The bike portion of a triathlon is an individual time trial, the key point being individual. Sitting behind another rider, shielded from the wind is called drafting and it is illegal because it is cheating. When you are drafting you are not riding as an individual and therefore you are gaining an advantage over your competitors.
Drafting is one of several position fouls, and, according to USAT, is one of the top Age Group rules violations. I enlisted the help of local Santa Barbara triathlete and 9 year USAT official Jonathan Lewis to provide some information and insight into this issue; the details are his, the experience was mine.
What’s Drafting, how does it relate to the position rules, and how is it enforced out on the Course?
All triathletes on the cycling course have an invisible draft zone surrounding them. For Age Group athletes, the zone is a rectangle 2 meters wide (about the width of your arms held straight out to your side, from fingertip to fingertip) by 7 meters long. The longer sides of the zone begin at the leading edge of the front wheel and run backward parallel to the bicycle; the front wheel divides the short side of the zone into two equal parts, each 1 meter long. Motor vehicles on the Course also have draft zones, which are 15 meters to each side of the vehicle and 30 meters behind.
Drafting is really all about the intersection of your draft zone and those of other participants and motor vehicles out on the course, in order to prevent you from gaining an advantage over other participants by benefiting from reduced air resistance. This is why you position yourself to prevent your draft zone from intersecting with others’ draft zones by keeping at least three bike lengths of clear space (about 7 meters from the leading cyclists’ front wheel) between you and the cyclist in front, and riding to the right (except for reasons of safety AND when no advantage is gained). If you enter the zone of the leading cyclist from the rear or side, you MUST pass within 15 seconds, even if they speed up, and then the cyclist you passed must immediately start to exit the rear of your draft zone.
Drafting: Not keeping your draft zone from intersecting with that of the cyclist in front or to the side of you. Position: failing to keep to the right hand side of the lane of travel unless passing. Blocking: same as Position foul except there’s no 15 second rule because in addition to riding to the left, you are blocking the progress of another participant. Overtaken: You were passed, but you failed to immediately exit the rear of the draft zone of the cyclist that passed you. Penalty: Variable time penalty based on the length of the bike course – a longer course has a lengthier penalty.
There are only three conditions in which you can enter the draft zone without penalty:
- When entering the draft zone from the rear, closing the gap, and overtaking all within no more than 15 seconds.
- When cyclists reduce speed for safety reasons (road hazard, Stop sign, etc), for course blockage, for an aid station, for an emergency, when entering or exiting Transition, or when making a turn of 90 degrees or more; or
- When USAT or the Head Ref specifically excludes a section of the bike course from the position foul rules for detours, construction, narrow lanes, or other safety reasons.
As a cyclist who became a triathlete I have always hated seeing triathletes intentionally drafting (cheating!) during the race, mostly while I’m passing them, at which point I try to insert myself in their “peloton” to force some separation. At times I’ve then had them come by me as a group, causing me to expand much more energy to go around them all again. When I was called upon this year to provide a motorcycle to carry a USAT Official at the Santa Barbara Long Course triathlon I jumped at the chance; now I would be out there helping to enforce the rules, yippee!
I met the USAT Official, a young guy from San Diego, Jason, who is a triathlete and a motorcyclist, so we chatted about racing, riding motorcycles, and the plan for the day. He wanted to wait until the first 20 or so athletes were on the road then we’d head out behind them to monitor the course and establish our presence. There is a long section of the course in the middle that we would focus on once we got out there, the most likely place for violations to occur.
Initially we didn’t come upon any obvious infractions, and the riders seemed to all know we were there, showing extra caution with their spacing. When we got out towards the turnaround point, Jason suggested we loop back towards the beginning of the section to catch the next wave of athletes.
Once back there and turned around with the riders it didn’t take long to see the first group of drafters. Just so you know I ride a bright red Ducati with a red helmet, the only motorcycle out on the course, so anyone paying attention should realize that we were back there, yet many athletes seemed oblivious to our presence.
We would approach a pack that looked like they were drafting and shadow them to allow Jason to start his watch. Once they either completed the pass, or when Jason was satisfied that a position foul violation was observed, he wrote down their identifying information and situation, and then we moved on. We repeated this until the turn around point and then repeated this entire loop two more times before it was time to head back to the race site so Jason could write up his violation reports.
In the end Jason wrote 23 penalties, mostly for drafting, to 18 different athletes. Yes, some people got 2-3 penalties, can you believe it? Out of 550 finishers that’s about a 4% ratio of penalties to finishers. I asked Jonathan what a typical number of penalties would be and he said the average of all events USA-wide is around 3%. The SB Tri has a technical bike course and great draft opportunities, so it makes sense that the SB Tri number was closer to 4%.
Truthfully, having been on the course and part of this process, I thought there would have been a lot more. To my eye, without the benefit of a stopwatch to accurately judge how long people were sitting in the draft, blocking, or failing to yield, I was kind of pissed at what I thought was blatant disregard for the rules in many instances; people would even look back at us and continue to sit in the draft.
As a matter of fact at one point we were behind a group of women who were basically riding two-by-two and chatting. I would have guessed that they were tri newbies and were maybe doing their first long course triathlon and after 30 seconds had obviously passed I pulled up alongside them and they still didn’t make any attempt to separate. I called out to the ladies in the back, young ladies, early 20’s, that they were drafting and that it was illegal to ride two abreast during a race. One girl yelled back that she didn’t know what that meant so I told her that she was cheating and she looked at me like I was crazy. I looked at Jason and said they must be new to the sport and he responded sharply with a “When you sign up for a triathlon, especially by the time you’re racing a longer course triathlon it is your responsibility to know the rules. We don’t waive the violations because someone says they didn’t know there were rules.” And just for an FYI, I wasn’t supposed to be talking to the athletes, just observing, as Jason reminded me, my bad…
And with that we moved on and I was left thinking about how can we educate all the athletes to know the rules and that they apply to everyone equally. From the Pros and Elites at the front of the pack to the first timers in the back, we all must abide by the rules to make it a fair and safe playing field for everyone.
Overall I would say 75-80% of the athletes on their bikes were doing a good job of not drafting, making passes within the 15 second timeframe, and falling back if they felt they were riding too close to the person in front of them. The rest of the athletes fell into three distinct groups, those that:
- Appeared unaware of the rules (which is no excuse), were probably slower athletes and as such were not purposefully gaining an advantage in order to get a higher ranking, although of course that could be the result regardless of their intent
- By circumstance, say elevation changes in the road or when catching slower riders heading into a corner (I learned the clock stops when riding through 90 degree turns), and then did not attempt to move out of the draft quick enough
- Knew they were drafting and were taking advantage of the opportunity when nobody was looking
In Part II I ask Jonathan some questions and get his pointed responses on the issue of drafting, how Race Directors are involved via USAT, and other thoughts. Stay tuned.