A new course and a new chapter in the history of the Ironman World Championships. But what is the course really like in Nice, France? Micah Ling tested herself on the swim-bike-run, and shares her observations ahead of the 2023 Ironman World Championships.
In a 140.6-mile / 226.3 km Ironman race, it’s an epic day no matter if it takes you 8-hours or double that. And at the finish, people rarely talk much about the swim. No one wants to be out of the water last, but the first one back on dry land doesn’t often mean they’ll make the podium. There’s still 138.2 miles / 222km left to go.
Still, the time in the water is crucial. And if you have a bad swim — not just a slow or disappointing splash, but a rough or even confronting experience — it can mess with your mind. Set you off on the wrong foot. But all the pro men I spoke with leading up to the race in Nice were really looking forward to the course through the Mediterranean waters.
I spent some time swimming on and around the course leading up to the race, and can say for sure that the water was perfect. Warm but not a bath. Cool but not breathtaking. The kind of water you want to get in and stay in. The ideal situation for any racer.
“This morning at 7am I probably had the most magical swimming experience I've had in years,” Jan Frodeno said of a shakeout swim leading up to the race. “Just going out into the Mediterranean, the sun came up, the water was super clear. That's something I wouldn’t ever say no to.”
Franz Löchke also feels like it’s an ideal swim course. “I really like this swim because it’s just an easy out, back, out, back,” Löchke said after practicing the first leg of the race. “I was watching the sunrise today and it's perfect because you never look into the sun.” He also said that the water is very calm in the morning and gets choppier throughout the day, so the sunrise start to the race will be “perfect conditions for a good swim.”
My experience in the days leading up to the showdown reflected what Frodeno and Löchke mentioned. The water is extremely clear, but with a distinct blue hue—often called Gatorade blue. So you can easily see swimmers in front of you, but you can’t see the bottom. Only when you round one of the buoys anchored to the bottom, and see how far the line goes, do you realize how deep it must be.
There are no sharks in the Cote d'Azur, which is probably a relief to many, but jellyfish are common. They often arrive in swarms because of a combination of water temperature, currents, and winds. Because there haven’t been any storms in the area recently, so there’s a high likelihood that Sunday’s race will not involve stinging jelly.
Let’s be honest, the bike is the main course most of the time in Ironman racing, and definitely in Nice. This route feels very much like a Tour de France stage, because it basically is. Relentless and gorgeous. Tunnels and the staggering Alps in every direction once you’re out of town. It smells like lavender and bakeries the whole way. As Jan Frodeno said, “If I were out with a bunch of mates it would be my favorite ride. It’s scenic, there are a bunch of good climbs, and cafes along the way.” Unfortunately, most of the top riders won’t be taking advantage of these perks.
But if you’re ever in the area, bike this route. The views just never end, and the small towns along the way are so quaint it all feels fictional. It’s one gigantic loop, which many pros tend to like because they don’t have to wrestle with passing age-groupers on a second lap.
That said, you earn your croissants and then some. With around 8,500 feet of climbing (2,590 meters) it’s a long day. And if you set out pre-dawn to experience the course, and return in the heat of the day, you’ll certainly be pitying everyone who has to follow that ride with a marathon. But, the descents on the back half of the route are so fun. I rented a steel ISEN from a local shop, the Service Course — where all the locals grab a coffee before or after a ride.
The bike was admittedly not set up with the gearing necessary for the climbing on this route, but the bike was comfortable and I was happy to support a local shop. I started at 6am and made some of those stops that Frodeno mentioned, loading up on fresh baguette, potato chips, and Orangina at Boulangerie L’Olivier in Caussols. Plenty of other riders were out enjoying the day as well—the local legends of the area truly own those famous Tour de France roads. There were lots of other easy stops for a cold beverage and quick salt and sweet fix.
Then, at last, the descending. And it certainly makes sense that many of this year’s athletes have been praying that the referees on the course are lenient about crossing the middle line—something that seems almost impossible not to do.
Canadian pro Lionel Sanders was disqualified from the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Lahti, Finland for crossing the centerline. Referees told athletes in a race briefing that if they crossed the center line they could get no call, a yellow card (one minute penalty) or a blue card (5 minute penalty).
Denis Chevrot said the descents will be on everyone’s mind. “It’s just tactics. I’m not too crazy on descents. I know how to do them.” And Chevrot almost didn’t race this year because of the bike course. He came and rode the course in April and said he wouldn’t race in September. Then rode the course again in August and still said no way. But he’s here and ready to throw down. Chevrot started as a swimmer and has put tons of time and effort into having a strong bike and a screaming fast run.
Frodeno, who has ridden the course many times, summed it up saying, “the fact that there's such a long climb and then straight into a flat section will be really tricky. You don't actually get to recover after that climb because you have to maintain a high pace through the rolling hills. And then technical descents.” So a rollercoaster for the mind and body.
Pancake flat and hot as hell. Even when I ran just one loop of the course at 7:30am — long before the pros will hit the Promenade — it was already sweltering. The Ironman athletes will run it four times, a nonstop line of competitors coming and going. But it’s ideal for spectators and cheering. “I think the run course will be pretty cool,” Franz Löchke said. “I expect the whole road will be spectators. That's going to be very cool.”
Frodeno wasn’t super excited about the hard concrete on the Promenade for the run, but he did think the run times would still be very quick. “It’s a flat run, which suits me, and I think there'll be a lot of fast running.”
Athletes get a tiny bit of shade toward the far end of the turnaround point thanks to the wall at the Nice airport. Otherwise it will be an excellent place to secure some serious sunburn. And with the water tempting from so close, it might be tough to resist going for another swim.
There’s a chance for an afternoon breeze to build for the run, which would likely be welcomed relief for everyone putting the hammer down.