By JAMIE TROUGHTON
Crowd favourite Kieran Doe has been forced to pull out of next week's Port of Tauranga Half Ironman, dealing a further blow to the strength of the men's field.
Doe is slowly recovering from his horror crash in the Tinman triathlon in Mount Maunganui earlier this month but hasn't been able to resume running until this week.
His absence is a big blow to race organisers. The dread-headed 25-year-old has finished third, fourth, second and second in the four years he's competed, winning a huge following with his dramatic near-misses.
But he admits his main feeling remains one of relief, after initial fears his leg was broken after a head-on collision with another cyclist during the Olympic distance Tinman.
"I'm just so lucky - it could have been much worse," Doe said. "It's going to be hard watching but at least my leg isn't in plaster and long-term it will be fine.
"I don't want to race only three-quarters fit - especially in this one because I don't want another second," he added.
Defending champion Nathan Richmond has confirmed he'll be back, after placing fifth at the world long distance triathlon championships in Canberra last month.
But last year's third-placegetter Stephen Sheldrake - who has never finished further back than seventh in Mount Maunganui over the past seven years - is in Europe.
And multi-talented former Mount athlete Blair Jordan, sixth last year, has also opted out to focus on his ITU World Cup campaign next year.
"I've had to pull the pin - I'm really disappointed with that but I'm under coach's orders," Jordan said.
"You've got to look at the big picture and this summer needs to be about having a big buildup."
Doe is still mulling the makeup of his season but may target Ironman Australia in March for his comeback.
"It's not easy - and to try and come back and race it at this time of the year is just so difficult. The swimming pools are shut and there's so much traffic on the road which makes training really hard.
"But I'm probably getting close to 90 per cent with my swimming and biking - they're fine really - it's just the running that has set me back quite a bit.
"I only started back five or six days ago and while the leg's fine, it feels like I'm carrying around 120kg."
He has been approached to compete in a team - something seven-time winner Cameron Brown did last year - although he's still undecided.
He'll make sure he doesn't let his legion of mop-wearing fans down, however.
"I'll definitely be here though - there's no way I could miss it."