Thursday, November 27, 2008
The Great Drafting Debate
This is a debate that is almost as old as the sport of triathlon. It goes on and on and on and . . . . . To get some idea of how long and deep the debate is, I would suggest to readers that they head over to the Slowtwich forum and do a search on "Drafting" and you will find likely hundreds of threads that do go on and on and on . . .
In the early years of triathlon it came about, that there was a gentleman's agreement between athletes that this was to be an individual test of endurance. When you drafted on the bike behind another rider, there was a significant advantage( 30%+) for the trailing rider. It was agreed that we would not do this. That we would not take that advantage and that we would ride on our own for the whole bike leg. In the early years of the sport, this agreement worked wonderfully. It became part of the rules. The reasons that it worked well was the race fields were relatively small and back then their was a lot of differentiation between people's swim, bike and run abilities and fitness. The strong swimmers led the swim the stronger cyclists moved up on the bike and then the strong runners moved up on the run. However, towards the late 80's race field sizes started to grow considerably as the sport of triathlon went through it's first real growth spurt. I first started to see the problem first hand at the U.S. Triathlon Championships at Hilton Head, SC in 1987. Despite wave starts, on a flat an narrow one lane 40K bike course, large packs of riders started to form. For the first time, the gentleman's agreement was not working. There was a considerable amount of arguing and bickering going on during the bike. Two things were clear: 1) At times, their were simply too many people on too little road in too short a period of time. 2) There were people who were not agreeing to the gentleman's agreement!
The Middle Ages
In the late 80's the sport of triathlon really started to break out in the open. Participant numbers started to make a huge jump. The Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii started to really gain prominance as the sport's most important and high profile race. The International Triathlon Union (ITU) formed, as the sports world governing body and in 1989 hosted the first World Championships. For the first time race offcials and referees were appointed to police the bike leg and enforce the n0-drafting rules. This worked for a time, but it was starting to get a bit out of control - particularly at bigger, high profile events such as the ITU World Cup races, The ITU World Championships as well as the Ironman races. It reached a low point, during 1992 when at the ITU World Championships that year, almost 100 men emerged from the water within 30 seconds of one another after the swim and despite a challenging 40K bike, their was still a large group of 50 men still all very close to one another all heading out onto the run. The bike had done nothing to seperate the key contenders.
At several World Cups in '92 and '93, the scene after the races had been one of chaos and confusion. A number of the top 10 finishers ahd been disqualified out-right for drafting on the bike, even in some cases the first person across the finish-line. Post race appeals would be launched by the DQ'ed athletes and there was considerable arguing and bickering amongst athletes, and race officials. The net result of all this was that even an hour or so after the race was over, their was still not known who won the race. Media needed to file stories and the TV folks were now wondering if they had video of who actually won the race! How could they put a TV show together with no or very limited video of who factored in the final results? This is an over simplification, but the ITU in their wisdom said - fine we tried everything, now it's going to be swim/bike/run however you want, and the first across the finish-line wins! It's simple. It's straight-forward. Everyone get's it. They would allow drafting on the bike. This upset many in the sport. To this day, there are many that really don't care at all for the ITU racing. Some going so far as to say it's not triathlon anymore. It did change the dynamics of the racing quite a bit. The importance of the bike was diminished. However, over time, the importance of the swim was heightened considerably and the run, was as it always had been, was still the most important leg, if for no other reason, than it was last!
Meanwhile, the Ironman races were growing in popularity at a significant rate. Race fields for many of the races including Ironman Hawaii were now well over 1000 athletes. Despite the 180k length of the bike, there was considerable traffic and bunching early on in the bike portion. I first started to notice this at Ironman Hawaii in 1993. I swam exactly 1:00 their that year and headed out on the bike ride in a moderately sized group that only grew in size as we made our way along the Queen K Hwy to the half-way point in the town of Hawi. It had the feel of a big bike race, quite frankly. For the first time, the race was using marshals out on the course to try and enforce the no- drafting rules, but it was doing little to break things up. I recall some heated exchanges between athletes and officials as well as athlete to athlete, but for the first 100K it really did nothing to break things up and as far as I know, no penalties were handed out. What the officials could or would not do or the athletes themselves, the length and the winds on the IMH course would eventually do anyway. I recall riding mostly on my own that year from past the 100K mark to the finish of the bike.
As time went on in the '90s and the sport grew larger and larger with more races, the drafting problem in the non-ITU races, particularly the Ironman races and the 1/2 IM races grew. If you stood at the exit from the the first transition after the swim, as athletes were getting on their bikes, it became apparent what one of the key issues was - there were too many athletes on too little road in too little period of time. The no drafting rules by this time had been much more clearly defined and everyone was made aware of them. They were read out and gone over in detail at mandatory pre-race meetings. The rules, were good, but at certain times and places on the bike courses at these big races, now with close to 2,000 people in them, the rules were asking athletes to do something that was almost physically impossible to do!
In my last race in 1997 at Ironman Canada, for the first 50K, there really was no where to go. There were times when it was almost impossible to ride legal. Things in this race did not start to break-up until we started the long 15K climb up the Richter Pass, past 60K. Beyond the summit of Richter, it was fine. I recall riding in a small group, that rode legal. The old gentleman's agreement worked in these situations. We knew and respected one another. There was lots of road and space. There was a give and take, but an understanding that we would each do this on our own. After that last race in '97, I became an observer, but all I can say is that the drafting would become worse and worse. Another contributing factor was that unlike back in the early days, as people improved in the sport and the became true triple sport athletes, there was no longer that differentiation any more. Many were swimming, and cycling in particular, with a similar level of fitness and talent.
