As with the men’s race, it was a first time ITU World Cup winner in the women’s with Summer Cook (USA) taking gold ahead of Claire Michel (BEL) and Lisa Perterer (AUT) at the 2016 ITU Chengdu World Cup.
After a mass exit off the bike leg, Cook was clearly the strongest runner in the field, moving clear of a cramping Michel at the 5km mark to win by 37 seconds, with another 19 seconds back to Perterer - winning the bronze medal courtesy of a sprint finish ahead of Yuliya Yelistratova (UKR), on a perfect day in Jintang county, Chengdu.
A Russian dominated lead group of eight established a 17-second lead out of the water with Anastasia Abrosimova, Valentina Zapatrina and Anastasia Gorbunova to the fore, along with Cook (USA), Gaia Peron (TUR), Cecilia Flores (MEX) and the Chinese pair of Mengying Zhong and Xiaoting Ma going clear of the field.
But unlike the earlier men’s race, no one was able to lead or manage a breakaway, with the field eventually coming together in one large bunch of 36 on the fourth lap of six on the bike, in the process throwing the likes of Michel, Perterer, Yelistratova (UKR) and Agnieszka Jerzyk (POL) a lifeline after trailing out of the water.
The final two laps on the 6.67km bike circuit were largely controlled with the only jostling coming in the final approach to T2 as leading athletes looked to gain vital seconds through transition and onto the run leg.
Cook and Michel proved the strongest as they edged clear on the run, the margin a reasonably small 10 seconds at the end of the first 2.5km lap, but late on lap two Cook turned up the heat to move six seconds clear of Michel, with the chasers led by Perterer and Yelistratova now falling away, albeit in a tight tussle themselves for the bronze medal.
The American controlled the final lap expertly to notch a career first World Cup win and was understandably delighted with the gold medal.
“I am really happy, this just validates all the work I put in over the winter, I am very excited at all the hard work paying off and continuing to work just as hard moving forward. Today was the first time I was able to execute some of those things I have been working on and so happy that I was able to back it up with my best result ever.
“I raced here last year and there was a pack of 60 girls off the bike and I expected the same here again this year, finding good position going into T2 was the one of the few things I didn’t execute well though! But I positioned myself better towards the front of the bike and am confident moving forward I am taking big steps.”
Cook said the move at the halfway mark on the run was a planned move, one that proved gold medal worthy.
“It was a conscious decision, I am confident in my run training coming in here and I wanted to just go out and give myself the best opportunity to have my best result. Crossing the line was really exciting, it was one of the moments I have been training for.”
Michel won bronze in 2014 and was thrilled at her good form and the positive implications for her Rio Olympics bid.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time, I had a really hard start to the season and with these races in the final stages of the Olympic qualification period, so it couldn’t have come at a better time, I am really happy. I know I am fighting for one of those last spots (for Rio), in 2015 I had injuries throughout the season and missed at least half a dozen races so I am playing catch up and racing against the clock, this is great.”
Michel was fighting just to stay with Cook and when the American made her move, she had no choice not to follow.
“I was having some cramps so those last two laps were just up here in my head, the physical was what it was. I just tried to keep the gap as low as possible, that was all I could do.
“Two Belgians on the podium (with Marten Van Riel winning bronze in the men’s), we are pretty excited!”
Perterer continued her busy season (racing every WTS and WC event in 2016) with a bronze medal, hard earned in the sprint finish with Yelistratova.
“I am really happy, I have had so many races and after the flight to China I felt really sick but we said I would try and start. The swim I felt good but at 20 degrees I was struggling a lot with the temperature but I could push a lot on the bike and with some girls in our group we pushed really hard to catch the first group.
“The run was just surviving for me today, the sprint I finished strong. I was a little angry that I was running in front all the time but this gives me more motivation to sprint, I did not have the energy to push the pace earlier, but I know I can sprint and did it.”
Yelistratova finished in fourth behind Perterer, with Julia Hauser the second Austrian home in the top five to round out a good day for the Austrians and Belgians in particular.