British Triathlon is preparing to head to Brazil with its strongest Olympic team ever. Among the six departing for Rio de Janeiro there are five genuine medal contenders, but the sixth member, 22-year-old Gordon Benson, has a very different role.
Having trained with the Brownlee brothers for the best part of a decade, the Leeds local has been selected as the designated pilot to help them repeat the podium success of London 2012. 220 columnist Tim Heming caught up with Benson at British Tri’s high altitude camp in Switzerland where the team are completing their last block of training before the Olympics.
220: St Moritz has become a favourite training environment for the Brownlees, but how are you enjoying it?
GB: We arrived three weeks ago after racing in Stockholm. We’ve nine more days before flying from Zurich to Rio. I’m training well and hopefully I’ll feel the benefits when back at sea level. This is the second time I’ve been to St Moritz and there is a lot of aerobic focus – the thin air means you have to work harder and you don’t recover quite so well.
220: How has training changed since you were allocated the pilot role?
GB: I’m here to support Alistair and Jonny and it’s a sacrifice I was happy to make. I’ve spent a lot of time changing my swim stroke to increase the stroke length, roll more from the hips than the shoulders and iron out imperfections and I’m more efficient and hitting better times in training. But I am still running a little and will do everything I can to finish as high as possible in Rio.
220: What are the benefits of training with the sport’s fastest swimmer, Slovakian Richard Varga?
GB: It’s similar to watching swimming on TV when the world record line moves along the pool. It’s a good gauge and if I can be anywhere near that record line, I know I’m swimming well.
220: What specific sets are you using to gauge your progress?
GB: A main set would be 10 x 200m off 2min 40sec turnaround. I’m swimming each in 2min 18sec, which doesn’t make for a generous recovery at altitude. On the bike, I’ve been taking part in two chain-gangs a week and it’s similar to racing. I’ve also completed more specific work to mirror the hill in Rio.
220: Realistically, can you make the front pack out of the swim in Rio?
Yes, and I’m relatively confident. I’ve had up and down swims this year, but training is now more consistent and I’ve hit every split in the pool. In Yokohama [in May], I was third out of the water, which – other than Alistair and Jonny – is the best swim by a British athlete in the World Series and nailed my Olympic selection. In Leeds, I was 15secs back and the nature of the course meant the break went straightaway.
In Stockholm, I was happy with my swim, but had a nightmare in transition with helmet issues. Taking the positives, I held the distance to the lead group for the first two bike laps before dropping back and waiting for Adam Bowden. I didn’t finish the race because I’d been playing with my bike position and was trying different tri-bars. It contributed to a sore back, but pulling out was just precautionary.
220: Did you learn much from the World Series race in Leeds?
GB: If there had been a group of 10 away at the front instead of four, I’d have been in it, but we got the result [Alistair first and Jonny second]. I tried to lead Tom Bishop and Adam Bowden into transition and it was a great opportunity to race at home.
220: What will be the tactics if you are in the second pack in the Olympics, with Alistair and Jonny in the front group?
GB: The ideal scenario is that I’m nowhere near the second pack, but if I am, I’ll try and jump across without bringing anyone with me. If not, then I’ll roll round without too much negative racing and won’t actively slow anyone down as that is frowned upon.
220: You missed the Test event last year, so have you ever been to Brazil?
GB: No, it’s a bit of a shame going in blind but not the end of the world. I’ll be both confident and comfortable. [It will also be Jonny Brownlee’s first trip to Brazil]
220: Will the absence of Javier Gomez with a fractured arm have any impact on your race?
GB: Not particularly. It’s a shame as it’s nice to have the main contenders racing, but it’s still an Olympic field and my approach won’t change.
220: How important is the team dynamic and camaraderie around the camp?
GB: The Olympic Games is a massive stage and it’s the biggest race of my life, but I’m aiming to have a good time and enjoy it. It’s a great opportunity, but it’s also just another race where I have goals and will go there to try and deliver.
220: Have you spoken to London 2012 ‘domestique’ Stuart Hayes?
GB: I barely know Stu. He was leaving ITU as I was coming in so we’ve not crossed paths an awful lot. I do know the reserve pilot for 2012, Todd Leckie, and he’s provided advice, but Alistair and Jonny are the best pair to speak to.
220: With Russian track and field athletes banned from the Games, do you agree with the ITU’s decision to allow Russian triathletes to compete?
GB: I don’t have much opinion on it. I’d be disappointed if the ITU did not request the names of Russians that have failed tests [to check if any are triathletes], but I’m not too miffed as to who is on the start-line. I’m all for clean sport and we’ve been drug tested several times since being out here.
220: What did winning in the European Games title in Baku last year mean to you?
GB: It was brilliant. I was 21 years old and went to that race as the designated team leader with two guys [Tom Bishop and Phil Graves] working for me. It’s rare anyone has that opportunity and I was grateful British Triathlon believed in me. Halfway through the bike course, it looked like it would become a running race, but we managed to establish a gap into T2 and I hung on during the run. It was the first time team tactics in triathlon have really been successful and it was a pleasure to be part of.
220: What will the season hold for you after Rio?
GB: Last year I was tired after training in St Moritz and finished fifth in the World Under-23 championships in Chicago. I’ve been to all the world championships since 2011 and while I’ll be a little short of run training In Cozumel [this year’s ITU Grand Final], I can use my swim and bike strength and it will be nice to be racing for myself again.
220: What about next season and beyond?
I’d love to be in Tokyo in four years, but who knows what’ll happen. The Commonwealth Games is on the Gold Coast in 2018. It’s sprint distance and it would be great to go, make a break away and put in a decent run. Next year I’d like to be racing consistently in the top 10 of the World Series.
220: Finally, a chance to plug your sponsor. How do you fuel through a typical day?
GB: I swim at 7.30am so might grab a couple of slices of toast beforehand. I then have a Muller Rice in the car on the way home to recover. It’s easy to eat on the go. I’ll be out on the bike then have some decent carbs around lunchtime, with a run in the evening. I enjoy cooking, so maybe a tortellini or stir-fry and I try and eat a balanced diet. I fuel well around big training days and don’t overeat on easier days and I target proteins to aid recovery.
Müller Rice is the official British Triathlon partner, helping Team GB go the distance in the lead-up to Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games. Look out for Gordon fronting the campaign on TV and in magazines until October.