As an observer of races now, I realized that people were starting to fall into groups. There were those who were blatantly drafting. Who took every advantage that they could out on the bike. From what I could tell this was a relatively small group. There was another group who would inadvertently get caught up in the drafting - through no fault of their own. They simply became overwhelmed by the physics of it all - too many people, on too little road in too short a period of time. You can't have over 100 people finish the swim, and head out on the bike in less than a minute, and have them all line up nicely single file with a 7m space between each of them. Based on the size of races many in the middle of the field fell into this group. It was a moderately large number of people. It tended to vary based on how challenging the bike course was physically - larger on flatter course like Ironman Florida, less large on more challenging bikes courses like Ironman Wisconsin. Another group was the people that really did not care about the drafting rules in the big IM races. With respect, these tended to be the people towards the back of the pack. They were in this for the challenge. Time/place was irrelevant to them. They were simply going to finish. They trained with a group of friends for this race, so I race day they wanted enjoy or suffer along with others.
For a time, some of the big IM races tried a draconian implementation of the no-drafting rules. It did not work to well as their was considerable upset amongst athletes who had been DQ'd particularly those towards the back of the race who were really going just to finish. Some slightly different rules were tried - on the road time penalties, that would be served on the bike course, in Penalty Tents set up along the course. Get nailed for Drafting and you would be asked to report to the next Penalty Tent and check in, and then wait for 4 minutes. More and more officials were being asked to referee the bike leg. At big IM races there could be 20 officials out on motorcycles patrolling the course. (The picture at the top of the page is of the WTC Head Referee Jimmy Riccitello briefing the Draft Marshals before they head out on the bike course at this years Ironman Hawaii World Championship race) Despite handing out hundreds of penalties per race, the drafting on the bike was still an issue and cause for much debate and discussion after races.
It's still a big problem. There is no easy solution. The obvious ones, are impractical, unpaletable or financially impossible given the way races are funded and financed these days almost completely on race entry fees. Wave starts help, but unless, you carefully think through the wave starts, and have enough of a gap between waves, Wave Starts can make the drafting out on the bike worse! Challenging, bike courses also help - in a big way. It's no surprise that the drafting is at it's worst on very flat bike courses, and considerably less on a bike course that really challenges triathletes. My wife raced at Ironman Lanzarote earlier this year - a race that has perhaps the most challenging bike profile of any of the big IM races, and she saw almost no drafting. Many are proposing complex and complicated monitoring systems with GPS units on each bike to police the no-drafting. Sounds cool, but I worry that an already complicated, complex and expensive sport may get even more complicated, complex and expensive. Sport when it's at it's best, should be simple. It should be the athletes and the competition that settle things, not some complex set of rules that can seem rather bewildering. As I mentioned earlier, it's one of the key reasons the ITU went the direction that it did in the early 90's. At the time, the ITU was wrestling with the drafting issue, they were also lobbying the IOC for inclusion in the Olympic Games. The ITU had been told, that the IOC likes simple sports, and sports that look good on TV. The no-drafting format was somewhat confusing to the lay person, and as previously stated often yielded bizarre results at the finish line where the winner, was not the winner!
The ITU racing is very exciting and the finishes often have a high degree of drama. If anyone witnessed any of the Olympic Triathlon races over the last three Olympic Games, it's hard not to agree with this. Still, there are those that don't believe this is real triathlon racing. I see their point, if you consider the roots of the sport. The overall importance of the bike leg has been diminished, but only in one dimension - that of it being about strong Time Trialing fitness. In actual fact the demands on ITU racers on the bike have increased! It's not just about putting your head down and hammering, you need to be able to think and react like a real road race cyclist. You need to be able to ride in pack, corner and cover moves and breaks. You need to be able to attack on hills and recover quickly. Sometimes things do happen on the bike and a move get's away. Sometimes it does not. There is much more going on than meets the eye. Many still pooh-pooh all this and go as far as saying that ITU triathletes are not strong cyclists. Perhaps, but I note that whenever the very best ITU triathletes jump into a no-drafting race, they are always near the front and, many of the very best athletes at the Ironman distance these days, and the 1/2IM or 70.3 distance are former ITU racing standouts!
At the Ironman races, they have now seperated the Professionals from the rest of the Age-Group athletes by having the Pros start before the Age-Group mass start. This allows race offcials to more carefully monitor the Pro race and make sure that those racing for money are doing it fairly and within the rules. For the most part the Pro Ironman races are fair and even affairs. The Age-Group Ironman races are still marred to a certain degree by drafting - the amount of it depends on the race and the bike course. Offcials do what they can when they can to break things up. They seem to be taking a realistic approach realizing that early on in the bike, in big Ironman and 1/2 IM events, say the first 20K or so, that it's impossible for everyone to ride totally legally, so they back off. Still, it's an issue, that knows no real solution.
I apologize if I have lead you down a path with no real answers or solutions to this issue, but currently, there really is nothing on the table that is going to dramatically change things. My only hope with this post was to give a brief overview of the history of where we have come from with this issue from the early days of the sport, through the middle years, and onto today. As I see it, part of the issue is the philosophy of what the bike leg of a triahtlon really is, and how different athletes see it and approach it, differently. I have some thoughts on this that I will address in a future post. Stay tuned!