Thomas Bishop was celebrating the “best result of my life” and a first-ever ITU World Triathlon Series podium after he went toe to toe with five-time champion Javier Gomez.
The 25-year-old Briton, who agonisingly missed out on a place in the Olympics in Rio last summer, put that disappointment behind him with a superb showing in the 2017 season-opener, finishing just 13 seconds behind veteran Spaniard Gomez.
“I’m absolutely delighted. I’m in a bit of shock to be honest. It’s the best result I’ve had in my life so I’m really, really proud. I can’t quite believe it to be honest,” said Bishop, whose previous best WTS result was fifth place in Edmonton in September.
Bishop was up among an initial breakaway group of 19 riders after the opening 1,500km swim at Yas Marina on Saturday. He was pushing the pace throughout the second leg, the 40km cycle in and around Abu Dhabi’s iconic Formula One track.
Then, as most of the field waned on the final 10km run, the youngster found the energy to keep pace with the veteran.
At one point he even attempted to attack the Spaniard, a silver medallist at London 2012, before Gomez used as his experience to claim victory.
Bishop admitted he knew he had to go for it once he realised he was one of the race leaders.
“I worked as hard as I could and saved as much energy on the bike as I could,” he said.
“I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to be the first race of the season. I thought it might well come together but when I found myself with the front group I found a gap and thought ‘go as hard as I could’. I did what I could to keep the group going into the run.
“My back was pretty sore and I tried to warm my way into it and I had Gomez to pace me through and he’s kind of a good guy to get behind. That dragged me into second.”
Gomez was full of praise for his young opponent.
“I was surprised (by Tom),” he said. “He’s strong on the bike, he always is, but he ran very well and I have to congratulate him because he did amazingly well. Maybe I was a bit surprised by how strong he was so I saved a little bit for the last lap and luckily I got a little lead.”
Two years ago in 2015 the veteran Spaniard finished sixth in Abu Dhabi as his younger compatriot Mario Mola claimed gold in Abu Dhabi’s WTS debut. Mola backed that up with back-to-back wins in the Emirates last year on his way to winning a maiden WTS title.
It broke veteran Gomez’s three-year stranglehold on the series in a campaign that also saw him withdraw from the 2016 Rio Olympics after breaking his elbow in an innocuous training accident, falling off his bike just yards from his home just a month before the Games.
It seemed Spain’s triathlon torch was being handed down to Mallorcan Mola, but Gomez hit back in the way only true champions can – with Saturday’s triumph an indication the 33-year-old’s injury woes of 2016 are firmly behind him.
“Yeah, it feels like I’m back,” a delighted Gomez said post-race.
“It’s nice to come back this way. I hadn’t raced this kind of competition for a while but I’m very happy with my fitness and where I am. It was a tough course and I’m very happy.”
The Galicia native was a little off the pace following a below par swim at Yas Marina, but quickly made up the eight-second gap when he got on the bike.
France’s Aurelien Raphael was first out of the water following both laps before an initial breakaway group of 19 formed as they headed for the iconic Yas Marina Circuit for the 40km cycle.
Leo Bergere, of France, and America’s Ben Kanute led the way for most of the 10 laps but Gomez came into his own on the 10km run.
The third and final leg saw the leading group splinter, with just Gomez, Britain’s Thomas Bishop and Olympic bronze medallist Henri Schoeman out in front.
South Africa’s Schoeman soon fell behind but Bishop stuck with Gomez, before the Spaniard made his move with 3km to go, streaking ahead to claim victory by 13 seconds, with Frenchman Vincent Luis claiming third.
What can I say...best way to come back to ITU racing! Great to win on a race that we made tough on the bike and quite tactical on the run. Great job @tomwbish and @vincentluistri ! Thanks everyone for the support!/ Qué puedo decir... la mejor manera de volver a la ITU. Victoria en Abu Dhabi, haciendo la carrera dura en la bici y con una carrera a pie bastante táctica. Gran trabajo Tom Bishop y Vincent Luis. Gracias a todos los que me apoyáis y confiáis en mi. 📷 @rokasports
Mola, meanwhile, champion here for the last two years and reigning series champion, was 50 seconds behind after a poor swim and never recovered. He finished eighth, a 1m 34secs adrift of Gomez.
