The 25 Greatest Male Triathletes Of All Time (Numbers 19-11)

Posted: March 20, 2014 by kirisyko in SykOtic, Triathlon
Photo: Rich Cruse


Day Two  – and we count down from 19 to 11.

The definition of “great” is loose and up for debate, and that’s precisely why we chose it for the name of this ranking. There is no perfect way to rank athletes from different eras who specialized in varying distances from sprint to Olympic to iron to off-road. Some athletes dominated events that were once considered major events but are no longer in existence, such as the United States Triathlon Series. Others are from the era before triathlon became an Olympic sport, while some have built their reputations winning Ironman 70.3 races, a series that has been in existence for less than a decade. And how does the value of an Olympic gold compare to victory in Kona? All are things we wrestled with in our ranking. Here’s how we did it:

• We did not use a scoring system to objectively rank athletes—this list is subjective.
• The magnitude of the difference between an athlete and his peers is important—dominance counts. Concrete accomplishments and personal judgment of each athlete’s ability are both factors.
• Longevity—total accomplishments accumulated over a career and time spent at the top of the sport—and consistency are also considered.
• Athletes are judged against their contemporaries and the quality of the era during which they competed. An Ironman world title from this decade speaks louder than Gordon Haller’s victory in 1978, for example. (No offense, Gordon.)
• The quality of a championship is important. For instance, an Olympic gold counts more than an XTERRA world title because we believe the Olympics to be a more competitive and important race.
• Achievements in non-championship races count too, of course.
• Potential and hypothetical future accomplishments don’t count, only actual achievements.
• Accomplishments in duathlon are not considered.
• Athletes with a doping conviction are out. But: Athletes suspected of doping and never convicted are eligible.

19. Thomas Hellriegel

Known as “Hell on Wheels” for his dominating cycling speed in the ’90s, Thomas Hellriegel struck fear into his competitors on the bike leg of Ironman races. In 1996, he set the Kona bike course record (4:24:50) and held it for 11 years until Normann Stadler bested his time.

The German had an impressive three year-year run in Kona through the mid-nineties against incredible competition: In 1995, he was second to Mark Allen; in 1996, he was second to Luc Van Lierde; in 1997 he won, becoming the first German to ever do so on the Big Island. He was fantastically consistent in Kona: In an eight-year span, he never once finished out of the top 10.

18. Scott Tinley

Tinley had success at all distances from sprint to Olympic to Ironman and won more than 100 races in his professional career. His work ethic and consistency made him one of the most durable and feared triathletes of all time, earning him three titles in the now defunct Ironman World Series. Tinley is most closely associated with the Ironman World Championship and raced that event 20 times with two wins, four second-place finishes and two third-place finishes. Between 1981 and 1990, he raced Kona 11 times (twice in 1982) and never finished worse than sixth. One of Tinley’s Kona victories (1982) came over Dave Scott. The other came in a year when the top athletes including Scott and Mark Allen elected not to compete as prize money wasn’t yet offered. Tinley beat everyone who lined up that day, but he was the only truly elite competitor in the field.

17. Tim DeBoom

While many top professionals were groomed by national federations and elite development programs, DeBoom ascended to the very highest reaches of the sport after starting as an age grouper. He’s still the most recent American to win the Ironman World Championship, having done so in 2001 and 2002. He was a well-rounded athlete with a deadly run and unfailing focus on Ironman Hawaii.

DeBoom had his breakthrough in 1999 when he won Ironman New Zealand. His battles with onetime training partner and friend Peter Reid, as well DeBoom’s older brother, Tony, made for some epic races throughout his career. In 2011 he won the notoriously challenging Norseman Extreme Triathlon in Norway. He hung up his racing shoes in 2012.

DeBoom’s list of truly elite results may be shorter than those of Pigg, Hellriegel or Molina, but twice winning Ironman Hawaii is more significant than the achievements of the eight athletes lower on the list. With the possible exception of the Olympics, Kona is the most meaningful title in the sport. Putting two of those in a row over guys like Peter Reid, Hellriegel and Cam Brown distinguishes DeBoom’s career.

16. Lothar Leder

Leder never broke through on the Big Island, topping out at third place in Ironman Hawaii, but he has one of the most impressive records in other iron-distance events across the world. During his career Leder won Ironman South Africa, Ironman Florida and Ironman Arizona, and dominated the most prestigious Ironman events in triathlon-crazed Germany. Leder is a three-time Ironman Europe champion and twice won Challenge Roth. He finished top-eight in Hawaii on six occasions, including two third-place finishes, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth and an eighth.

In 1995 he took second at Ironman Europe in Roth—then won the following year in 7:57:21, becoming the first person to break eight hours. In 1997 and 1998 he took second at Ironman Europe; in 2000 he won Ironman Europe; in 2001 he won both Ironman Europe and Ironman Germany. In 2002 he won Ironman Germany and Challenge Roth. In 2003, he defended his title and won Challenge Roth again. Leder also finished second at the Nice Long Distance World Championship in 1994.

Putting Leder above a two-time Hawaii champ in DeBoom is tough. The American did the hardest thing in Ironman, and then did it again the following year. But the races Leder won in Germany weren’t akin to winning Ironman Florida today—the fields were deep and the German athletes all wanted to win. He did it repeatedly and may have been off top form in Hawaii as a result, while DeBoom crafted his season around Kona. Becoming the first person to break eight hours helps push Leder over DeBoom.

