SNOWBASIN RESORT, Utah (ABC 4 Sports) - There was a lot of hype entering the 2011 XTERRA USA Championship, and Nicolas Lebrun didn’t receive much of it. But when it was all said and done, the top off-road triathlete from France proved that the XTERRA USA Championship is a bit different from a Tour de France.
Lebrun rallied from a slow swim with the fastest bike split of the day, and then finished with a strong run to run off with top honors at the XTERRA USA Championship at Snowbasin Resort near Ogden, Utah. It was his second USA title in the last three years.
“This is a very good race to win today,” said Lebrun, 38. "I think a lot of athletes knew that this morning. With more media, more people around, it would be a very big victory. So I am really happy to have my best race of the year here.”
Melanie McQuaid of Canada also had a very good race, and took top honors among the women. It was McQuaid’s fourth consecutive women’s USA Championship, and her fifth overall. “Obviously, this race is good for me,” said McQuaid, 38.
It was one of the most anticipated events in XTERRA history, mostly because of the XTERRA debut of American cycling legend Lance Armstrong (pictured) – the seven-time Tour de France winner.
Armstrong, 40, was in third place for most of the race, but finished in fifth overall.
“At 40 years old, I guess I could have gone home and drank beer and played golf all day long,” Armstrong said. “But it’s cool to come out here and test yourself, and also just support a sport that I think is really cool.”
Lebrun was as far back as fifth place midway through the bike, and did not take the lead until the final two miles of the run. To his own surprise, he passed Armstrong on the bike.
“I caught Lance on the bike,” Lebrun said. “I said ‘I’m passing Lance on the bike, is this a dream?’ That was my first victory of the day.”
Lebrun’s bike time of 1:21:59 was 49 seconds faster than any of the other pros. He used the momentum to pass South Africans Conrad Stoltz and Dan Hugo in the run. Stoltz is the 2010 USA and world champion, and Hugo led the field by nearly a minute after the bike.
“I felt really strong on the run,” he said. “I saw really quick that I was coming back on Conrad (Stoltz) and Dan (Hugo), so I can pace myself. With the altitude, if you push the pace too much sometimes you can crash.”
Hugo said he was surprised with the lead he built during the bike, but was even more disappointed to lose it late in the run.
“I had a great swim; got out of the water and Armstrong was right there with us -- that was phenomenal,” Hugo said. “From there, I decided to bike super hard and try to take charge. I took the lead, which was a little unexpected. Everything was going great until about one-third of the way through the run and I was really struggling. Maybe I over-biked a little bit.”
Hugo, who had never finished higher than fourth at the USA Championship, said he was especially frustrated because of the grand stage that the 2011 USA Championship offered.
“I was pretty crushed,” he said. “There was a lot of emotion on the line. We might never get an opportunity like this again. The world finally took notice of our sport, and I wanted to step up. I had a lot of want on the line today, and it was almost there.”
Josiah Middaugh of Vail, Colo., placed third despite a mishap on his bike. He blew out a tire and ran with his bike for the last mile. Even after that, he was able to pass Stoltz and Armstrong on the run.
Stoltz placed fourth and Armstrong fifth. A large crowd gathered at Snowbasin Resort, and Armstrong received the loudest cheers when crossing the finish line.
“I was nervous,” Armstrong said of his first triathlon in more than 20 years. “I was trying to stay focused on what I had to do today, just because I was so freaked out that it had been so long.” Hear a pre-race interview with Lance Armstrong on xterra.tv.
McQuaid was solid from start to finish in the women’s division. She took the lead early in the bike and maintained it the rest of the way.
Lesley Paterson of Scotland made up nearly four minutes on McQuaid during the run, and she still finished almost three minutes behind. McQuaid’s finishing time was 2:43:00, while Paterson placed second at 2:45:59.
“I obviously had a really good day today and the only way I get to days like this is by being pushed by really strong athletes,” McQuaid said. “And Lesley Paterson won her first XTERRA and absolutely crushed me in Santa Cruz (in May), so don’t think I wasn’t running scared out there.”
Danelle Kabush of Canada was third, followed by Americans Kelley Cullen and Emma Garrard.
Shonny Vanlandingham, the 2010 XTERRA World Champion, competed despite an ACL injury in her left knee. She placed seventh, just behind Christine Jeffrey.