Brothers Jonny and Alistair Brownlee lock horns in their home city next week before flying to the Olympics. Nick Westby reports.
Gold Coast, Australia, April 2015. Jonny Brownlee feels invincible.
He has just left the best triathletes in the world in his wake for the second race in succession, building on his victory in Auckland a fortnight earlier with another commanding performance.
There is no question at that moment as he breasts the tape with the sun on his back and ocean lapping at the shore in the distance, that the world champion of 2012 is once against the best triathlete on the planet.
Even with his elder brother out of action due to injury, surely in this kind of form, no-one can stop Jonny Brownlee.
Fast forward 14 months and 10 stops on the World Triathlon Series across two seasons, and the younger Brownlee is still looking for his next win.
He returns to Leeds next weekend for his home city’s inaugural staging of a leg of the Columbia Threadneedle World Triathlon Series, not just proud to represent his beloved sport in the county that instils in him such pride, but also desperate to prove that with Rio just two months away, he remains a genuine contender.
“I’d say I’m where I need to be,” says Brownlee, main picture, of his form and fitness heading into this most crucial of summers.
“I was very close to having a successful southern hemisphere swing again this year. On a cooler day I could have won in Gold Coast, and would have been closer in Cape Town had it not been for that. So it could have been very different but in some ways that’s actually quite good because it means I’ve got things to improve upon.”
It may sound both defensive and optimistic from the usually placid Brownlee, but scratch beneath the surface and you will discover that his initial assessment is pretty accurate.
He has not raced in all of the 10 legs that have taken place since his last win. That Gold Coast stroll last year was his last for a while because as he later discovered, he had peaked too soon and spent much of the rest of 2015 on the sidelines with injury.
He returned to Australia this April and finished third, which would have been better had heat exhaustion not sucked the air from his lungs with one kilometre to go. “I lost an hour of my life,” recalls Brownlee, no stranger to requiring medical assistance after a race such is the energy he has consumed. “I ran into a kerb and thought ‘hang on, something’s wrong here’.” Two weeks later he finished second over the sprint distance in Cape Town.
If anything, the last 12 months have made Jonny a better athlete.
“Last year taught me a lot about what to do and what not to do. I actually think about training a lot more now and am not thinking I have to smash it every session. I’m a much more intelligent athlete. I’m a strong believer that you have to have made those mistakes yourself to fully appreciate it. And that’s what I did last year, I was too fit last year and got injured.”
The key for an athlete is to peak at the right time. For a triathlete in Olympic year, that is in Rio on August 18.
“Right now I’m not too fit and I’d like to think I’m on the up, where I need to be,” said Jonny, 26.
“I came out of Gold Coast last year too fit, I was flying, and that meant I got injured because I was very much at that limit, on the edge. Ideally, you’d reach the edge two days before you get to Rio. How long it lasts depends on how long it takes you to get to that point.
“If you build up slowly it could last for a couple of months but if you have to rush it and have only five weeks of really hard training then that edge might be shorter.”
There is no-one better than perfecting that art than Jonny’s elder brother Alistair.
The 28-year-old has also not had the most ideal of run-ins to Rio, but nor did he to London four years ago when he claimed a glorious Olympic gold medal.
He has not won a world series race since London last May, eight events ago, but as a man who has won everything there is to win, he can be more selective of when he races. Plus he has also suffered with injuries.
But is he beatable? “I’d like to think so,” says Jonny, who has still yet to do it on the biggest stages, even though he has not raced his brother for nigh on two years. “Obviously he’s very good at pulling it off on those one-day events and no-one is better than Alistair at peaking for things.
“The gap between us is closing but it depends on who is injured, who is not; who is ill, who is not.
“We haven’t raced each other properly for about two years. Last year, coming back from Gold Coast the gap had closed but then it all went wrong.
“He’s beatable – I just have to make sure it’s me who beats him.”
There are plenty of candidates to thwart them in Leeds next weekend, Spain’s Mario Mola in particular.
But do not under-estimate the will-power of the Brownlees, who have the double incentive of impressing their home crowd and proving a point to spur them on.
“It’s incredible to think we’ll be racing in Leeds,” said Jonny, who after next weekend’s two-day triathlon extravaganza in his home city, will join his brother for a five-week high-altitude training camp in St Moritz.
“For me it’s about getting my confidence back, to restore that belief in an Olympic-distance race.
“A lot of our coaches are a little worried we’re putting too much emphasis on this race, but we’re mature enough to know what we need to do as part of the bigger picture.
“Obviously I want to perform well in front of a home crowd but you don’t want to be peaking and coming off the end of that and still be hanging on for another eight weeks to Rio, so it’s a balancing act.
“Leeds fits in quite nicely to that. You want to get to a point where you are fit because there’s not months to go, but you don’t want to be too fit where you’re on the edge of injury, because when you’re fitter you’re more likely to be injured because you’re leaner and you’re running faster and your bones are a little bit weaker and you’re more susceptible to illness.
“You want to be fit but not knackered.”
Jonny Brownlee was speaking on behalf of race sponsors Colombia Threadneedle.