Drafting 101: Riding with a USAT Official, Part II

ironman_world_triathlon_championship5Now that you’re familiar with the rules for drafting during the bike leg of a triathlon, Drafting 101: Riding with a USAT Official, Part I, with those in mind I once again asked Jonathan Lewis a few questions to help sort out what I was seeing.

Fred: As a racer I feel like I see a lot of people drafting during the races, which is what I saw with Justin at the SB Tri, so I actually expected a lot more penalties would be given out. Is this because it’s hard to actually catch people in the act or is my perception off?

Jon:  It is hard, because the official has to see the violation, be 100% sure that it occurred (not “think it might have”), and of course the official(s) can’t be everywhere at once or put athletes into danger with the motorcycle’s position or speed.

F: I understand that the Race Director (RD) negotiates with USAT regarding how many officials they want on the course to enforce the rules, so do you think they don’t pay for enough officials to do a better job of catching people breaking the rules?

Jon:  There are USAT sanctioned races, and many non-sanctioned races.  Non-sanctioned ones don’t get USAT support – things like plan reviews, insurance for athletes and volunteers, rules enforcement, or USAT athlete rankings.  RDs jump through a lot of hoops to get a sanction, and the race is much better all-around because of that.  USAT recommends one official for every 200 participants.  Although that’s a goal, it’s not a rule, and frankly, it would probably cause financial hardship in many cases if an RD had to pay for that level of staffing. USAT does what it can to recruit new officials and bring them at no cost to races as training opportunities, and finds other ways to help RDs stage good races, like deputizing volunteers to serve as marshals in transition or other areas. But it’s a tough problem, and with the growth of triathlon, keeping enough trained and certified officials local to races so the RD doesn’t have huge travel bills to pay is difficult.

F: If USAT had a pay for one, get one official free for a race promotion, and followed up on the results to show the RDs that more officials mean a cleaner race, do you think that would steer them in the direction of paying for more officials? Or do you think RDs feel they’re doing the best they can and that’s good enough?

Jon:  Well, as I said, USAT does oftentimes help the RD out with extra staffing as they can. Triathletes know that when a race is a draft-fest, the results aren’t fair, their money and time is wasted, and they vote with their credit cards to decline to race it again.  With social media, a bad race is quickly broadcast.  Sometimes there just aren’t any USAT officials available, even in a place as big as Southern California.  Remember that USAT officials are basically volunteers. They receive a small stipend, mileage or airfare, and cheap lodging if needed.  Head Refs may have to do pre-race briefings, brief volunteers, review and accept or decline violation reports written by assistants, explain the violations at the results board or by email after the race to sometimes angry athletes, and turn in penalties and a complete post-race report to USAT within three days of the race. Sometimes it is many hours of work.  No one is in it for the money for sure; those that officiate like to help the sport, ensure there are local sanctioned races, and like to do their part to make those few hours out on the course competitively fair to all participants.

F: I understand you are retiring from officiating after nine years of giving back to the sport.  If there was something about the way you as an official go out and officiate the course that you could change, what would it be?

Jon: Actually I think USAT’s approach to age group non-draft races is pretty good, considering that, as you’ve noted, many athletes are somewhat clueless about the rules.  I do like the way WTC does “penalty tent” penalties that are served out on the course, because that preserves finish line integrity…#3 across the line is really #3 since no penalties are applied after the finish.  However, that just doesn’t work for smaller races, and every official has to get every call right…since there’s no unwinding time served in the penalty tent from that finisher’s finish line photo.  Since I’m an IT/IS Program Manager in my real life, if I was in charge, I’d require that athletes take a short online interactive rules course and pass a test before they could register for a USAT-sanctioned triathlon.  Of course, many folks would decline to participate, so that probably wouldn’t keep races in business.  USAT does post rules and videos on the website, has the RD include a rules summary with packet pickup, oftentimes provides day-before briefings to interested athletes, and USAT referees are happy to explain the rules to anyone who asks while we’re in transition from the time it opens until the gun goes off.  But once the race starts, education ends and enforcement begins, so that athletes have as fair a competition as we can make it.

F: I’ve focused primarily on drafting here, but what else are you as an official looking for on the course? For example, I saw lots of people not wearing their race numbers on the bike (which was stated in the race rules as a requirement, so people don’t read the rules or just ignore them?), and some people without numbers on their bikes and helmets, another requirement. Why weren’t these people cited?

