World Triathlon: Chance to create a legacy in Leeds, says Jonny Brownlee

Former world champion Jonny Brownlee hopes this weekend's World Triathlon Series event in Leeds can do for his beloved sport what the Tour de France has done for cycling in Yorkshire.

Thursday, 9th June 2016, 9:00 am
Updated Monday, 13th June 2016, 1:19 pm
Jonny Brownlee, Olympic Triathlon medalist.

Two years ago, an estimated five million people came out to watch the Tour de France, in a weekend which united communities in the White Rose county and gave the people of Yorkshire an enormous sense of pride.

Brownlee and his elder brother Alistair missed out on the feelgood factor that swept a county because they were ensconced in their high-altitude training camp in St Moritz as they continued preparations for a Commonwealth Games campaign the following month which saw them win gold and silver.

But having spent his life a devoted Yorkshireman – using the roads that the Tour de France beat a path on for his training rides and runs – the younger Brownlee could still savour the moment even as he watched the events unfold back on his television screen in Switzerland.

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Jonny Brownlee, Olympic Triathlon medalist.

And in the intervening years he has seen the legacy of that memorable weekend in action; with more cyclists on the roads he knows so well, more organised events and even the yellow bikes still decorating the urban roads and city streets of this great county.

Now with his own event coming to his home city of Leeds this weekend, Jonny Brownlee wants a similar legacy for triathlon.

Granted, his sport is not starting from a stronger foothold in terms of history and infrastructure as cycling was.

But he makes a very good case for why it might take the same hold on the good folk of Leeds and Yorkshire.

Outdoor Swim Training at Otley Sailing Club. Brownlees: A Day in the life of. Picture Bruce Rollinson

“It’s a whole weekend of an event, there’s an open race on the Saturday and Sunday, plus the elite races in the afternoon and most importantly it’s a free event,” said the 26-year-old.

“What was great about the Tour de France was you could ride your bike out to the side of a hill, watch the race, take your sandwiches and you’ve had a lovely day out. And you played a part in it.

“That’s one of the advantages with the triathlon – the race is on a loop, it’s eight laps so if you can sit there with a young boy or girl you’ve got 90 minutes 
of sport, then there’s the women’s race as well so you’ll get three hours of people whizzing past.

“In many ways it’s a better day out than the Tour de France, and that’s what we want to achieve. I hope it can have the same effect as the Tour de France.

Jonny Brownlee, Olympic Triathlon medalist.

“What we want here in Leeds is to get the whole city as part of this triathlon experience.

“Hopefully there’ll be hundreds of thousands of people out there and everyone has a great weekend and people will turn up maybe not knowing much about triathlon, but will now get to really love it, get behind it and get involved with the sport, just like what happened with the Tour de France.

“That was amazing to see. We were in Switzerland at the time, but to see all those millions of people turn out on the street and the side of the road, the vast majority of them were probably not cycling fans, they were just Yorkshire fans or sport fans.

“So for triathlon to come here, hopefully we can get those sports fans involved in watching triathlon and hopefully that interest continues like we have seen with cycling.

Outdoor Swim Training at Otley Sailing Club. Brownlees: A Day in the life of. Picture Bruce Rollinson

“You cycle round the route of the Tour de France now and there’s cafes that are still painted, there’s tours that happen, you still see the yellow bikes out, you still see all the flags out and it’s still amazing.

“If we can have a bit of that it would be incredible for our sport.”

The name of Brownlee is one that resonates around not only their home city, but also the world of triathlon – hence why the world of triathlon has come to Leeds.

For Brownlee, a passionate advocate of his home county and city, bringing an event of such prestige here is a no-brainer.

He has been training here long enough, and knows exactly why it is such a magnet for the sport in this country, with Leeds being the high-performance centre for triathlon.

“You’ve got the environment here in Leeds, you ride out into the Dales almost straight away,” begins Brownlee on why he thinks Leeds is the hub.

“We’ve got great sports facilities. The culture of sport is great here and triathlon is latching onto that.

“As a nine-year-old I’d ride out to a random meeting point and go out into the Dales with 30, 40 people and there you’d meet the old cyclists who’d tell you tales of racing the world championships back in the old days.

“We’ve always had that culture, and it’s the same with the running groups.

“The universites have helped massively with triathlon, it’s been a centre at Leeds Beckett and Leeds Uni for about 15 years now, and Leeds Council have really got behind us now and really supported it.

“Environment comes first, then it’s culture and everything follows after that.”

And those key ingredients have proven a lure not only for Britain’s best – with the majority of the country’s leading female triathletes now part of their training group – but also athletes from around the world.

Famously at London 2012, the Brownlee brothers revealed a secret weapon in their quest to dominate the Olympic podium with Slovakia’s Richard Varga effectively working as a domestique for them in the swim, having spent the months prior to the Olympics training with them.

And Varga still practices with the Brownlees now.

“It’s a really big training group, myself and Alistair started training here as young kids and you build up a successful team around you and it attracts other athletes to come and they buy into the work ethic,” said Jonny.

“They buy into the hard training environment.

“There’s a culture here in Leeds that if you work hard you can achieve. Other athletes pick up on that.

“If you see another athlete in your group performing well you think you can do it as well.”

To cap all that preparation of course is the small matter of Jonny Brownlee trying to win Olympic gold in Rio later this summer, the perfect tonic for which would be victory on the streets of Leeds in front of his home fans.

“The bike ride is up a really big hill which suits me, because when we swim we don’t tend to have a really big kick so we can ride well off of it,” says Jonny on the challenges ahead on Sunday.

“The course itself is our first experience of road racing because we have a loop into the city centre, we’re doing corners for the first time.

“The loop is twisty, fast and has lots of corners to make it harder.

“It’s not a pan flat straight road where people can sit on the bike and cruise along, everyone is going to have to work really hard.

“It’s a real twisty-turny course, and hopefully from our point of view the home crowd can help us as well.”