The Brownlee brothers are at the top of their game. Mark Bailey joins them training in their beloved Yorkshire.
If you go for a scenic run or a relaxing bike ride around the hills, limestone valleys and historic castles of the Yorkshire Dales, there is a chance you will be overtaken by two grimacing figures racing each other to the top of every hill. Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee are playful brothers, competitive training partners, fierce rivals and - after winning gold and silver medals respectively at the Rio Olympics last summer - the best two triathletes in the world. Raised in the Leeds suburb of Horsforth and now residents of the picturesque village of Bramhope, the local superstars still train in rural Yorkshire every day. Their winning blend of sibling rivalry and fraternal affection has proven to be a uniquely successful dynamic but perhaps the only way to really understand how it works is to pull on some Lycra and join them.
In the lead-up to the Rio Olympics I had the chance to join the Brownlees for a bike ride along the country lanes near the 18th century stately home of Harewood House and to huff and puff behind them on a short, sharp run up the Chevin - a lofty ridge which overlooks the Wharfe Valley in the Yorkshire Dales. Keeping up with the Brownlees isn’t easy. Even on what they would term a ‘recovery ride’ (boringly slow by their standards, frantically fast to the rest of us) they fly up hills which leave me wincing in pain. And within two minutes of running up the flanks of the Chevin, I’m ready to quit.
However, the mix of brotherly banter and rivalry that has driven the Brownlees to the top of their sport is evident throughout, from the spontaneous sprints over the brow of a hill, to the way they team up to fix a puncture. But one thing the brothers always agree on is the pivotal role the Yorkshire landscape has played in sculpting their sporting success.
“I’m a proud Yorkshireman - Yorkshire people tend to be very proud of where they are from - and this really is a beautiful place to train,” says older brother Alistair, 28. “We’re lucky that we have the Dales on our doorstep and the scenery really helps you to get out of bed.”
In order to conquer Olympic standard triathlon races, which consist of a 1.5km swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run, the brothers train for 35 hours a week. “Being outside makes it all feel more like fun than hard work,” adds Jonny, 26. “We cycle past dry-stone walls on old historical back roads and we enjoy muddy cross-country runs and fell-runs. It’s proper old fashioned training: no music, no gadgets - just fun with friends and the right mix of hard work and cake stops.” They enjoy the ever-changing kaleidoscope of colours brought about by the seasons. “As the seasons change through spring, summer, autumn and winter, it’s like waking up in a new place,” says Jonny.
The brothers are supremely successful global athletes. Alistair was the Triathlon World Champion in 2009 and 2011, an Olympic gold medal-winner at London 2012 and the Commonwealth Games champion in 2014 before powering to his second Olympic gold in Rio last summer. Jonny was the Triathlon World Champion in 2012, an Olympic bronze medallist at London 2012 and a silver medallist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games before earning silver at Rio 2016. But they remain endearingly humble. When we stop for a hearty breakfast before our run, Ali politely pours out mugs of tea while we chat, and Jonny gives me tips on why pizza is the perfect pre-race fuel (it is the same around the world, so you never get ill). The brothers are clearly happiest when running or cycling outdoors. “I have always been into the great outdoors,” says Jonny. “We were taught by our parents (their mother Cath is a GP and their father Keith is a consultant paediatrician) to enjoy being happy and healthy outside and that has never left us. As kids we would walk for miles in the Dales.
One of my favourite destinations is Bolton Abbey, which is a gorgeous spot in the Dales with a lovely river going through it, an old crumbling monastery and loads of footpaths to run on. I enjoy the Wharfe Valley which is a really scenic area that runs from Wetherby to the villages of Kettlewell and Grassington further north.”
The brothers also recommend cycling up Fleet Moss - the highest road in Yorkshire - and visiting Burnsall, an Anglo-Viking settlement surrounded by fells where they enjoy devouring the toasted teacakes served at the Wharfe View Tea Room.
As a child Alistair enjoyed cross-country running and swimming while Jonny preferred team sports like football, rugby and cricket. They were introduced to the relatively new sport of triathlon - which only became an Olympic discipline at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 - by their uncle Simon. Once Ali started representing Great Britain in junior competitions, Jonny was determined to follow in the footsteps of his big brother. “It’s hard to say what influence that has had on my career because it’s just always been the way but Jonny has pushed me on,” says Alistair. Jonny is more explicit about the influence of his older brother: “When he started winning races, I knew I could do it too.”
Up close the brothers seem to run and cycle with almost balletic grace. Their running stride is so light they appear to float, as I thud clumsily along behind them.
When they cycle, their upper bodies remain perfectly still while I awkwardly wriggle around. But despite their elite talent, the brothers still take part in fun local sporting events alongside amateur athletes. They enjoy local fell-running and trail-running races, including the Auld Lang Syne Race on New Year’s Eve and the Bunny Run at Easter, which are both held near the Pennine village of Haworth. “Some of the local events are proper old country races with marquees in the fields, cake contests and cow judging and that kind of thing,” says Alistair. “There is a local man called Dave Woodhead who organises a lot of the races with his wife Eileen and their races have a lovely friendly atmosphere.”
The brothers are clearly proud of their heritage, which is why they set up the Brownlee Foundation to encourage children to be active. To date the foundation has enabled 10,000 primary school children to have a go at a minitriathlon in the hope they will get as much pleasure from at least one of the sports as Alistair and Jonny have. Every September they host the Brownlee Tri at Harewood House to encourage newcomers to sample the sport they love. “There has been a big shift in the perception of triathlons in Britain,” says Alistair. “People thought it was a sport that only mad people do, but now everybody realises it’s a popular sport that anyone can have a go at.”
Huge local crowds greeted the Brownlees when the ITU World Triathlon Series - the primary annual international series for elite triathletes – came to Leeds last June, with 80,000 spectators lining the streets. Alistair finished first with Jonny coming in second and the older brother has admitted that the experience of winning a home town race was unique. “I think I have said that the Olympics (in London) was the best race I have ever raced in, but now I think that just beat it,” he said afterwards. Jonny agreed: “I wanted to slap as many hands as I could in the crowd, but I was just too tired. The race was simply incredible.” The event returns to Leeds on 10-11 June this year and the Brownlees will be keen to repeat their success.
But who will come out on top? The brothers have always enjoyed a playful rivalry. As kids they would argue over games of Monopoly or engage in spontaneous sword fights with wooden sticks. But at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Cozumel, Mexico, last September, they were involved in an iconic moment of sportsmanship. Jonny was leading the race and in pursuit of his second world title when the heat and humidity reduced his legs to jelly. As Alistair came along behind him, he grabbed his brother by the shoulder and ushered him over the line in a bold but ultimately futile attempt to help his brother win the title.
The gesture triggered a wave of positive responses around the world. US chat show host Ellen DeGeneres got in touch to invite them onto her show. Prime Minister Theresa May even mentioned it in her Conservative party conference speech. But despite the furore, the Brownlees insist such fraternal help is a rarity. “Our rule is that we help each other if we can and it isn’t going to affect our own chances,” says Alistair, with a smile. “But in a sprint finish it would be each man for himself.”
This article was taken from This is Y 2017