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How can anyone stop the Brownlees?

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Ollie Williams | 08:46 UK time, Monday, 25 June 2012

Alistair Brownlee threatened to retire from triathlon 50 times. He barely trained for more than a month in his home Olympic year. He missed the first three races of this year's World Series.

And then he came back and beat a strong field by such a wide margin as to be almost ridiculous.

The senior Brownlee, aged 24, romped home in Kitzbuehel 50 seconds ahead of his 22-year-old brother, Jonny, and more than a minute in front of third-place Javier Gomez, the Spaniard who once ruled men's triathlon before the Brownlees ruined his fun.

How he must curse them. He has trained with them, raced alongside them for a French domestic team, gone up against them many times. They get along well. But they have taken his sport and moved it beyond the reach of Gomez or, for that matter, anyone else who cares to try.

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Alistair Brownlee beats brother Jonny in Kitzbuehel one-two

"Those guys are above the rest. Nobody is going to get near them," their domestique, Stuart Hayes, told us having crossed the Kitzbuehel finish line. Hayes and the Brownlees make up the men's Olympic team for Britain this summer, with the former employed as a domestique for the latter.

He took to that role admirably in Austria, riding on the front of the pack and controlling the pace after the Brownlees' early break had been caught. Jonny admitted Hayes' presence had made their lives much easier - allowed the brothers to rest and regroup while preventing any of their rivals from breaking clear.

But would they have won anyway had Hayes not been there? The gut answer is: probably. If only because it has been such a long time since a Brownlee did not win a major triathlon.

This sounds like hyperbole but the facts sustain it. In the last 12 months, Alistair has won all six major Olympic-distance races he has entered: six World Series events and the European Championships. In a spell stretching from May 2009, he has won 12 of the 15 World Series races he started. When he missed this year's Madrid and San Diego races through his torn Achilles tendon, Jonny won them instead.

Even knowing the training Alistair had missed and the undoubted setback of his injury, secretly, it was hard not to expect this victory in Kitzbuehel; hard not to start forming the opening paragraphs of a 'Brownlee wins comeback' story while he was still out on the bike. It felt inevitable to watching journalists, let alone triathletes in the act of being punished.

Last year we saw it at the European Championships. Alistair had briefly worn a protective boot around one foot that spring, too - not as bad an injury but still not ideal - and then he turned up in Spain, took a puncture in the ride, was brought back to the pack by his team-mates while Jonny slowed things down at the front, and in the end he won comfortably.

No matter what you throw at Alistair Brownlee, it does not stick. What a psychological dampener that must cast over everyone else in the field. Here's a man who spent the first half of 2012 entirely missing in action: he comes back for his first race and takes the world's top 50 to triathlon school.

How can he and Jonny possibly be beaten at London 2012?

Jonny Brownlee (left) with Alistair Brownlee

Kitzbuehel: Another podium shared between the Brownlee brothers. Photo: Getty Images

Don't misunderstand, there are clearly many ways in which that Olympic race in Hyde Park can finish without a Brownlee on the podium, let alone winning the title. Injury, illness, misfortune, all the devils that lap at any Olympian's heels.

But what can their rivals do? What plan can they realistically come up with?

If they go out hard from the very start, the Brownlees are highly unlikely to be too far behind them after the swim, and with the help of Hayes they will surely gobble up anyone who attempts to simply go out at maximum speed on the bike and stay there. Then the race is theirs to control.

Try to get in a breakaway with the Brownlees on the bike and they will keep you there, use you as a domestique whle you take your turn on the front, then spit you out on the run. In Kitzbuehel, Alistair exploded into the run with such a turn of pace that he left a dozen world-class opponents, all in transition alongside him, for dead.

Maybe you could team up with a few other triathletes and launch break after break on the bike to wear the brothers out. But the Brownlees work together too effectively - they manipulate the peloton, regulating its pace, deciding its strategy. Can you outwit them? In an Olympic race where international alliances are nothing like as easily forged as a sibling bond?

There are probably many other tricks left in triathlon's book - by all means name some in the comments, Gomez and co will be grateful. But the world has seen each of the brothers win alone, win together, and now win with Hayes thrown in for good measure. It feels like they will have an answer.

