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Made in Yorkshire, on top of the world

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Tom Fordyce | 19:28 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010

On his bike, Alistair Brownlee doesn't look quite like you imagine a world champion might. Maybe it's the implausibly youthful face, or the tattered square of dirty, reflective cloth taped to his mudguard, or the white towelling sport socks he's pulled over his cleats in place of overshoes.

Appearances have seldom been more deceptive. Brownlee didn't snatch his triathlon world title last year with a dip on the line, or sneak through as all others struggled. He owned it from start to finish. Four wins in a row in the championship series, topped off with a showboating demolition of his rivals in the grand final in Australia - an unprecedented dominance from anyone, let alone a 21-year-old in his first full year on the senior circuit.

"I didn't have a clue it would happen," he says. "At the start of the year, I thought my form was pretty poor. I didn't feel that great at all. But by the time I won in Madrid, I felt unbeatable. That one almost felt easy."

This does not. We are barrelling along through the Yorkshire Dales, a third of the way into a three-hour training ride. From a selfish point of view, it's probably a good job he's still recovering from the stress fracture that will delay the defence of his title; a gentle leg-spin for a world champ is a tongue-out thrash for a rusty amateur triathlete.

Brownlee, born in Dewsbury, schooled in Bradford, resident of Bramhope, is Yorkshire through and through. Not for him the sunshine and open-air pools of South Africa or Australia. Warm-weather training is when enough snow melts for the road to Thornthwaite to re-open again.

Alistair and Jonny Brownlee cycle through the Yorkshire Dales

"I love it here," he says, surveying the windswept, dun-coloured fells and snowy moors on the horizon. "It's got everything I need - great roads for cycling, perfect running, coaching and medical back-up in Leeds. Australia's too hot, and the roads round Stellenbosch are too busy. You can't top Yorkshire."

With us is Brownlee's 19-year-old brother Jonny, European junior champion, and a whippet-skinny cyclist mate of theirs called Josh. There is plenty of competitive banter and no shortage of pace, albeit an endearing lack of the usual back-up. I'd left my tyre-levers, pump and spare tubes at home, assuming world champs would carry some sort of uber-sets provided by sponsors - but when Jonny gets a puncture, there's neither of the first two and only a late lucky find in a back pocket of an inner.

No-one gets too worked up. You get the clear sense that the ideal afternoon for both Brownlees would be running and riding out here, regardless of professional training requirements. "The thing I hated most about being injured was not being able to exercise," says the senior sibling. "Suddenly I had nothing to do all day. It was so boring.

"I couldn't get to sleep at night either. I'm so used to feeling tired from training, so I was just lying there unable to drop off. I went out a few times and got drunk, but that got boring pretty quickly. It's brilliant to be out here again."

The scenery is indeed splendid. So are the bikes. If there's one particular perk of being the world's best that your average amateur would most enjoy, it's having 10 top-of-the-range carbon beauties hanging from hooks in your garage.

Not everything is so high-tech. Brownlee's breakfast? "Three Weetabix. And then a load of Aldi crunchy oat cereal poured on top." His favourite post-ride snack? "Fray Bentos pies. I love them."

When you're burning 5,000 calories a day, you can afford to get stuck in. Before we head out on the bikes, Brownlee has knocked off a 4,500 metres swim. After we get back, he will head to the pool at Leeds Met high-performance centre and bang out an aqua-jogging session. When the stress fracture is healed, that will be switched for reps round the track.

It's a routine based around open air and excitement. Some triathletes like to train on treadmills and turbo-trainers. It's measurable, controllable and precise. It can also be tedious in the extreme. "I'd much rather be out on the mountain-bike or running on the fells," he says. "You work harder, and you don't even notice it."

It's also proven. Brownlee is a seven-time Yorkshire fell-running champion, was crowned world junior triathlon champion in 2006 and under-23 world champion two years later. At the Beijing Olympics he led midway through the run, only fading to 12th in the final stages. Two years out, he's already earmarked as of the best home medal hopes for 2012.

"I could see how the attitude of the other guys (on the circuit) changed over the course of the year. I don't think they saw me as a threat at the start, but when I beat Javier Gomez in Madrid, they started treating me differently. I heard a few things, not to my face but from other people - this has been said about you... but on the whole, triathletes are a good bunch. Because it's an endurance sport everyone's in it together, and there were a lot more who said, oh it s brilliant to see how you were doing."

Brownlee is unlikely to let it go to his head. Jonny - and Josh - would take the mickey, for starters. He's also tasted life outside the sport, doing a term of a medicine degree at Girton College in Cambridge before the lectures and supervisions got in the way of training, and triathlon edged out Tripos.

