DRAFTING – An ugly word in triathlon; does it also epitomize changing values in society?

Guest blog for Life of a Triathlete by Aaron Kessler

The negative fury the word DRAFTING evokes in the triathlon community is quite eye opening which is why I wanted to explore it in greater detail in this guest blog. This is an outside’s perspective coming from a former college athlete who has made his living in the finance world. I understand the passion of sports but can also approach this drafting analysis from a scientific, numbers perspective.

Let’s first discuss the ideals of full Ironman distance racing. When the event was developed in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the pure concept was the athlete versus the course versus other athletes on the same course all competing to reach the finish line first. It was male vs male and female vs female and each individual fighting alone to beat the course and the other athletes. The key word is ‘alone’ which means with no outside help. As I understand it, this was the vision of the founders of Ironman racing and the purity that should be preserved.

The next step is to define drafting. It seems straightforward:

Drafting/Slipsteam: The biggest enemy to a cyclist is aerodynamic drag. Riders can save a significant amount of energy by riding in a group behind other riders or by having their teammates break the air for them. The reduction of drag can be dramatic; in a well developed group, it can be as much as 40%.

As an enthusiastic observer of the sport of triathlon, I want to point out what I have learned about the polarizing word ‘Draft’. These are in no particular order.

  • The practice of drafting will save energy on the bike. For example, someone producing 200 watts of power drafting behind a rider will be going just as fast as somebody producing 250 watts without drafting (made up numbers; all depends on conditions).
  • Saving energy on the bike will allow for a better run; your legs will be fresher.
  • Drafting is not working alone – you knowingly or unknowingly are using other riders for your benefit.
  • Depending on how the race starts will affect the total outcome of the event. For example, if the pros start five minutes before the age groupers, many of the pros will be enveloped (women and some men) fairly early by the fast age groupers on the bike.
  • The majority of drafting penalties are assigned to the leaders of the race where the officials are concentrated. There is not enough man power to police the entire field. For example, the 2012 women’s race in Kona had the majority of the leaders getting penalized but few behind them.
  • No professional triathlete who receives a drafting penalty admits fault. The reasons usually heard are ‘the official saw it all wrong’, ‘the official was at a horrible angle’, ‘I have never received a penalty in X amount of years racing; no way I was drafting’. The stigma of being known as a ‘drafter’ or ‘cheater’ is a huge fear of any professional triathlete.
  • Although no professional triathlete admits to drafting, there are grumblings after every race that there were athletes drafting. The math doesn’t seem to add up here.

As I see it, this is what we are dealing with in regard to the ‘four letter word’ of draft. There are not enough officials to effectively police a race, according to many pros they believe the officials are not seeing the bikers ‘clearly’ or have a vendetta against them, the officials focus on the leaders and not the rest of the field, there are a large number of pros riding in packs of age groupers because of the design of the races, and professional triathletes always say they don’t draft yet there are always accusations. Once again, I have no stake in this analysis; I am just drawing conclusions that any casual observer could by studying Ironman distance racing.

Remember, the purity of the sport is to race alone with the goal being the finish line. The question that arises now is what if these rules have changed? Is it becoming acceptable to discover and exploit ways to get around these traditional, old school rules? I played college baseball and it is a sport where you are considered a tremendous strategist if you cheat; if you can get away scuffing the ball to alter a pitch, do it. From what I have observed, this may be seeping into triathlon in regard to drafting. Are you now a smart biker if you sit back and let others do the work of pushing the air and save your legs for the run? Are you a savvy individual if you ride in the middle of the pack knowing the odds are the officials will not be observing you? What is in place to stop a coach advising their athlete, who is a below average swimmer, thus, not getting out of the water with the faster swimming pros, to mingle with the fast age groupers in the 1st half of the bike to preserve their legs?