Any lingering doubts that Alistair Brownlee will start the London 2012 triathlon as the favourite are gone. Now, we may see the shortest odds on a British one-two in Olympic history.


  • Comment number 1.

    These two siblings are just outstanding athletes...

  • Comment number 2.

    Seems to be like the significant factor is that they allow 'drafting': one competitor to slipstream behind another. If they got rid of that rule then that would stop the Brownlee 'team' effect.

  • Comment number 3.

    Exciting that he won, would have been a travesty had he lost a home olympics when clearly the outstanding athlete. The only downside is the use of a domestique; I don't believe it is appropriate in triathlon and is against the spirit, but if all the others are going to collude then I suppose having one guy help two isn't that bad..... still doesn't sit right!

  • Comment number 4.

    Fingers crossed for a 1-2. As for a domestic, does it matter as when they allowed bunch cycling in Triathlons, they ruined it for those whose real strength was cycling.

  • Comment number 5.

    I think some old-fashioned water polo techniques of subtley pulling back and pushing down on opponents during the swim could tire out the Brownlees but there'd probably need to be wide-scale coordination between other athletes to specifically target the brothers in order for that to pay significant dividends.

  • Comment number 6.

    From what I see and do in Triathlon, the swim and bike section is "fairly easy" its the ability to get off the bike and get into run mode at pace that is the major struggle and thats what the brownlees have in spades.

  • Comment number 7.

    I agree with DG Hooper, allowing drafting and peloton riding has essentially made triathlons running races. It seems to be a case of keeping together until the running, then the best runner winning. Superb bikers simply cannot build up a lead on their strong discipline because they will be reeled in by the peloton, similarly strong swimmers can be reeled in on the bike by the peloton if they've built a decent lead after the swim.

    Don't get me wrong, the Brownlees are superb swimmers and bikers, but not significantly better than the others. They are, however, much better runners than the rest, hence they win at a canter. Both are awesome athletes though, and I salute them!

    Question for you Oli: if they cross the line together in the Olympics, does team GB get two gold medals?

  • Comment number 8.

    I agree, drafting has ruined triathlon, it doesn't matter how good a swimmer or cyclist you are, the best runner will win!

  • Comment number 9.

    We live in ilkley and sometimes see the Brownlees out training. A few years ago, Alistair was running on the moor and stopped to have a chat. My son had been at school with Alistair and we were asking about his training. After a few minutes Alistair apologised, saying "I am very sorry but I need to go, I am in a race" and several gnarley fell runners appeared over the brow of the hill. Let's hope Alistair is so far in front he can have a "stop and chat" before hyde park

  • Comment number 10.

    the comment regarding drafting is pointless as in the majority of races in the last 2 years the brownlees are the ones who storm ahead from the swim, quite often in the cycle the also lead the packs, there is nothing stopping any rivals follwoing them and draft with them. In fact they encourage it! they are exceptional talents in all 3 disciplines.

    I throughly enjoy that triathlon has become a team sport, it brings tactics and planning into the equation which can be compared to "raw" primal version of F1!

  • Comment number 11.

    DG Hooper - I think you could have leveled that criticism at draft-legal triathlon a few years ago but now now. The Brownlees are the best runners in triathlon, and also pretty much the best swimmers and cyclists. They have changed the face of draft-legal triathlon by going hard in all three disciplines, frequently winning races from breakaways on the bike which are usually formed by them being in the top 5 out of the water and then hammering the bike from the start. If that doesn't work - like yesterday when they plus Vasiliev got a 30s break on the bike that was then pulled back - they'll win it on the run.

    Complete athletes, and I have no doubt that they would win non-drafting races too.

  • Comment number 12.

    The answer? Do what they did to track cycling when Team GB dominated in Beijing: make only one athlete eligible per event.

    An outrageous decision that undermines the competition as a spectacle and would be unthinkable in athletics (just one Kenyan for the steeplechase, perhaps?).

    The real cliche here is: they can beat themselves. Us Brits are never that great at being the favourites and a home Games will double the pressure. But, being that there is two of them, you would expect one to take gold even if the other has a bad day.

