By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee said their target for 2019 is to have a "boring year" as they tentatively return to full fitness following a dire run of injuries that left the British brothers largely as triathlon also-rans in 2018.
It sounds a modest ambition for the duo, who have Olympic glory, world titles and a string of prestige race wins to their names but, after spending their entire lives competing against each other in a range of sports, they are now going head-to-head over who had the most debilitating year on the injury front.
On Friday, Jonny declared 2018 "the worst year of my career", only for big brother Alistair to chip in with: "I probably had a worse one."
Such is the intensity involved in training full time for swimming, cycling and running that injuries are part of a triathlete's life. However, those weeks and months spent in rehabilitation means that when they do finally get everything in working order, they enjoy just being able to race.
"I got injured at the start of the year and wasn’t on a podium in a big race the whole year," Jonny told Reuters.
"This is the first time for about 14 months that I haven’t had any kind of niggles - I’m touching lots of wood now. I’ve been able to train well since November and so far this year’s gone well.
"I'm looking forward to a good consistent year – just a boring year, that’s what I want, where I’ve got no injuries and can just train and race well. I'll certainly take a year without any disasters," added Jonny, who was speaking at London's Triathlon Show, sponsored by OTE Sports.
The year has started well for Jonny with a February victory in the Singapore leg of the sport's new Super League format, featuring multiple short-distance events with new concepts such as eliminators, reverse-order races and handicapped startlines.
"To race well there, and more importantly feel good, was very encouraging," he said of his triumph in an event he describes as: "fun racing - new, exciting, different, short and fast."
Having said that, Jonny, the younger Brownlee at 28, said he remained committed to the 1,500m swim, 40km bike and 10km run classic distance, where he has a silver and bronze medal from the last two Olympics and is dreaming of completing his collection in Tokyo next year.
Whether he will be again racing against his brother - gold medallist at the London and Rio Games - remains one of the hottest topics of the sport.
Alistair has yet to decide whether to bid for the golden hat-trick or continue his experiment into longer distances with an eye on the Ironman world championships in Hawaii.
Despite his injury travails in the wake of hip surgery late in 2017, he produced a great performance to take silver in last September's half-Ironman world championships, behind 2008 triathlon Olympic gold medallist Jan Frodeno of Germany, who has successfully made the step up and triumphed twice in Hawaii.
"I was pleased with that race and I've had a good three or four months training after probably an even worse year than Jonny," Alistair said, adding that he was in no rush to decide on his long-term racing plans.
"My priority really is to remain injury-free," he said. "I'm definitely still keeping the door for the Olympics open but the very process of focussing on a race, where you train a bit harder and get more specific, means the risk of over-training and injury goes up massively - especially now I'm in my 30s (he turns 31 next month).
"So, instead, I'm focusing on training consistently and enjoying it and that’s been good so far. If in a year or 14 months, if I'm not injured, and there's the possibility of going to the Olympics, then I’ll be pretty happy with that."
New to the Olympic programme in 2020 is the mixed relay, an event the brothers enjoy and where they took a gold for England at the 2014 Commonwealth Games alongside Jodie Stimpson and Vicky Holland, and silver last year.
"It’s great fun, there's that team aspect you don’t get much elsewhere in triathlon, Jonny said. "It’s short and fast and can be very tactical and technical – the margins are tight and a messed transition or getting a penalty messes up the whole team's chances and next year could ruin a medal chance.
"So that high-pressure scenario makes it exciting and if Britain can get it right then there is a really good medal chance in Tokyo."
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Pritha Sarkar)