Elite triathlete Phil Graves explains why this solitary sport needs group support…
This month I want to talk about something becoming ever more evident in triathlon: the emergence of teams at all levels of the sport. These range from the French Grand Prix teams to the Specialized triathlon team that I am part of. They are all forging a team ethic and identity only really seen in cycling before. Does this mean triathlon is becoming a more professional sport? Or that companies think sponsoring a group of athletes means they’ll have more exposure than just putting everything into one ‘ambassador’ athlete?
Even at an international level we talk about the GB Triathlon Team, which I’m privileged to be part of, and I was lucky enough to race the European triathlon championships and be part of Alistair Brownlee’s fantastic win there.
Triathlon is an individual sport and always will be, but those who have excelled at our sport have grown up with a ‘team’ or ‘training group’ atmosphere around them and a list of sponsors to support its athletes. I can remember going on northern triathlon squad camps funded by the then BTA in the Yorkshire Moors, run by Jack Maitland and Simon Ward. There was such a good group of athletes there, both the Brownlee brothers, Dann Brook, myself and a whole host of other athletes who, if they had stuck at it, I have no doubt would have been winning 70.3 races and ITU World Cups.
It is in an environment like this that people are going to excel – we went running up Ingleborough in what can only be described as a snowstorm – the snow was actually horizontal – all before we were even 16! We would stay in a bunk house and go mountain biking until people were in tears, they were so cold, and do five-hour rides that had more climbing than an alpine stage of the Tour de France. It was on days like this that a real British Triathlon team formed, and it means now that when we go on camps away with Joel Filliol and the British triathlon crew there’s a strong team atmosphere.
Everyone wants to push everyone else on, and this leads to world and European titles. I don’t think these camps happen anymore, but it would be amazing if they made a comeback – I know myself and Alistair would quite happily attend and hopefully inspire the next generation of triathletes.
But what about the commercial teams? I’m lucky enough to be part of the Specialized team, and it’s great to have such idols like Simon Whitfield and Chris McCormack as team mates. After Wildflower triathlon this year a group of us, including Rasmus Henning, Conrad Stoltz, Macca himself and Desiree Ficker, went to visit Specialized Headquarters just outside San Francisco. We spent a few days learning about the products, riding with the staff and having meetings with people from research and development.
We rode the lunch rides (a 45min ride with the hardest 20 minutes of cycling in the world, where I may have accidentally ‘gapped’ Macca on one of the rides and dropped him), and we did a bit of training, but it was good to get together and have a team identity. As a bike geek, for someone to sit me down and ask me what should be in the next Specialized bike is just amazing. This is why Specialized have such a large team of not only long-distance athletes, but also ITU and Xterra pros too. It was great to sit there as professional athletes and talk about how they could be improved.
I think the increase in the number of ‘teams’ only reflects the growing commercial interest and value companies have now placed on triathlon. We are all involved in an incredibly exciting sport and people are starting to realise this. Triathlon may be an individual sport, but when we are all out there racing, pros and age groupers alike – it’s good to feel that we are all part of a greater triathlon community, experiencing the same feelings on the same course on the same day! See you on the road.