Britain’s Alex Yee finished second to world champion Mario Mola of Spain as the ITU World Series kicked off in high-octane style on the Formula One track of Abu Dhabi.
It was an impressive debut at the top level from the 21-year-old Yee, who trains in Leeds and had already showed his class by winning a second tier World Cup race in Cape Town, also over the sprint distance, last month.
But it still wasn’t quite enough to defeat Mola, who has won the past three world titles, and once again showed why his biggest strength is the run. The 29-year-old surged to the front with 1.7km remaining and eased clear of Yee in the final stretch to take the tape in 52min.
“It’s above and beyond what I expected,” Yee said, having run 14:07 for the 5km. “I came in wanting to get a bit of experience, but I felt really prepared and ready to go and give it my best shot. These guys are my idols, and I look up to them and have watched them since I was a kid.”
Mola recorded his 16th World Series victory and was generous with his praise for the young Brit, who has recovered from a near career-ending bike crash when racing in Calgary in 2017.
“I had to dig deep to bridge the gap,” he said. “I know how talented Alex is and it was great to have a battle against him. It’s great to have a new generation coming up.”
What made Yee’s result even more impressive was the quality of the field assembled in the Emirates’ capital.
The entire top 10 from last year’s ranking were present, with newly crowned Super League champion Vincent Luis and last year’s Commonwealth gold medallist Henri Schoeman among them. Double-Olympic medallist Jonny Brownlee was the only notable absentee.
While Slovakian Richard Varga predictably led out of the water after the 750m swim, the race came together on the 20km cycle around the Yas Marina F1 track and a large pack entered T2 together.
New Zealand’s Hayden Wilde bravely took the race by its scruff and forged a six-second gap that he held until midway through the run, when first Yee and then Mola took charge.
Spain’s Fernando Alarza sprinted from the chasing pack to take the final spot on the podium, with Britain’s only other competitor, Tom Bishop – on a course where he had his best WTS finish of second in 2017 – finishing strongly in ninth, one place ahead of an exhausted Wilde.
There is now a six-week break before the World Series resumes in Bermuda for the second of eight events.