THERE are few sports which test one to their physical limit in quite the way triathlon does.

And to add to the spectacle of some of the world’s fittest men pushing themselves to near exhaustion, yesterday’s men’s race at the Glasgow 2018 European Championships turned into a thrilling cat and mouse chase in the hunt for gold, while home favourite Marc Austin was forced to peel himself off the tarmac mid-race just to make it to the finish line.

Ahead of the race at Strathclyde Park, it was double Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee who was the star attraction but two hours later, it had been exposed how even one of the greatest triathletes in history cannot afford to be anything less than at his best if he wants to get his hands on any silverware.

Instead of Brownlee crossing the line in first place, as we have see so often over the past decade, it was Frenchman Pierre Le Corre who took gold, but not after a scare from Spain’s Fernando Alarza, who was gaining ground on the leader with every step of the run. Belgium’s Marten Van Riel took the third step on the podium, leaving three-time European champion Brownlee languishing in, what is for him, something of an alien position of fourth.

The Englishman’s past year has been severely disrupted by injury, as well as his attempt to transition, at least in part, to Ironman. But someone with the pedigree Brownlee rarely stands on the start line without at least some degree of expectation upon his shoulders, and yesterday’s European Championships were no different.

The swim was, as it always is, fast, furious and above anything, rough. Brownlee exited the water in fifth place but a good transition ensured he was in the front pack of nine athletes on the bike. Brownlee’s compatriots, Austin and Barclay Izzard, were in the chasing pack and with the ride at the halfway point, were almost a minute down which while a considerable gap, was certainly not insurmountable.

But in the blink of an eye, Austin, who won Commonwealth bronze earlier this year and was an outside pick to win his first European medal yesterday, was sprawled on the tarmac, grasping his ribs and looking to every one of the watching spectators that his race was over. However, the 24-year-old showed his strength of character and against all odds, was back in the saddle just a few minutes later. His race in terms of fighting for medals was over though and he was, from then on, only racing for personal pride, ultimately finishing 35th.

Brownlee meanwhile, began the run in a lead group of three but Le Corre and Van Riel exposed the Englishman’s lack of training and broke away, seemingly sowing up gold and silver. However, Alarza wasn’t finished just yet and reeled Brownlee in before also overtaking Van Riel. However, he just ran out of time to overhaul Le Corre, with the Frenchman crossing the line eleven seconds ahead of the Spaniard.

“It was really tough with Alistair Brownlee,” Le Corre said.

“I was really scared of him because I know he’s an opponent who is really hard to beat but it was my day so I’m really happy.

“Alistair is not in his best shape right now, I could see it, but he will be back. Fortunately for me, he was not great.

“I didn’t know Alarza was closing - just at the end when I was looking back I saw him and thought, ‘Oh, he’s coming strong’ so I tried to push it a little bit, to keep my gap, and that was fine.”

For Brownlee, fourth place would at one time have been hugely disappointing. But the 30-year-old admitted that he has, in recent times, seriously considered retirement and so just being on the start line at these European Championships and competing in the manner he did considering the injury woes he has had to endure was a victory in itself. Although there were, he admits, few lessons he could glean from this event.

“The only thing I learned was that I’m not very fit,” he said of yesterday’s race.

“It was good though still being able to come out of the swim in the front pack and ride well. I haven’t done this Olympic distance racing for over a year so it was good to see that’s still there.

“So I think if I can put a bit more training together, I can be competitive. It’s been an awful year and there were times I definitely questioned whether I wanted to carry on doing it so to be honest, I just enjoyed racing.

“It’s tough when you’ve had injury after injury after injury, getting used to training again is pretty hard so it was fantastic just being here and I was actually enjoying a lot of that race.”

Brownlee’s next outing is the World Half-Ironman Championships next month and while yesterday’s fourth place was not the preparation he had hoped for, he believes he has enough time remaining to make a few final tweaks. And there were plenty of positives he could glean just from being back racing at the elite level.

“I’m definitely still going to do it (the half-Ironman world championships),” he said.

“I would have liked to have put in a better performance (yesterday) but at the end of the day, I didn’t and I’ve still got three weeks left and so I’ve got quite a lot of tough training to do.

“The performance was almost irrelevant - being here, being on the start line and being able to train was the important thing.

“I kind of know the performance will come if I can do the training. It was good though – having not stood on the start line in a top level, Olympic distance race for over a year, you don’t know if you can get out in the first pack and ride like that.

“It was actually quite a testing race because I really got beaten up a lot in the first 100 metres of the swim and I had to do a lot of swimming up to make it into that front pack, so small things like that you can definitely take some pleasure from.”

While Brownlee may have considered retirement at occasional points during his injury lay-off, he is too tough a cookie to allow one tough period to spell the end of his career. And as long as he continues to love what he does, he admits retirement is still some time away.

“You see it as a bit of a challenge and if I didn’t enjoy challenges I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

“I’ve always been really motivated by enjoying what I do, so it’s so important that motivation remains.”