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Brownlee takes Yorkshire lane to triathlon stardom

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Ollie Williams | 12:23 UK time, Friday, 11 September 2009

UPDATE: This article was written before Brownlee won the world title on Saturday:

Two things have transformed Alistair Brownlee from being any other 21-year-old into a world-beating triathlete: luck, and Yorkshire.

Brownlee is guaranteed the world championship title if he finishes in the top five of triathlon's World Series grand final on Australia's Gold Coast on Saturday.

His performances this year, impressive beyond even his own wildest dreams, have earmarked him as Britain's leading candidate to finally make a mark on Olympic triathlon in 2012.

At the same time, his victory in the London leg of the World Series introduced him to thousands of new fans, both within Hyde Park and on BBC television.

But Brownlee won't credit his incredible year to the raw talent he gained having taken up the triathlon trio of swimming, cycling and running at an early age.

For him, success has been Yorkshire born and bred.

Alistair Brownlee in action at Beijing 2008Brownlee finished 12th in Beijing, but has been in unstoppable form since

"For everything in life you need luck," he told me before heading out to Australia. "I was lucky I started swimming and running so young. But I'm also very lucky to live in Yorkshire.

"It's inspiring to go out and train here. I know so many athletes that go out on their bikes and they're looking at their watches, waiting for time to go by. But that's never been an issue for me at all."

Brownlee lives and trains near Leeds, with brother and fellow elite triathlete Jonathan - "we talk about triathlon a lot" - and refuses to join fellow competitors for warm-weather winter training, preferring bleak, rain-sodden November mornings in the north of England.

"If it was five degrees warmer and rained less, it might be better," he admits. "But it's fantastic here. We're so lucky to have a million small roads without any cars on. The running here is better than anywhere else in the world.

"I love running on the Yorkshire Moors and do all my cycling up in the dales. Other people might go to South Africa, Australia or New Zealand, but last year, over the whole winter, I spent about a week in Lanzarote and the rest of the time I was at home.

"Alright, the sun's out in Australia, but there are only big roads. You have to train incredibly early because the roads get busy and it gets really hot - I'd rather run at 10am on quiet roads in the rain."

Having followed his uncle into the sport, Brownlee has been intensely focused on triathlon since completing his first event at the age of 10.

Importantly, though he began with a focus on running, he has spent almost all of his career developing the three disciplines alongside each other.

This is probably the biggest reason he is so good at such a young age. According to triathlon expert James Witts, starting each of the three sports so early gave him an edge others lack.

"We're starting to create more holistic triathletes rather than failed swimmers or failed runners coming into the sport," Witts, editor of the magazine 220 Triathlon, told me.

"Alistair Brownlee is a perfect example. He's dabbled with fell running and he's got a degree of single-discipline in his past, but he was very young when he started doing all three sports.

"Now, he's near enough unbeatable this season. He's not scared of getting out there at the front, and if he does that in Australia, then I think he'll do it."

Witts' magazine now has almost 25,000 readers, testament to the growing popularity of triathlon within the UK, which he puts down to increasing British success on the world stage.

"The biggest impact was triathlon getting into the Olympics at Sydney, but domestically it was when we had the Commonwealths in 2002, and Leanda Cave took silver in the women's event for Wales.

"The Ironman event came over to the UK around the same time and now Dorney Lake (which will host the rowing and canoeing events in 2012) has become a mecca for triathlon. There are up to 30 races a year there now. As a sport it's exploded, really."

Witts has seen triathlon turn into big business as participation in the sport has grown, and Ironman, the ultimate triathlon event which ends with a marathon run, has certainly caught the public imagination. When I canvassed for questions to put to Brownlee via Twitter, plenty of people wanted to know if the 21-year-old was already planning an Ironman test in the future.

"I'd love to do it one day," says the finest product of the British triathlon boom. "At the moment it's all about Olympic-distance triathlon and 2012, but maybe after 2012, or 2016, I'd want to do some Ironman."

That is a long way off. Brownlee has plenty of world championships and Olympics left in him first, and is keen to sample more of the winning sensation he felt after August's Hyde Park event (pictured below, in the immediate aftermath of victory).

Alistair Brownlee at the Hyde Park triathlon

"I put more pressure on myself for that because it was a home event on the London 2012 course. It was definitely the one to win and the crowd was the best I've seen this year.

"I've had so much feedback from people who watched it on TV, who had never seen triathlon before, saying they enjoyed it.

"Straight after I'd finished I was asked if I wanted to do a lap of honour but I couldn't, I was absolutely knackered. But just being there and winning, you couldn't ask for more really."

Unlike other sports, the triathlon world championship is decided over a series of events and has therefore required strong peformances from Brownlee all summer, not just over the course of one competition.

He and his brother are therefore looking forward to a comparatively relaxing winter, which they intend to spend "reading, going to the cinema, bowling, whatever".

But one last effort is required to determine the world champion, and Brownlee knows no matter how good his own performance is, the result will still come down to that key triathlon ingredient: luck.

"One little thing - a crash, puncture, dropped chain or a bad swim, a million things can go wrong. I'm focusing like any other race.

"You have to go into triathlon with the view that anything can go wrong. You've got to make the most of the situation, and of your good days. The next one might be a bad one and you might have 10 bad ones in a row. You have to enjoy it while it's there."

The elite men's triathlon takes place from 0615 BST on Saturday, 12 September. There will be highlights of the men's and women's races on BBC Two from 1600-1730 BST on Sunday, 13 September.

PS: For those who wanted me to ask why Alistair isn't on Twitter: "I've never got round to Twitter and I've not got a website either. It's not my thing. You read so many people's websites and it's, 'Today, I did a 25-minute run' and this and that. Maybe one day, but if I do get a website it'll descend into a rant about how good the view was somewhere." So there.


  • Comment number 1.

    Good luck to him on Saturday. I think the new format of the World Series has been a great success and has let the best athletes come out on top, which wasn't always the case (for various reasons).

    He's right about Yorkshire being an inspiring place to train and I'm sure Philip Graves (UK Ironman winner at 20 years old) would completely agree with him.

  • Comment number 2.

    he is class, one interesting thing i noticed is the wanted to get on with the cycle in hyde park and really screamed at this brother to get the work on the front done, yes he likes getting work done but he aint gunna stick at the front to waste energy but seriously i can not see him losing my triathlons in the near future was brilliant in london perhaps he was fading maybe only a tad at the end of the 10km run but he still is class good luck to the lad.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think its fantastic for a British athlete to be competing at this highest level. The amount of triathlon training that he must have had to do over the years is simply staggering. Congrats!

  • Comment number 4.

    fantastic article, I work in a sports center here in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. One of our athletes competed in Australia and he did very well. I was born NR Leeds Yorkshire so I'm very proud to see what Alister has acomplished. This is a article any triathlete must read, it offers lots of inspiration.

  • Comment number 5.

    Was great to watch him win, awesome run, he must've dug deep.
    Many congratulations to him.

    Ollie - please please please can you do something similar on Chrissie Wellington? Not just a post Kona 'she won again', but something more in depth about her as an athlete. You touched on Ironman in this article, calling it the 'ultimate triathlon event', Chrissie is the ultimate athlete in this ultimate event and I would love to see the BBC recognise this.
    The kind of feats she is producing in Ironman would win her SPoTY in a more main-stream sport.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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