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Drafters Don’t Suck

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May 17th, 2012

Many of us still insist on creating a clash between draft-legal triathlon vs. non-drafting triathlon.  Those days should be behind us (the legal distance, of course).  But that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss the nuances between the two types of triathlon.

For background, when I was racing and the concept of draft-legal triathlon first surfaced, I was adamantly opposed to the idea because (1) you were allowed to draft, (2) I felt draft-legal triathlon was a threat to the existence of non-drafting triathlon, which at the time I considered “real” triathlon but now I consider “original” triathlon, and (3) I sucked at draft-legal triathlon.  I ran for, and was elected to, the USA Triathlon (USAT) Board of Directors, where I served for six years, in an effort to – among other things - protect the interests of other elite/professional triathletes who felt that non-drafting triathlon was “better” than draft-legal triathlon.

I am still passionate about non-drafting triathlon.  Now, in addition to my coaching job, I work for a company that produces races that do not allow drafting.  My job description includes generating ideas and strategies with regard to rules and their enforcement that will help non-drafting triathlon grow and prosper and remain as “individual” as possible.

But our sport has grown up (as have I) and I now believe that non-drafting and draft-legal triathlon, while completely different, can co-exist and compliment each other.  Both formats showcase the athleticism required to be a top level triathlete, and both formats feature style, grace, grit, and determination. 

The ITU World Triathlon Series (WTS) has produced some (and arguably most) of the best athletes in triathlon. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the top results of the Ironman Series, the Xterra Series, or other series and see that the ITU athletes (for lack of a better description) are performing very well in non-drafting events. 

That said, if any pro triathlete tries to tell you that to sit in the main group of an ITU WTS event is hard (from an effort standpoint), they are either pulling your leg or they suck as a bike rider.

Obviously a top 20 overall WTS placing requires the complete package.  But with minimal bike training and good skills, I do not think it would be that hard for someone like me – and certainly not for legitimate male professional triathletes – to sit in the main group at an ITU WTS event.  Average speed for the men’s bike segment is typically 40-42 kph.  This is slow for a 40km time trial, let alone a draft-legal 40km bike segment – and I don’t care how “technical” the course is.  At these speeds and considering a flat-ish course, you don’t need to look at a power file to understand that output is not that great (relative to elite triathlon non-drafting 40km bike segments) for anyone not riding at the front. 

To illustrate my point: 59 guys rode virtually the same 40km bike split at the 2012 ITU Sydney WTS - 1:00:40 (~40 km/h), plus or minus less than a minute depending on their swim split – and finished the bike together.  Without a doubt, there would be significant time gaps if those 59 athletes rode the Sydney course alone at 1:00 intervals.

Granted, Olympic qualifying dictated strategy for many of the athletes, and there were many layers of strategy that I know very little about – but last weekend’s WTS race in San Diego featured more of the same: 60-ish men finished the bike within 20 seconds of one another and averaged around 41 km/h. 

Although draft legal triathlon was not my forte (I got my ass kicked a lot), I did manage to win at least two fairly big (back then) draft-legal triathlons - the Sao Paulo International and the ITU Continental Cup in Valle de Bravo, Mexico - finish third in an ITU World Cup in Sion, Switzerland, and finish tenth in the ITU World Championships in Surfer’s Paradise, Australia.  I sat in a lot of groups, bridged up to a lot of groups, and rode off the front in draft-legal triathlons.  My point is that speaking from experience, and even considering that my era has long since passed – when I was at my best fitness level (and the bike was my thing), without question I rode harder in a non-drafting triathlon than when sitting in the group during an ITU draft-legal race. 

To me it comes down to this indisputable fact: The strategy for the majority of professional competitors during the DRAFT LEGAL bike segment of most ITU WTS events is to do the least amount of work possible.  Given that - and given that drafting is allowed – and given that the drafter expends considerably less energy than the draftee – here’s the TYPICAL scenario:

• These days there is parity in the swim at ITU events so because the top swimmers do not get much of a lead, they are discouraged from committing to a big bike effort.

• Given the prevalent strategy to not work on the bike (see above), viable tactics on the bike segment are decreased, not increased. 

• The current lack of texture on the WTS bike courses (at least those that I have seen on the computer coverage) does not reward initiative (working) on the bike.

• Any offensive (as in offense and defense) tactics that are used in the name of team tactics or individual success are usually negative (getting in the way or bullying in the swim or during the bike) and designed to make the target of the negative tactics work more than those trying to do the least amount of work possible.

• Team tactics is a wonderful notion, but triathlon is very much an individual sport.  The large number of individuals riding together discourages/neutralizes positive offensive tactics (attacks and counter attacks) on the bike despite the fact that there are only 5-10 athletes who CAN win on the run on any given day and 40-60 who HOPE (have very little chance) they can win – a very puzzling scenario for me.  I have some opinions and ideas about how to spice up draft legal triathlon, but that is a story for another day.

The debate over whether draft-legal triathlon should be around is over for me.  It is here to stay – rightfully and legitimately so.  And the debate over whether draft-legal triathletes are better than non-drafting triathletes is silly – that’s what races are for.  And while we’re on that subject, I think it’s fair to say that there are a lot of elite male (non-drafting) triathletes who hope the Brownlee brothers stick to the ITU WTS.

But there should be no debate about this: the top ITU WTS athletes will ride harder in a non-drafting triathlon than they will in a draft-legal triathlon.  The exceptions to this (when an athlete does attack or rides at the front in an attempt to get away), unfortunately, are few and far between.

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