After Ironman Melbourne, there was much social media chatter about drafting because of the setup of the race, redesigned swim, and windy weather conditions. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the pelotons that formed while watching the ironman.com live coverage which ultimately altered the race for pros and age groupers. I am not calling athletes out but pointing to the apparent breakdown in the overall spirit of Ironman distance racing that should be addressed and not pushed under the rug as that dirty little secret no one wants to discuss. I encourage you to listen to the first off the bike Ironman Melbourne podcast where they brazenly discuss what was good and bad about the race; drafting was a passionate topic dissected.

Let’s compare drafting to doping since they both provide an advantage to the triathlete. Doping is a conscience decision you perform after much thought and contemplation to knowingly change your body to improve your performance. Drafting is something you do in the heat of the moment because your competitive spirit takes over, you might see others doing it, or you have some time to make up. Yes, there are outliers when you might unknowingly get involved in a draft situation or it can’t be controlled but, for the most part, riders should know they are doing it. Both doping and drafting are bashed in the triathlon community yet I consider doping to be way worse because it is a conscience decision over time. However, there may be emerging a new group of serial drafters who specialize in seeking out ways to capitalize on this advantage – this is calculated with the intent of improving your performance illegally.

Digging deeper into drafting, as an observer, I try to put myself in the cyclist shoes. As a college baseball player, there were things you did during games to help your team, take for instance, stealing signs from the opposing team which is also a form of cheating. The bottom line is I am not a stranger to being put in pressure positions where a little cheating could really improve my position personally or my team’s. If I was competing in an Ironman and people around me were drafting, no officials were in site, and I was behind, there is no doubt in my mind that I would sometimes try to get a free ride here or there; the competitive spirit overrides morality in a lot of situations. Certainly not every triathlete does this but I can relate to why some people do it. It becomes very easy to justify your actions. In a community where age groupers mimic the actions of the pros, drafting trickles its way through the sport.

Is this creeping of ‘acceptable’ drafting into Ironman distance racing a reflection of society as a whole? I don’t want to get too philosophical but I would argue that society, in this day and age, promotes instant gratification at any expense. It is interesting how no one admits to drafting and yet everyone talks about others drafting, thus, the individual athletes turn a blind eye to their own actions yet are quick to point out everyone else’s faults. We are living in a time of me, me, me as people live in their world of social media, smart phones, and technology. Although I am aware of the time and dedication triathletes devote to the sport they love, the pressure to finish and do well can lead to cutting corners to obtain that elusive satisfaction.

How do we fix the problem (some might argue whether it is a problem)? In my mind, if individuals can gain advantage unfairly and get away with it, some will do it. As we have observed with human nature, it is difficult for individuals to police themselves as a whole. This is why there are laws, government, religion, etc… designed to help people stay on the correct, ‘honest’ path. What really bothers me, though, is age groupers are now found to be cheating (whether it is drafting or doping) which means they weren’t motivated by money or points; it’s all about pride and finishing and Ironman. What this seems to confirm is triahtletes cannot police themselves in triathlon. The moral dilemma of drafting will not be solved without consequences and right now, I see no consequences.

I have listed a few possible solutions below to promote the theory that athletes should race alone more often than not.

Stagger the starts. It is difficult to think of a solution for two thousand age groupers and how to police drafting. However, there are ways to make the male and female pro races closer to what the founders envisioned. Dede Griesbauer, @dedegriesbaur, proposed in the Ironman Melbourne pro meeting that the pro women should start first. I thought about this and it began to make sense to try to stagger the pro fields to minimize the individuals competing for points and dollars working with others. If the pro women started at 6:40 AM, pro men at 6:50 AM, and age grouper waves at 7:10 AM, this would put thirty minutes between pro women and age groupers and ten minutes between pro men. In theory, the majority of the pro women would exit the water before the pro men. The pro men should be able to get by the pro women early in the bike without the threat of drafting. The fast age groupers may catch the pro women but not until late in the race. This eliminates the threat of the pros working with huge packs. If you are a male pro and not passing the majority of the pro women early in the bike, this may be a whole other issue in itself (another topic for another day).