    The key is Stuart Hayes whose sole job is to help them win which will prove vital in the end. What's more fascinating is the prospect of a joint effort in crossing the line. Never seen it before, but will they really sprint against each other if together in the home straight?

  • Comment number 13.

    @ Odarroch, excellent points highlighted by the fact that despite a puncture on the ride (60 second delay perhaps) Alistair still managed to catch up with the peloton with the help of his team mates and then go on and win the race. Still, to get off a bike after 1 hour of very hard cycling and then produce a sub 30 minute 10km is outstanding (the world track record till 1944 was 29:52 and the world record now is 26:17).

  • Comment number 14.

    In a weekend where the limitations of British Football/English football were brutally exposed the Brownlee's showed our mediocre footballers what it means to be real champions and sportsment.

    Both were superb.

  • Comment number 15.

    @StevenCP I have no doubt that they would sprint against each other if they chose to. Typically They run together and Jonny lets Al go at the line as he knows Al would toast him if pushed. They are both just superb triathletes!

    @Mike Moggers Interesting point. Have you seen Chrissie's marathon splits? Puts some of our female marathon only runners to shame! Love to see her take on London Marathon without having to swim and ride beforehand. Think she'd be well up there.

  • Comment number 16.

    I've run a few fell races in the past, of a very mediocre standard of course, but I have seen Alistair and Jonny at several of them. In our age of pampered footballers and elite training centres of excellence it was very refreshing to see two quiet unassuming young men setting off in freezing sleet and rain through the bog and mud for a low key fell race.
    Not only that, to see them then throwing themselves down precipitous descents that I could only slide down on my backside and then running up boggy slopes that I could hardly pull myself up on my hands and knees, speaks volumes for their physical and mental stength.
    It is hard to think of another pair of athletes who have dominated a sport at such a young age and baring unforeseen mishaps or accidents I look forward to seeing them get the 1-2 at the Olympics they so richly deserve

  • Comment number 17.

    They are incredibly impressive, bring on the Olympics!

    Any drafting v. non-drafting complaints are ridiculous a) because the Brownlees are better at all three sections of the event anyway; but more importantly it undermines what happens in these races as: b) heart rate monitors on athletes show that they are having to work much harder on the cycle in drafting races than non-drafting races due to the regular surges of pace. So rather than have one constant effort for the 40k on the bike they have to sprint to stay with the pack, go easy, sprint again etc etc which leaves them in a more fatigued state at the end of the ride than a single constantly paced effort.

    I know it's a nerdy comment to make, but it just feels a shame to look down on these guys for doing a style of racing that is actually pretty hard work!

  • Comment number 18.

    JW101 - totally agree, being a triathlete and cycling regularly with a great group of club cyclists - it's much harder to ride fast with a constantly pushing peleton/breakaway than using the HRM and keeping yourself at a "level" - at the end of a "Club Ride" I find myself far more tired than after the bike stage of a Tri where I have managed my own ride and not had to respond to the attacks of others.
    @bobsontour - wonderful story - love it.

  • Comment number 19.

    remove drafting and there would be no race, after all they got out of the water pretty much at the same time. if there was no drafting the peleton would not have caught the brownlee's early break away on the bike.
    however you look at it these two deserve the praise and reward that they are getting. total respect to the way they have taken triathlon to a new level.

  • Comment number 20.

    How many of you think that the other cyclists are that much better that without drafting they would build up enough of a lead to not be caught on the run.

    Perhaps the bike sections should be a sterner test. Set out the course so that the bike section is like a TDF mountain stage.

  • Comment number 21.

    What a contrast to the over-rated, over-paid,under-talented, pampered princesses of the premier league these 2 young men are.
    Cant see them losing their nerve and bottling it on the main stage, It will be great to see these 2 Englishmen tonk the rest of the field...Olympics, bring it on..

  • Comment number 22.

    The two greatest living Yorkshiemen, bar none!Put our footballers to shame, I just hope they get what they deserve in a few weeks time .Drafting?Who cares anyone can follow them and do the same,people do it in cycling an athletics all the time,the Kenyans and Ethiopians are master and no one says a word,but if Brits dare to do it they are effectively called "cheats" looking at some of these blogs!