It was Gomez’s 50th WTS race, 13th win and 37th podium, but he claims there is no grand secret to his consistency.
“I don’t know what the secret is. I just love the sport and train as well as I can every day. I love training and doing my best and luckily I’ve had a good career,” he said.
“I still made a few mistakes in the race. I didn’t swim very well but I knew it was going to be a tough run. With Tom it was very tactical.
“On the third lap we slowed down a lot and I tried to save energy for the last lap. I made my move with about 3km to go and it worked really well.”
At one point with two laps to go, Bishop, 25, even had the audacity to attack the veteran, a move he felt may have been costly, although one he felt he also had to make.
“It might have been a bit naive to attack him and he came back to attack me, but it felt good. You’ve got to lead a race every now and then,” he said.
“I have to respect him and then he attacked me on the home straight. He’s a crafty man and knows what he’s doing.
“I think he wanted me to go and do some work. I think he wanted a bit of a rest. It was kind of windy but running at the front is easier for me, I find it more relaxing and you can control it, so I think it helped me relax and recover.”
Welcome your 2017 ITU WTS Abu Dhabi champion, @jgomeznoya! 👏🥇 . حيوا معنا بطل سلسلة الترايثلون العالمية في أبوظبي 2017، هافيير غوميز نويا! 👏🥇 . @abudhabisc @activelife_daman @yasislandae @etihadairways @worldtriathlon @mercedesbenzabudhabi @sil_dxb @onrunning @on_running_me #Triathlon #Unitedbytriathlon #SwimBikeRun #WorldChampions #Abudhabi #InAbuDhabi #ترايثلون #ترايثلون_يجمعنا #أبوظبي #في_أبوظبي #رياضة
After 15 months away from the WTS, third-placed Luis was delighted with his run.
“I’m back after 15 months outside the World Series and eight months since my last race so it’s pretty good,” said the 27-year-old who was seventh in Rio.
“I have a few problems but it feels good to be back. It’s really early so I’m expecting a bit more fitness in July and for the Grand Final in September. I will play the game and it’s a good start.”
As for Mola, he admitted he lost a few seconds after slipping entering the water for the second lap of the swim, but admitted he was off the pace.
“Maybe I lost a few seconds in the water, but I just couldn’t go any faster. They swam very well in front and I have to keep training,” said the 27-year-old.
“I’m not disappointed with how things went. I gave 100 per cent which is what matters. Hopefully there is better to come for the rest of the season.”
It looked like Great Britain’s Stimpson was going to be celebrating back-to- back victories in the UAE as she led down the home straight at Yas Marina Circuit.
But a repeat of her 2016 triumph in the capital was not to be as New Zealand’s Andrea Hewitt surged past her in a thrilling sprint finish to claim her first win since the 2011 Grand Final in Beijing.
Stimpson, however, was thrilled with second place after her 2016 season fell off a cliff after her win here 12 months ago.
Stimpson, a double gold medal winner at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, lost out on selection for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games to Non Stanford, Helen Jenkins and Vicky Holland, before an Achilles injury then ended her campaign.
And she admitted she will gain confidence from her fine start to the season in the Emirates.
“It definitely does give me confidence, but in the same breath I’m not taking it for granted as this is how last season started,” said Stimpson, who switched coach to Adam Elliott in the off-season.
“I’m not saying I decreased going into the (second race in the) Gold Coast last season because I didn’t, but I’ve been refreshed again. It took a long time after last year so I’m excited moving forward.
“After a really tough year last year and working really closely with my new coach, coming into a new environment and new people to work with, everything’s changed.
“There’s one thing I want to say, I couldn’t have done it without my management team and my family. My manager surprised me by coming out today. My family couldn’t come out but they got me through last year and I owe them so much.”