Follow the watts. Although not an exact science, you can learn a lot about what an athlete faced on the bike by studying their cycling data. Every triathlete should think about having a mechanism (CycleOps, Quarq, SRM power meters) to measure their bike stats and they should be gathered and posted after a race. There obviously will be deviations between gender, weight of riders, how efficient they are with their bike aerodynamics (aero helmet, hydration systems), and wind direction/speed. However, you will see some general trends based on large variations between riders and their times.

As an individual who loves statistics, I found the Training Peaks numbers from Ironman Melbourne fascinating.

The pro males started five minutes ahead of the pro females who started five minutes ahead of the age groupers.

Jordan Rapp, @Rappstar, who is an elite triathlete and cyclist, averaged 323 watts for the first half hour of the bike to try to catch up to the leaders. He averaged 283 watts for the entire race which is quite impressive.

Meredith Kessler’s “peak 1 hour power happened in the first hour, and she averaged 235 watts. That’s a 4 watt/kg average, what we expect to see from a pro male for the entire race.” She had a five to ten minute lead over the majority of the other pro racers and a good portion of these pros had caught up half way through the race. This means that they all were pushing a Jordan Rapp type pace, which definitely could be the case for many pros, or there were other factors involved? If you had the statistics of all the competitors, the picture would be a lot clearer.

The penalty for drafting should be daunting. Gina Crawford, @Gina_Crawford, describes it best in her most recent blog about her Ironman Melbourne race and I encourage you to read it.

Instead of paraphrasing I will quote her solution:

“No penalty tents on the bike. You get your yellow or red cards on the bike of course but everyone serves their penalties at the 41km mark of the run (1km from the end). That means you get no nice rest on the bike to refresh those bike legs, you do the race like everyone else and then at 1km to go you can stand there and watch your competitors go by and then you can hobble to the end in shame. Everyone that has done an ironman knows that once you reach the end and stop your legs are buggered you can hardly walk. That last km after having stopped for 4 min would be excruciating. I personally think this would stop people from blatantly drafting.”

This is a heavy handed punishment suggested by an Ironman Champion. She’s been out there, in the mix, and knows what drafting is about. She’s not asking for a slap on the wrist but a kick in the pants for those who don’t play fair. This would certainly make athletes think long and hard about gaining that extra edge on the bike by drafting. However, it will also make it imperative for quality and well placed officials on the course where two of them have to agree on the penalty so it is not up to one opinion.

My final thoughts are that maybe a different type of athlete will start to prosper in Ironman distance racing. This ‘crafty’ type of athlete may be suited for this type of racing over the stronger one. ITU, Olympic distance, or cyclists who have experience in close drafting may take over the sport in the future if there is no change. It could also be as simple as maybe the ‘powers that be’ in Ironman don’t understand or care too much about keeping the racing fair. It is a money driven business and getting a large amount of people through the day may take precedent over the occasional drafting gripes and conversations. Professional female triathletes worked hard to get their swim start separated from the men in 2011 and 2012 only to see this policy regress back to all pro starts in a few races in 2013. Officials, obviously, still don’t grasp why it is important in keeping the integrity of women racing against women and to not have it altered by men and age groupers.

I read two triathlon articles from this past weekend about racing strategy which confirmed my points. The theme was a male and female professional triathlete had both altered their race strategies because of certain trends. The first is they tried to stay in among the first three lead packs in the swim but it wasn’t imperative to go all out. The next was they ‘settled in’ to the bike and didn’t bust their hump to try to gain as much time as possible; it is more about ‘working together.’ These two strategies were employed along with losing body weight to effectively have fresher legs on the run. Basically, the first two disciplines are there to bide time for the main event of the run.

The conclusion could be that Kona is one of those last true races where the best go head to head, there are staggered starts to put distance on the huge packs, officials are on the course in higher concentration, and there is a greater likelihood the athletes are truly competing against each other – as the old cliché goes, ‘The cream will rise to the top!’


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