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11/16/2018, Lionel Sanders Joins Canyon

Lionel Sanders: Triathlon Saved Me

Canada's favorite son of triathlon joins Canyon in his quest for Kona greatness

In 2009, Lionel Sanders was in a bad way. He only had a credit card on hand, and he was trying to conduct a cash-only transaction.

For cocaine.

Sanders, a results-focused, driven athlete, had become the Windsor, Ontario  kid who's quest to excel literally ran him off the tracks early in life. Alcohol led to weed, weed led to cocaine. It all led to a smattering of bad decisions, terrible moments and depression. Despite being an honor roll at Windsor University, he dropped out of school, and spiraled out of control. The evening after the credit card incident, Sanders found himself standing on a chair with a belt around his neck, ready to check out for good. The thought of his mother finding him caused him anguish…  and he step down from the chair.  

After a few months of rehab, rough relapses, some promises to his parents and a mighty struggle, he recalled longtime mentor and coach Barrie Shepley had suggested his driven persona and physical makeup might suggest he’d make a good triathlete. Sanders Googled “Ironman” and devoured the history, the drama, the suffering inherent in an event with a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile marathon. He wanted a piece of it. His parents sign him up for his first Ironman in Louisville, and on a self-taught training plan, finished that first race in 10 hours, 41 minutes. And it left him hungry. He'd found an outlet for his energy..

From there, he almost accidentally stumbled into success. A with incredible bike power and a run to match, talent and will saw Sanders running past Olympians and Ironman champs onto Ironman and 70.3 podiums around the world. Fans embraced not only his rise from the ashes and his open book persona as it related to that struggle, but also his “all-in” approach to racing. He had no nutritionist, no bike fitter, no training plan. It was train by feel, then race to win.

His grit nearly netted him the greatest prize in long course triathlon when he battled with fellow Canyon star Patrick Lange of Germany late in the marathon to finish a remarkable second at the 2017 Hawaii Ironman World Championships.

With 2019 on the horizon, Sanders decided to take stock of a program he’d largely assembled on his own. With no coach, no bike or biomechanics fit, not even a wind tunnel test, it was time to step back, and hand over the reins to trusted experts.

“I’ve gotten myself into pretty good shape on my own to this point. But to be honest, I was too set in my ways, and wasn’t ready for outside council. I effed it up so bad this year, that became the challenge for 2019; be professional,” Sanders says.  “I knew major changes had to happen. I’m going up against true professionals, and Jan and Patrick are true professionals. The writing was on the wall; I had to have things run professionally, with people and brands I trust.”  

And the bike was part of his change for 2019, as he now joins Canyon in his quest to win the Hawaii Ironman. “You know, I remember racking my bike at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside a few years ago, seeing Jan’s bike next to mine, and knew that’s where I needed to be,” he recalls. “I've been studying the brand, the engineering, the integration, the stiffness, all the work that goes into the Speedmax. I want to be level with Jan and Patrick even before the bike began. Now, I'm there.”

With all things (on two wheels) now being equal, Sanders is ready for 2019 to begin in earnest. “I’m really just motivated to do my best,” he says. “I know I can duke it out with these guys. And I think these guys all want it. Patrick wants the challenge. He doesn’t want to win by five minutes; he wants to go toe-to-toe and rip your legs off. They want the history of taking place in a race like Ironwar, just as I do.”

But Kona can wait—at least until next October. On December 9, Sanders will put his new Canyon Speedmax CF SLX to the test for the first time at Ironman 70.3 La Quinta in Indian Wells, Calif. In anticipation, Sanders  has been training just 10 miles north of the race venue in Palm Springs, enjoying sunny afternoons on the many area golf links with his wife Erin after a hard day of training.

As he looks to a new season, he reflected on how far he’d come from the dark places he’d been to less than a decade ago.

“I was sitting there thinking about all these new changes. ‘Should I do this, should I go with this guy for run training, or that guy for swim training, or move here or there to train, worried about finding a place to stay,’” he says.  “I sat back and was thinking ‘this is so ridiculous; I’m worried about staying someplace in Southern California…  or crying about finishing the Ironman World Championship last year and finishing 28th? And this is a problem?’ It’s amazing. I’m really happy to be where I am now. I’m just really excited for the future.”