the health benefits and overall lifestyle.
“I’m closing in on 40 and I’m improving. It feels good,” Bazett said. “It helps with the rest of your life, too. It fuels that competitive fire and striving for excellence. It makes you a better person, a more complete person.”
Quesnel said he’s faster and fitter than ever at 50 and simply wants to keep improving. The race, he said, is with himself. “We wouldn’t be who we are without triathlon. It makes you feel alive, man.”