Jon: USAT Officials only enforce the Competitive Rules, the rest of the race is left to the RD. USAT only requires race bib numbers on the run, not on the bike. If the RD requires it, the RD has to be prepared to enforce it against paying customers. Stuff like dogs in transition we leave to race staff and volunteers to sort out.  We’re focused on fairness around athletic performance and rules about safety…like wearing ear buds on the bike so they can’t hear traffic or not having their chin strap strapped, which seems like no big deal until their helmet comes off in a crash.

F: Anything else you want to throw out about drafting and officiating on the bike course that would help the athletes understand the rules better?

Jon: Let’s just boil the exact drafting rule stuff down to what you really must know:

  • If you enter the draft zone you have to pass, so be a Tri Ninja…do it quietly, quickly, and successfully.
  • If you aren’t certain you can pass in 15 seconds, don’t enter the draft zone since the only way you can legally exit is by passing on the left and out the front of the zone within 15 seconds.
  • Get back over to the right as soon as you complete the pass.
  • If you are passed, drop back about 3 bike lengths immediately, especially before you attempt to re-pass.
  • Every USAT Official in the Southwest Region that I know of is a triathlete, so they know what to look for and can anticipate what’s going to happen, and they understand peloton dynamics.  Don’t assume they have to be next to you to see what’s happening – by the time you hear the motorcycle, it’s too late. 🙂

I hope after reading through all this if you had any doubts about drafting during a triathlon that they have been put to rest. I also hope that you’ve gained an appreciation for just how hard it can be to police this during a race. Of course the best way for that to happen, for a race to be draft free, would be that everyone knew the rules and made sure to apply them at all times during the ride. But that will never happen so we can all just do our part to make the race safe and fair, and support those races where drafting isn’t so prevalent to upset the results and make us wish we weren’t out there trying to race fair and square.

I have to thank Jonathan for all his technical help on this article; he managed to make me sound pretty smart!


If you haven’t done enough reading about drafting, there is a very good article at slowtwitch.com, http://www.slowtwitch.com/Interview/Riccitello_on_draft_enforcement__4799.html, with Jimmy Riccitello, long time WTC (i.e., Ironman) head referee, 20 years a pro level triathlete. If you don’t know, WTC and the USAT have been at odds over the rule book on drafting, the enforcement, etc., so it’s interesting to hear the issues explained by the top guy.

And if you really want to wade in on the subject, go to the slowtwitch forum and look for threads on drafting. Here’s where a lot of top pro and AG athletes come to vent to work out their issues, and drafting, especially at the Ironman 70.3 Worlds Championship this year, was right at the top of the list.

2 thoughts on “Drafting 101: Riding with a USAT Official, Part II

  1. OK. Here’s a wierd one for you. During an Ironman event, I know of someone on the bike course that was having some GI issues. He knew (from prior experience) that Orange Juice would settle his gut down quickly, but none of the aid station beverages would do anything to help. So, he drove off the course and went to a gas station and purchased some OJ and then returned to the race. I told him that he was lucky that an official didn’t see that since that would likely be a DQ. He disagreed. He noted that he returned to the same spot on the course so he didn’t cut the course. He did not accept outside assistance since he purchased the OJ. He didn’t have an unfair advantage since the gas station was there for anyone to use. And, he pointed out, one of the competitors at the very first ironman stopped at McDonalds for a Big Mac! Well, I reviewed the appreciated rules in the athletes guide and it specifically warns against receiving outside assistance and that non participants may not hand you anything. There was nothing stating that what he did was a violation. I assume that there is something in the full rule book. (Personal Opinion-who cares, it added time and this was a back of the pack age grouper just looking to finish, I am more curious if this is technically a violation). Thanks!

    • There’s probably some grey area here w/r to the rules, but as this athlete provided his own assistance, purchased it, and returned to the same point of the course that he left, that’s probably okay. People have walked off race courses before to use people’s bathrooms without penalty too. If this athlete had left some OJ out on the course ahead of time to pick up, that’s probably ok, but if someone he knew was standing there, or worse, someone he didn’t know, and handed him a bottle of OJ, even if he purchased it, that falls under the realm of outside assistance. How a course marshal could tell whether he purchased it or someone else is the issue. Your best bet is to carry the supplies you need and not take anything for anyone other than what the race provides.

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