During the past year, the pair have been locked in a fierce battle to be crowned ‘King of the Mountain’ for the gruelling 34km uphill bike route at Mount Lemmon in Arizona.
With the triathlon calendar decimated in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sam and Lionel sought to outdo each other’s times on Strava to satisfy that persistent itch to test themselves to the maximum.
Such has been the desire to claim top spot on the leaderboard, they both recorded faster times than former professional cyclists Phil Gaimon and Tom Danielson, as well as current ace Michael Woods.
Long first challenged Sanders in March last year, but fell just short of the Canadian’s previous best of 1:16:27. The 25-year-old American would not be deterred though, and returned the following month to eclipse Sanders’ effort by 37 seconds.
Rivalry, and friendship, blossoms
Long has since been knocked off top spot, again by the 32-year-old Sanders, but Sam says their rivalry and friendship have both blossomed as a result of the battle.
“I mean it’s been awesome; I just love the guy because he is such a ferocious competitor.
“He just wants it and he’s not afraid to say that he wants it and I also love him because his fans are like so all about Lionel Sanders and so-anti anybody else.
“The Mount Lemmon battle, it was just so fun in a year where we had no racing and no competition.”
Some 18 places separate the duo in the current PTO World Rankings, with Sanders at #5 and Long at #23. But Sam is gunning for his rival in 2021, both in that list and at Mount Lemmon once again.
“You know he’s got it, cos I got it from him and then he since took it back, but I’ve got big spring plans to go after it so that’s kind of the plan.
“95% chance we battle again at Mount Lemmon, I’m already trying to get fit enough to make it happen, and the only thing I wish is you would do PTO World Ranking points on Mount Lemmon, that would be pretty good.”
Both athletes recorded top-10 finishes in the recent PTO 2020 Championship, with Sanders finishing fourth and Long coming home in ninth.
Sam revealed he has been in touch with Lionel since the landmark event in Florida, and he admitted there were some mixed emotions.
“We’ve spoken here and there since Daytona, we actually text occasionally now, which I don’t think anybody knows that.
“It was cool, I mean after the race we had very different approaches, he was so [annoyed] after, I think he was just [annoyed] at himself.”
“I was almost actually the opposite, at first I was like really happy and I did the best I could – it’s only been after I’ve kind of said I left a bit on the table.”
Long is now looking forward to competing with Sanders again this year, and he says their rivalry may not be limited to just Mount Lemmon.
“We’ve got plans, we are both working really hard on the swim, so we are actually like wanting to do a swim race and then almost a Mount Lemmon KOM as well and maybe a head-to-head race or some type of pursuit, so yeah, we are talking about various ideas.”