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Frenchman emerges from big pack

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Sylvain Dode of France crosses the finish line.

By JOHN SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- For two-thirds of the way, a herd mentality ruled at the St. Anthony's Triathlon men's race.

A field of 87 started, and the majority stuck together through the .93-mile swim. For the draft-legal 24.8-mile bike, it was foolish to work alone. So again, a couple of large packs were the rule.

This set the stage for the final leg. Excel in the 6.2-mile run, and one had an excellent chance to win.

Saturday, Sylvain Dodet had the fleetest feet. The Frenchman's swim time ranked 11th, and his bike was 32nd. But his running time of 32 minutes, 6 seconds was the best by 20 seconds.

It added up to victory in 1:53:35, 13 seconds ahead of New Zealander Shane Reed. Greg Bennett led a 3-4-5 Australian contingent in 1:53:59.

"I swam in the pack, and in the bike, I tried to attack," said Dodet, 27. "But my position was very bad, so I had to run more. Maybe that was good."

Very good, as Dodet spotted the leader, Reed, and tracked him down during the third lap of the four-loop course.

"The last two laps, he got me," Reed said. "I tried a little bit (to keep pace). I think I stayed with him for about half a kilometer. Then I think the heat got me."

The victory was Dodet's first in a world cup event. He came into triathlons with a running background and has honed his skills during European events. "Sylvain is a phenomenal athlete, always has been," Bennett said. "I don't think any of us were surprised at how well he ran."

It was surprising, however, how poorly the Americans fared. Nine of the top 10 American triathletes started, some bringing recent success from other points races and past St. Anthony's triathlons. Yet only Victor Plata of San Luis Obispo, Calif., cracked the top 20, finishing 17th in 1:55:13.

Monte Still was the first American to drop out after emerging last from the swim. Shortly after that, crowd favorite Brian Fleischmann fell behind the lead packs on the bike and stopped.

"I got a gap in the bike and just freaked out," said the Jacksonville native and Florida State graduate, who finished third in a points race in Guatemala two weeks ago. "I didn't have it physically or mentally."

American fortunes got worse on the bike, starting with Hunter Kemper, the Longwood native who finished second at St. Anthony's last year.

While navigating through a 180-degree turn at the Pier, Kemper wiped out and landed on his left shoulder, leaving a bruise. He got up and continued but lost the lead pack and finished 32nd.

"I just hit a slick spot on the outside and went down," Kemper said. "I don't crash at all in races. It's just one of those things."

Mark Fretta of Portland also went down on the bike but could not continue. He was tapped from behind while fastening his shoes a couple of miles into the ride. After falling, he was run over. The final stroke of bike misfortune struck Joe Umphenour, the top-ranked American. He finished second in Guatemala and led Saturday at the start of the bike. But a stem broke on his handlebars after hitting a pothole.

He pulled over and did a quick fix, replacing a broken bolt with one from a water bottle holder on the frame. But he was left hopelessly behind and finished 52nd. "I had never led a world cup before. That was great," the Seattle native said. "If that stem hadn't broke, Sylvain would have had a race."

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