Drafting 101: Riding with a USAT Official, Part I

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.triathlon-drafting-age-group

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.illustration1

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:

  1. When entering the draft zone from the rear, closing the gap, and overtaking all within no more than 15 seconds.
  2. 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
  3. 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.

4 thoughts on “Drafting 101: Riding with a USAT Official, Part I

  1. While I understand the need for drafting rules, I am always concerned about how they are interpreted in a race. I have completed a full, 5 halfs, and multiple sprints and Olympic triathlons. I tend to be a “back of the pack” triathlete (although I will sometimes work my way up to middle of the heard). I have never received a penalty. Cycling is my weakest discipline and I hate riding too close to other athletes since I don’t have the bike handling skills to ride in a group formation.

    However, there is often the scenario that there at just too many riders on the course to permit spacing as required by the rules. This is frequently the case coming out of transition. But, in Muncie, we had a 2 loop course. There were so many riders that I was constantly in someone else’s draft zone, or they were in mine or both. In Kansas, there is one big long hill at the end. There was just a little caravan going up the hill at 6 mph. There is no drafting at that speed, but we were all clustered together. I could not slow down to get out of the draft zone without falling off my bike. A couple of miles later, another back of the pack rider pulled up beside me, broke the plane of my front wheel (so I was about to drop back) when he said “I thought I would pass you but that isn’t gonna happen”, and slowed down, stopped, and got off the bike. How could I get 3 bike lengths behind him when he has stopped?

    I get the felling that drafting is more vigorously enforced at the front where riders competing for age group positions and Kona slots will be found, and not as aggressive with those who are simply trying to finish the event. I always hopes that the USAT official shows some common sense when applying the rules…

    • Thanks for your thoughts. It is true that certain courses lend themselves to more drafting, so as consumers we can pick and choose the ones we want to support that we think are fair. Check out the races on local forums to see other comments on the conditions so at least you are forewarned. In Part II there is more discussion about this with Jonathon, the USAT official. If everyone that did a race complained to the RD then it would be back on them to provide more officials on the course, but that is out of their pocket. If that doesn’t work, then find a new race to do.

      The first 70.3 Championship races in Florida were well known for the huge peloton of riders drafting, seemingly without risk of being tagged with a penalty. In those situations you just have to ride as fair as you can and hope for the best. Drafting calls riding uphill at very slow speeds is another issue, seemingly without benefit, aside from the pacing other riders provide. I’ll ask Jon about this to see how he policed it. And for the riding passing you and then slowing down and pulling off, that would be on him for either blocking or impeding and not on you.

      With regard to common sense when applying the rules, if an official is on the course, near the front, the middle or the back, the rules are the rules. The official doesn’t know what age group you are in or how close you are to your competitors, they are just trying to apply the rules as they are written, so everyone needs to follow them, even BOPs, back-of-the-packers.

      • Again, I have never received a penalty, and I am not to worried about it. If I get hit with one then so be it. I am not so “back of the pack” to not finish and even if I drafted the whole thing, I would be nowhere near the podium. I see huge groups blatantly cheating and they don’t seem to get called. If I got carded for one of the examples above, I would be irritated. Final point, the shorter the race, the more that cyclists are crammed together. I have yet to be in a sprint triathlon where I haven’t been “drafting” half of the course…even with time trial or wave starts. A mass start with anything short of a 2.4 mile swim equals trafic jam on the bike. Again, it seems that officials are using some common sense…

      • I have it on good authority that officials do look at the situation and apply the rules accordingly. So on a very slow uphill section with people grinding along at 6MPH say, where the draft advantage is not really in affect, they might continue on the course until they reach the downhill section where speed increases and the draft effect becomes more to your advantage, then they’ll crack down harder.

        RD’s can spread out the waves farther apart and make the waves smaller to break up the packs once on the bike, but no course is immune, regardless of distance. I wouldn’t say that shorter distances races have more riders packed together, this is again a relationship based on the number of athletes in each wave and the time between waves, regardless of distance.

        Like I said before, we the triathletes/consumers, get to vote with our wallets. If one particular race proves to be seen as unfair then we should not support that race. Don’t forget that the bottom line is still the safety of the athletes. As you yourself said, triathletes are probably not the best group of cyclists to be riding with in a group, so by applying the drafting rules, by people actually following the drafting rules, we all can have a safe and fair race.

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