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The Brownlee Factor: The Making Of Olympic Champions

  • By Aaron Hersh
  • Published August 8, 2012
Photo: Janos Schmidt / ITU

How exactly did Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee destroy most of the field at the London 2012 Olympics triathlon, and how are they planning to stay ahead of the competition.

The fastest run ever?
ITU run courses have a bad reputation for being short. Spectators like to see fast times and the times themselves are essentially irrelevant to the competition, so many people believe that blistering run splits should be looked at with a bit of skepticism. When asked about the speed of his run, Alistair Brownlee himself said, “Triathlon courses are notorious for not being accurate in the first place so the question would be if was it definitely 10K.”

He was quickly interrupted by the race organizer who asserted that the people who certified the length of the marathon course—a tightly monitored and very stringent process—also measured the triathlon run course, re-measured it and confirmed its accuracy. Assuming that is true, Alistair Brownlee might have executed the greatest run in triathlon history.

The course was divided into four loops, each 2.5K (1.56 miles) in length. Alistair took the lead immediately out of transition and averaged 4:28/mile pace for the first loop. He then ran 4:39/mile pace for the second loop, 4:40/mile for the third and 4:50/mile pace for his final loop, including covering the final 50m draped in a flag before walking the last few steps.

He is not the first person to split 29 minutes in a triathlon, but he may have been the first to do so on a course that is truly 10K long, and he did it without help. Although his brother Jonathan and Javier Gomez were never far away, Alistair bore the burden of setting the pace and breaking the wind for every step of the race. In the women’s race Erin Densham spent most of the 10K in front, but unlike Alistair she paid for it in the final mile and finished third. Running this incredible time, breaking the best in the world and doing it by himself separate this incredible run from others in the past. Brownlee said this run was, “As fast as I’ve ever gone and probably as fast as anyone has ever gone.” He could be right.

Team Tactics
The third member of Great Britain’s team, Stuart Hayes, was selected by British Triathlon solely to help the Brownlees. Other Brits were placed higher on the ITU rankings and stood a better chance to earn a top finish than Hayes, but none of these other athletes were a real threat to medal. Instead of throwing a third into the mix, Hayes was selected to protect the Brownlees during the often chaotic swim and bike.

Looking after two of the fastest swimmers in the sport isn’t easy and Hayes came out of the water behind the Brownlees, but when the bike pack coalesced, Hayes went to work.

Many of the ITU’s most successful triathletes simply sit in the pack and wait for the run, but that strategy leaves an athlete at risk for a crash or to miss a breakaway. The Brownlees often try to breakaway on the bike and eliminate many potential competitors before the run, but the course in London is dead flat, making an escape very unlikely. So rather than toiling at the front to stay safe or risk an accident at the back, Britain deployed Hayes. He put himself at the front of the lead bike pack and kept the pace high while sheltering Alistair and Jonathan from the wind. The brisk pace also kept the pack strung out into a line rather than allowing riders to bunch up, which is another potential cause for an accident.

In the end the Brownlees might have been fine without Hayes, but his presence reduced the risk of disaster.

Britain’s overt acknowledgment that Hayes played the role of domestique directs more attention to the possibility that triathlon will drift more toward team dynamics. Athletes who are weaker swim/bikers but strong runners—American Lukas Verzbicas comes to mind—could stand to benefit more than all-arounders like the Brownlees.

One of the most interesting things about Hayes domestique role was the way his training changed. He said after the race that he basically abandoned his run training in preparation for the Olympics, which allowed him to train better for the other two events. Saving the legs of an athlete capable of running with the Brownlees who may lack swim and bike speed by using helpers to get him in the race could be part of the recipe to challenging the dominance of the British duo.

Track and field meet promoters hire runners specifically to set a fast pace in the early stages of a distance race before stepping off the track and allowing the best to go at it. These pace-makers, called rabbits, often train specifically to complete this task and can make a good living on the track without ever crossing the finish line. Maybe triathlon’s version of the professional rabbit will eventually come about.

Penalty on the podium
Jonathan Brownlee picked a terrible time to get the first penalty of his career, but according to the athlete himself, it may not have affected the outcome.

He jumped on his bike one step—really just a few inches—too soon and was given a 15-second penalty. Jonny took it in stride, but Alistair was fuming after the race.

“I think penalties are a complete disgrace in triathlon, they’re ruining the sport,” said the Olympic champion after the race. “They’re bringing judgmental decisions into a sport where it should be simple, you start and you finish and the first three across the line win.”

Although he might have simply been defending his brother—there has to be a mount line somewhere—the influence of the penalty on the race was undeniable.

Despite being told by his coaches to serve the penalty during the first lap, Jonathan made the call on the fly to run past the penalty box on the first and second laps. He only entered the box after loosing about 3 seconds to Gomez. “He clearly made the right decision to take it later rather than earlier,” said British Triathlon performance manager Malcolm Brown.

Jonathan Brownlee was truly maxed after losing to Gomez by 20 seconds—5 more than he stood in the box—but he is the two-time ITU Sprint Distance Triathlon world champion, and Gomez is a notoriously slow kicker. As both Brownlees said, “we’ll never know” if the outcome would have been different without a penalty, but at least Jonathan seems to be at peace with it.

“That’s just racing”
The medal presentation—cutely given the official name Victory Ceremony—was delayed for several minutes while Jonathan Brownlee received medal attention. He crossed the line, walked around for a few minutes then went into a semi-hot room and collapsed to the ground. He was taken to the medical tent and covered with ice and wet towels to reduce his body temperature. Eventually he came out of the tent to receive his medal. Alistair also collapsed and needed medical attention at this same venue during 2010 ITU WCS London, and when asked about Jonathan’s condition, both athletes said, “it’s just racing.” Dropping to the ground and needing medical help is not “just racing” for most triathletes, but it has become fairly standard for these two because of their full-throttle racing.

Torch passed
The Brownlees and Gomez have run the old guard right out of the ITU. Simon Whitfield, Hunter Kemper, Bevan Docherty and even 2008 Olympic champion Jan Frodeno all said they plan to shift their focus away from the ITU and on to non-drafting races. Age is a factor, but they all cited the wildly fast run splits as a big reason they’re changing course.

These veterans might again be contending with the same problem they currently have in the ITU, however. Alistair Brownlee said after the race, “I might try and do something a bit different, some of the races in America that are non-drafting.”

Aero decisions
Aero road bikes and aero wheels are commonplace in the ITU pack, and aero helmets might be the next piece of equipment to migrate from non-drafting races over to the draft-legal format. Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee both raced in semi-aero road-style helmets without ventilation, the same style that was widely used for the first time in this year’s Tour de France. Stuart Hayes and Simon Whitfield took aerodynamic headwear even further and opted for full-on aero helmets. Whitfield anticipated having to chase out of the water and Hayes knew he would spend his day on the front of the bike pack protecting the brothers Brownlee, so they both had good reason to go aero. In fact, any athlete who could possibly end up in a breakaway on the bike or need to make up time after the swim can benefit from an aero helmet. Expect to see them more and more.

Interestingly, the Brownlees and Gomez decided to leave aerobars off their bikes and raced only with standard road-style drop bars while many of their competitors opted to use clip-ons.

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