Note: Leder was suspected of blood manipulation on account of a test conducted before Ironman Frankfurt in 2007. He was never banned.

15. Brad Bevan

From 1992 to 1995, Brad Bevan won four consecutive ITU World Cup championships. While he never crossed the line first at the ITU World Championship—the single race used to determine the world champion—he earned the most points across the annual series a record four times in a row.

Consistency was his greatest achievement, finishing on the podium for seven of the 10 World Cup races, then the most elite designation, in 1992. Three times he was second at the one-race ITU World Championships, in 1990, 1994 and 1995. And while three runner-up finishes to two racers who are higher on this list—Simon Lessing twice and Greg Welch once—is impressive, it’s also the shortcoming of Bevan’s résumé. He never won a big one-day championship. Lacking an ITU World Title is a glaring hole when compared to some of the people above him on this list. Unfortunately for Bevan, the Olympics didn’t include triathlon until he had passed his prime.

14. Luc Van Lierde

Luc Van Lierde hit a historically high level of performance for a short window of time, from 1996 to 1999. After that four-year span during which he won four world titles and set the iron-distance world record, he never reached the pinnacle again.

In 1996, he won the Olympic-distance ITU European Championships and took second at the ITU World Championships. He then took his second consecutive silver at the ITU world Long Distance Championship. He capped off his phenomenal season with his first visit to Kona that October and submitted one of the most impressive races in the history of the sport. Even though he had been given a penalty during the bike ride and had never completed a marathon before, he ran down Germany’s Thomas Hellriegel with a 2:41:48 marathon to win and break Mark Allen’s course record (which stood until 2011). In 1997 Van Lierde had an epic day at Ironman Europe when he put together a blazing 2:36 marathon split on his way to the fastest Ironman time ever at that point: 7:50:27. In 1998 he came back to Kona and took second to Canada’s Peter Reid before earning his second Ironman World Championship title in 1999.

While DeBoom and Van Lierde both beat elite competition to each win a pair of Kona titles, the Belgian’s record stands above DeBoom because of his Kona course record, ITU Long Distance World Championships and significant although not brilliant ITU short-course career. Bevan hit a higher level in the ITU, but lacks the record in high-pressure one-day championships to surpass Van Lierde.

13. Bevan Docherty

The tall New Zealander had his best performances in the biggest races. He is clutch. As a draft-legal Olympic-distance racer, he used considerable tactical savvy and a strong kick to his advantage. Docherty sprinted to a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games and earned bronze in 2008.

In 2004, he won the ITU World Championships and took the silver in 2008. When he jumped up to longer distance races, Docherty was immediately a factor. He famously was the only pro to beat Lance Armstrong in the disgraced cyclist’s first race as a pro triathlete since retiring from cycling, and he took third at the 2012 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. Docherty sits below Whitfield and Carter in part because those two hold the gold medal that Docherty came so close to earning.

Van Lierde’s stratospheric peak might have been higher than Docherty ever reached, but the Kiwi has a longer, more varied list of achievements and, while they may not be golden, the secondary Olympic medals are arguably just as hard or harder to achieve as victory on the Big Island. They only run the Olympics every four years, and Ironman athletes get a crack every fall.

12. Normann Stadler

Stadler’s career will be remembered for two things: incredible cycling prowess and a heated, occasionally personal rivalry with Chris McCormack. Both athletes retired with the same number of Kona crowns, but Stadler triumphed in their epic 2006 showdown when the two were at their peak. In that race, Stadler biked away from the field and set the course record for the second leg, which still stands today, to earn a big advantage at the start of the run. While Ironman running wasn’t his strength, Stadler held his fleet-footed rival at bay to earn his second Ironman world championship.

Two years earlier, Stadler used another dominant performance on the bike to win in Kona. 2004 was one of the windiest races in the event’s history and Stadler pedaled away from the field to earn a major advantage in T2. Everyone behind him was shattered by the conditions—only Stadler was strong enough to hold himself together. While the time wasn’t impressive that year due to the wind, he proved himself to be the sport’s best rider beyond any doubt.

He is widely considered either the best or second-best cyclist in Ironman history, with his countryman Thomas Hellriegel also in the discussion.

11. Greg Welch

Greg Welch dominated at a variety of distances, winning an Olympic-distance world title as well as Ironman Hawaii, but didn’t hold on to the top spot in either distance for long. His breakthrough came in 1989 when he finished third at the Ironman World Championship behind Mark Allen and Dave Scott in the sport’s all-time classic Ironman race. In 1990, Welchy won the ITU World Championship at Disney World in Orlando. He was known for his outgoing personality and for his ability to win races all over the globe at any distance.

The Australian won countless sprint races in his home country plus major events across the world, including the Orange County Performing Arts Center Triathlon, Escape from Alcatraz, the ITU Duathlon World Championship in 1993, the Ironman World Championship in 1994 and the ITU Long Distance World Championship in 1996. When he won the Ironman World Championship in 1994, he became the first non-American male and the first Australian to win the most prestigious title in the sport. In Kona, besides his third-place in 1989 and his 1994 victory, he took fifth in 1990, second in 1991, sixth in 1992, fourth in 1995 and third in 1996.

Welch’s list of accomplishments is among the most diverse in history. He was forced to retire prematurely when he was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia after the 1999 Ironman World Championship. Even though he was having heart episodes throughout the race and was forced to stop numerous times to wait for his heart rate to drop, he still ran a 2:46:51 marathon and finished 11th overall.

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