Phil Graves explains the problems of drafting.
Drafting is that age-old problem that seems to dog every race. They say in life, only two things are certain: taxation and death. In triathlon, it seems the only thing you can be certain of in a race, is that there is going to be some form of drafting somewhere on the bike course.
It’s a contentious issue and I completely sympathise with all you age-groupers. I feel it is as much up to the race organiser to design a course that prevents drafting as it is for the athlete not to draft off a fellow competitor.
Sadly these days, some race organisers just want to pull in the profits and get as many athletes on the start-line as possible to ensure their coffers are full with little regard for the actual mechanics of racing. With so many athletes and so little room on the road, it becomes impossible for each athlete to keep a 10m gap.
At Ironman 70.3 UK I often lap a number of athletes on the bike and during my second lap I am, for the most part, riding on the right hand side of the road passing an endless stream of athletes who are riding two or sometimes three abreast in the left-hand lane. Not only am I putting myself in danger but I fear for the age-group athletes too. Only a few seasons ago, US pro Andy Potts was involved in an awful crash when he was overtaking an age-grouper and they swung out, didn’t see him coming from behind and simply took him out.
I fear these events that have thousands of participants and then employ a strict no-draft policy are simply hurting the sport. I think that much of the drafting that goes on in the age-group race is ignored – as it rightly should be, as it is unavoidable – but even at the front of the race sometimes I see athletes riding so close to one another I just feel that the racing is a joke. With ever more media and corporate sponsors there are now several motorbikes at the front of the race. The police, media, photographers, TV crew and cars with race sponsors all try and keep with the front of the race or with a particular favourite athlete. This means that the front of the race gets dragged along while those who perhaps can’t swim with the front group are at a distinct disadvantage. It’s even got so bad I know I can’t let a fellow athlete go at the start of the bike because I know what will happen: they will tag on the back of the lead camera and police bike and I won’t see them the rest of the day.
However, all this set aside, the experiences I had at the 2009 Ironman 70.3 world championships in Clearwater trump everything. I had never ridden in a large group of guys each 10m apart but I was amazed at what I witnessed. At the Ironman World Championship six weeks earlier I had given it everything on the bike only to blow up and people to ride past me with ease. I had no idea how they could do this, but at Clearwater, you could just sit in the pack and hardly have to pedal. With 50 guys, all 10m apart, even if you were the 10th athlete in the line the benefit was unbelievable. I rode the 90km in under two hours and still to this day I maintain that you could have ridden in the pack and averaged 220w, got round in the front group and run off the bike near-fresh. No wonder Michael Raelert ran a 1:11 half marathon.
What is to be done then? I feel race organisers need to look at how many athletes they let into every race, so they can provide a race, not a procession of cyclists in one huge peloton and try to maintain the integrity of the sport. I feel a common-sense approach needs to be adopted. No professional athlete wants to draft, but when, like at Hawaii this year, three of the top five women all received a four-minute penalty for drafting on the bike, questions have to be raised. Is it a question of poorly educated athletes or bike officials with a rather eager yellow card? That’s not for me to answer but, with more and more athletes on the start line of every race, drafting is simply not going to go away.