Garage apart, his new house looks just as you'd imagine an average 21-year-old's would. There's a relaxed approach to tidying, outrage at the cost of fitting the bedrooms with curtains ("50 quid! For curtains!"). The clues to the identity of the owner are subtle ones - a Team GB wash-bag in the bathroom, an Ordnance Survey map of the Dales lying half-unfolded by the toilet.

The brothers Brownlee take a rare breather

"I think that term made me a more balanced person," he says. "I lived a bit more of an ordinary life there, same as all the other students.

"It was strange - when you're in Australia it's big over there, the crowds recognise you and you can't walk far without being stopped and asking how you're doing. But then I flew back to Leeds three days later, and I was walking round Headingley and no-one had the faintest idea who I was. That was really nice - three days of that was probably enough for me."

We have looped through Burnsall, along the Wharfe valley and back through Ilkley and Otley. It's a long way from the Gold Coast, and a long time since I ate breakfast. On the last hill back up to Bramhope, the amateur legs turn to lead and the professionals pull away. If it's only been 50 miles, I'll claim it's a hilly one - 1300m of climbing. I'm only fooling myself.

"Fancy joining us for the aqua-jog?" asks Al. "You're alright," I say, as casually as I can while using the kitchen wall for support. "Train to catch." And buffet-car to raid. And carriage corridors to lie down in. Sometimes it's easy to see what separates world champions from the rest.


  • Comment number 1.

    Great to see a blog about one of our most unheralded sportsmen. Was gutted at the lack of recognition he received at SPotY.

    Brownlee has always come across as being admirably free of pretension bearing in mind his status. Seems to strike a great balance between taking his competition deadly seriously but not himself. The difference in physicality between Brownlee and those he beats on a regular basis is quite striking. I can see how the benefits of a smaller muscle mass translate to the disciplines that take place on tarmac, but am curious as to how he compares in the water and how he responds to this in his training.

    Tom, have you got any idea whether he prioritises training for his weaker events or whether he focuses on the stronger disciplines and consolidates in the discipline where he isn't as competitive? Alternatively is it simply a matter of splitting them equally? Think how pros train for events like triathlon, pentathon, decathlon is always fascinating. Obviously in every sport you win or lose medals in training as much as in the event proper but I would imagine this is even more so the case in multi-events? Should stress that I'm not suggesting that Brownlee is poor at any event (would be a slightly churclish thing to say about a WC) and am only assuming that he might be weaker in the water.

  • Comment number 2.

    Al swam 17 minutes dead in the series final last year for 1500m, which suggests he doesn't have a weakness:

    I'm guessing that he prioritises swimming and running, since ITU racers need to be able to swim in the front pack (fall off the back and your race is more or less over), cycle in a pack and not waste energy, and then run away from the field.

  • Comment number 3.

    Thanks for the blog Tom. Great to see a feature on Ali and also Jonny Brownlee.

    Definitely agree with comments about Ali’s omission from the Sports Personality shortlist. Thought the BBC missed a trick by not promoting him and triathlon more on the night, as it seems to be a rapidly growing sport which they also have TV rights for.
    It is great to see the lads doing so well and helping form a strong training group in Leeds that takes advantage of facilities & expertise at both Universities in the city. I’m also keen to mention their unsung coaches like Malcolm Brown and Jack Maitland… and going back to Sports Personality of the Year, coaches like that would make much more worthy winners of the SPotY coaching award than Fabio Capello!

    My last point is just on some facts on Ali. While i never like to be critical of blogs and content, i feel it is important to emphasise that he actually achieved a 2:1 Sport & Exercise Science Degree after 3 years study at the University of Leeds. Last summer he sat final year exams only a couple of weeks before the Madrid World Series races. World Triathlon Champion, academically gifted and an all round good lad… it’s enough to make you very jealous!

  • Comment number 4.

    Deep-Heat - each event gets equal training, but the run is becoming more and more decisive in triathlon. A good runner should always beat a good swimmer, because you can take more time out of a rival - as long as you can stay in the lead pack, as Johnny Hall says.

    Mattdavison - yup, I thought a SPotY nomination would have been fair. The 2:1 should indeed get credit too. How did he find the time?

  • Comment number 5.

    Tom, having studied alongside Alistair at the University of Leeds, I don't understand where he got the time either. I remember talking to him just before going into an exam, where he looked poorly and out-of-sorts, so I asked him whether he was nervous or ill, to which he replied that he'd just been running flat-out for 40 minutes in the University's heat chamber in preparation for an event in Rhodes (in which he came 2nd, I believe). An unassuming personality, quiet with a sharp Yorkshire wit but an impressive athlete nonetheless. An inspiration to me and many of our course-mates (and some of the lecturers too!). I wish him every success in the future!


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