Can you run? Can you swim? Can you cycle? If you’ve answered yes to even one of those questions, you can get involved in triathlon – a sport that’s becoming increasingly popular across the county and indeed the nation, thanks to the influence of athletes such as Yorkshire’s Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, and serious investment into world-class training facilities.
Leeds University is playing a major role in triathlon’s surge in popularity. Bodies such as British Cycling, UK Sport, British Triathlon and Sport England have provided partnership funding which, along with funds provided by the University itself, has seen Leeds University’s Bodington Playing Fields site undergo a £5 million redevelopment. This has included the construction of one of the UK’s longest closed-road cycle circuits, the redevelopment of grass playing fields and the building of the Brownlee Centre, which opened earlier this year.
The latter will be used by some of the best triathlon athletes competing in the UK today. Making use of the first-rate strength and conditioning facility at the site, English Institute of Sport coaches will be working with athletes who have received funding from UK Sport and are competing at world class level.
Patrick Craig, Assistant Head of Sport at Leeds University, talks enthusiastically about some of the other facilities the Brownlee Centre has to offer. ‘The ground floor has become the home of triathlon in Leeds,’ he says. ‘There’s office space for the coaching and administration team, there are medical rooms and there’s a bike workshop where we have a mechanic based.’
This first-class facility has been named after two of Leeds University’s most well-known alumni: the Brownlee brothers who became the first British brothers ever to finish first and second in an individual event at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, where they picked up the gold and silver medals in the triathlon. ‘Alistair and Jonny both studied with us,’ Patrick explains. ‘We wanted to provide recognition for the great work they’ve done for the sport, and the region. They’ve been great ambassadors for the University, so it was an opportunity to recognise that. Their name has become synonymous with triathlon and Leeds, and Leeds as a city is becoming synonymous with the sport.’
Leeds is becoming something of a conveyor belt for producing top athletes. In June’s Columbia Threadneedle World Triathlon Leeds event, four out of the top five finishers in the men’s race were British, including Leeds’ Tom Bishop. Patrick also lists names such as Adam Bowden, Gordon Benson, Sam Dickinson, Ben Dijkstra and Alex Yee as ones to watch, along with Jess Lynn, Lucy Hall and Georgia Taylor-Brown in the women’s triathlon. ‘The sport’s in a really healthy place,’ he says. ‘Leeds is at the heart of that.’
Patrick attributes this good health to a number of factors: strong coaching; links between the regional academy, Leeds University, Leeds Beckett University and the full-time professional athletes; and the enthusiasm from local authorities and the general public in West Yorkshire.
‘The city as a whole has really got behind triathlon,’ Patrick says. ‘One of the aspirations of the City Council is to see us as a lead triathlon city. The Triathlon England Go Tri programmes have been really well-developed and delivered in Leeds, and there are some thriving community clubs who are providing opportunities for juniors and adults of all levels to get involved in the sport.’
Patrick speaks glowingly about the city and what events like June’s mean to the athletes competing in it. ‘I think the athletes love coming here because the support they get on the streets is not like anywhere else,’ he says. ‘It was five deep as they were coming into Millennium Square and the atmosphere was awesome.’
All of this makes for a very positive outlook as thoughts start to turn towards the summer of 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics. ‘That’s the pinnacle of the sport,’ Patrick says. ‘People train for four years to try and peak for those single events.’
He’s very quick to point out, however, that ‘the great thing about triathlon is it’s become so incredibly accessible, so you don’t have to be clad in lycra and riding an £8,000 bike to succeed.’ When asked how members of the public can get involved, Patrick has a wealth of suggestions. ‘The triathlon community is incredibly supportive,’ he says. ‘The local events are encouraging and inclusive. If you haven’t swum in open water before, have a go in a pool.
‘There are different distances,’ he continues. ‘There are local events run in Harrogate, for example, like Try A Tri that’s just a 180 metre swim – just six lengths of a 30 metre pool – and a short run and a short cycle. There are lots of little events like that and they’re a really good opportunity to dip your toe in the water.
‘There’s the cycle circuit at Bodington at the Brownlee Centre if you want to have a go on a bike in a closed-road environment so you’re not having to worry about traffic,’ Patrick goes on, ‘And the great thing about running is you can put your trainers on and go absolutely anywhere. You can do a triathlon in relays as well, so if you don’t like one of the disciplines you can find a group of friends and do it as a three. There are loads of different opportunities and ways to access the sport.’
Whether you’re looking to compete, try something new or simply find a new way of keeping fit, triathlon ticks all the boxes and, with one of Yorkshire’s biggest and brightest cities fast becoming a national leader in the sport, now seems like a great time to give it a go.
To add to the excitement surrounding triathlon in Leeds right now, a photography project has been commissioned to document a season of the sport in the city
Jude Palmer documented The Grand Départ for Welcome to Yorkshire in 2014, and has been granted behind-the-scenes access to Leeds’ triathlon events and coaching sessions to take photographs which will commemorate the 2017 season. Jude will be working in partnership with Leeds University and British Triathlon to get photographs for the project, which is being sponsored by local Leeds firm Simpson Millar. The project will culminate in the production of a commemorative book, regional and national exhibitions and the distribution of Jude’s images via social media.
When asked how this new project came about, Jude enthusiastically recalls the pitch she made to the University. ‘I said that this would be a great year to document a year in the life of triathlon in Leeds,’ she recalls. ‘Yorkshire’s got such a history with endurance sport and Leeds is now doing really well; becoming a centre for triathlon. They’re doing something amazing, and I wanted to find out what. I asked to document the World Trial and also the coaching sessions to try and capture what the magic formula is.’
Jude’s shots show the extreme emotion common in sport, making her a great fit for a photography project on the emergence of triathlon in Leeds, and she has some words of advice for any aspiring photographers out there. ‘I think you have to be interested in the subject matter,’ she says. ‘You really need to feel the passion, the endurance and the strength.
‘The type of photography that I do is about capturing the moment,’ she continues. ‘It makes no difference if you’ve got a massive camera or an iPhone, it’s about the image. The first thing I usually say to people is “ignore me.” You have to be literally a fly on the wall that can press a button – gradually people will get used to that, then you can get the intimacy.’
However, just because the project is based on Leeds, doesn’t mean that Jude’s photographs will be taken exclusively in the West Yorkshire city. The idea is to show predominantly what’s going on in Leeds,’ she says, ‘But you’ve got to give context and show what’s going on in the rest of the world. We’ll do Nottingham because that’s the relay, and we’ll do Rotterdam because that’s the Grand Final – hopefully we’ll have another a Brownlees win there.’
Jude was present at the triathlon event in Leeds in June and, like Patrick, recalls it with fondness. ‘It was a wonderful event,’ she says. ‘The crowds were out, and it was very inspiring to see the Brownlees coming up the blue carpet with everyone cheering.
‘Yorkshire’s fabulous sports-wise,’ she continues. ‘It’s just phenomenal when you look at what’s going on – not just in triathlon but in cycling, boxing, and a number of different sports. If we can put the spotlight on Yorkshire, and in particular on triathlon, that’s what the aim of the project is.’