  • Comment number 23.

    @Paul Youdell, drafting is within ITU triathlon is to make it more TV friendly. Small laps are easier to film. Non-drafting would be impossible on a small circuit. If you want non-drafting triathlon go take a look at Ironman triathlon. I still don't think it would make a difference to their dominance, they always race at the front the field and push the pace way beyond what their counterparts can deal with. Face it, they are just too strong for the rest of the field. Non-drafting isn't going change that present fact.

  • Comment number 24.

    I'm looking forward to seeing these guys at the Olympics... It'll be really exciting to watch!

    I'm am unsure why there are negative comparisons to our footballers though. It seems irrelevant and I don't see how those negative comments help anyone.

  • Comment number 25.

    Let's just savor these genuine world beaters for what they are. it's not often we get two wonderful men who are a credit to their sport and Britain. Whatever way you slice the tri, draughting, domestiques, the Brownlees would win in true sporting style.

  • Comment number 26.

    If you took away drafting the Brownlee's would have probaly won by a few minutes rather than a minute.

  • Comment number 27.

    Those who think that draft racing triathlon is easier should try riding with one of these guys - they are just as strong at no drafting, but it's about saving the legs in a race (which isn't happening very often these days...).
    The draft advantage on the swim is at least the same as the bike when you swim 1:05 -1:10 per 100m for 200m-1500m. Most people never experience this as they swim too slow. The bike leg is also the longest in time percentage.........

  • Comment number 28.

    injury or colluion by other athletes - that is probably all that can stop these two. they bth have awesome times for ALL 3 legs...but their ability to produce the sub 30min run after the other 2 legs is amaing. 12 year ago in womens tri there was a trio Hackett, Harrop and Lindquist - all great swimmers and they woud commonly come out of the swim and breakaway - just the 3 of them time trialling on the bike - normal finish 1,2,3...other athletes would have to do that to the brownlees to beat them but the brownlee run does leavethe others a lot to do.

  • Comment number 29.

    The Kenyans and Ethiopians have effectively used 'domestiques' for the last twenty years in long distance running. Quite rightly I have never heard anyone complain about that because there is nothing stopping anyone else from forming similar tactics.
    Same in triathlon! If you want to beat the Brownlee's just swim, cycle and run faster than them.

    I suspect that the best tactics for the opposition would be to ignore the Brownlee's and just swim/bike/run their own race. Just be in the best possible position should either or both brothers fail.

  • Comment number 30.

    @3 To rule out domestiques then that would have to go to cycling as well. The Tour de France as a prime example as domestiques to allow their major star to claim the yellow jersey and king of the mountain. I do not believe that the Brownlee's need the domestique to help them win the races that they have dominated.

    However, I will warn the Brownlee's against complacency. The way that this blog has been written is all they have to do is turn up and they have won gold and silver for Team GB. No, I will expect that they will have to earn their medals through hard work and putting themselves in the right position at every stage.

  • Comment number 31.

    So many comments about drafting in this sport. However people seem to forget that the Brownlee's are so strong on the bike that they ride off the front of the main pack. People seem unaware of how difficult this is in road cycling when you are in a small pack against a larger peleton who can use more people to keep the pace high. Drafting or no drafting the Brownlee's are so strong on the bike that I believe the results would be the same. They are out of the water at the front and then are always the atheletes pushing the pace. It's not very often you so the Brownlee's drafting on the bike. They're style of racing is very agressive and they're the ones always attacking. They train hard race hard and the results show it.

  • Comment number 32.

    Yea, I completely agree with Grant @PaulYoudell - the Brownlees are ALWAYS up the front of the pack pushing the pace on the bike. Yea, they draft, but so do all of the other competitors in the field = advantage = nil. When it comes to the run, the Brownlees smash the other! It's because they're from Yorkshire, eat cake, fish 'n chips and run up and dales in all weathers ;) The lads are awesome, don't try and take anything away from them by claiming their success is because ITU races are draft legal!


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