Is Drafting Right Or Wrong?
Should drafting be legal or is it ruining the sport?
Photo Credit: MACCALIVE
When Alistair and Jonny Brownlee won gold and bronze at the Olympics last August, rather than feeling proud perhaps they should have reflected that their efforts amounted to no more than “a shampoo, blow-dry, and 10k foot race”. That, at least, is the opinion of now-disgraced triathlete and cyclist Lance Armstrong on the subject of draft-legal triathlons, where athletes are allowed to sit in others’ slipstreams to conserve energy.
Armstrong is far from the first person to question whether drafting has somehow undermined triathlon’s integrity since the International Triathlon Union (ITU) first permitted it ahead of the sport’s Olympic debut at the Sydney Games back in 2000.
Today’s Olympic-distance triathletes take exception to the idea that drafting diminishes their event. “It doesn’t necessarily make racing easier because it’s still very hard,” says Alistair Brownlee. “We were in a time trial for the first part of the [Olympic] race and then the jumps [of pace on the bike] make it very, very hard.”
Stuart Hayes, the Brownlees’ Olympic teammate, agrees with them. “I’ve done non-drafting events and found it easier to come up to the front in those than it is in drafting events,” he says. “In non-drafting you get in your own zone and you can only go as fast as you can go. Whereas in drafting races people are setting the pace for you, especially if there’s a hill and someone’s trying to attack and you get dropped. It’s just as hard.”
The advantage you gain by riding in the pocket of low-pressure air created by the rider in front can be enormous. The energy saving made by latching onto someone’s rear wheel is estimated to be as much as 40 per cent when compared to cycling at the same speed alone.
Interestingly, there’s also a small benefit if you’re the cyclist being drafted, as having someone riding in your slipstream reduces the destabilising effect of the disturbed air flowing off you.
Drafting on the swim has always been permitted and is thought to save you up to 25 per cent of the energy you’re expending. So by slotting into someone’s draft in the water and then on the bike, you stand to be a lot fresher when you reach the run. Letting your opponents do the lion’s share of the work leaves you with more in the tank to skip away to an easy victory. That’s the theory, at least.
In practice, according to Hayes, it’s rather different: “It depends what you do in the race. If you’re just going to sit in the bunch and wait for the run then, yeah, it is easy. But I like to race hard, the Brownlees like to race hard and there’s a bunch of guys out there who like to race hard.”
Until triathlon was accepted into the Olympics, the ITU didn’t allow drafting, making the races essentially a time-trial. But as the sport sought a berth at the Games, there was a concern that long, strung-out fields wouldn’t make for much of a spectacle, so drafting was introduced as part of the ITU’s sales pitch.
Not all triathlons allow drafting, of course. Many Ironman athletes recoil at the idea of their sport being infected by the practice and there are many shorter races (particularly in the US) where drafting remains illegal. But, with the exception of long-distance events, drafting is here to stay at elite-level ITU races.
“You couldn’t possibly have a non-drafting race now,” says Jonathan Brownlee. “Before, when people were spread out in the swim over 200-300m, you could do it. But now everyone comes out so close together it’s physically impossible – the poor bloke at the back would have to stand and wait for about half an hour. It’s also far more interesting, I think, to have drafting because it turns the bike leg into proper tactical cycle racing: people attacking off the front, groups appearing and time
Whether or not turning the bike leg into “tactical cycle racing” is an improvement is a moot point. Perhaps Bradley Wiggins’s victory in the time trial at the London Olympics was more satisfying than Alexandre Vinokourov’s in the road race because it wasn’t tainted by arguments over which teams were or weren’t pulling their weight.
The same can be said for the men’s triathlon, as the Brownlees’ achievements were blighted by the criticism levelled at British Triathlon for selecting Hayes as a domestique.
Hayes’s training for the Olympics was based around the two draft-legal disciplines where he could hope to control the pace and set the brothers up for the run. “It was planned to the absolute tee,” Hayes says. “I was doing no running whatsoever. I was just swimming and cycling to make sure I would be at the front. It’s a tactic and no one else really used it. I think if some other countries had used it they could have done a bit better.”
- Spectacle at the expense of spirit?
Hayes’s selection as the Brownlees’ domestique was controversial, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Triathlon is theoretically an individual sport, but drafting allows for team tactics, and not to use them seems naive.
“You’re not breaking the rules because drafting’s in the rules,” says Dr Victor Thompson, a psychologist who has competed at the ITU World Age Group Championships.
“People struggled at first, around 1998 and 1999, as the format was clarified ahead of the Sydney Olympics. So for some there was the feeling that it was cheating or that it wasn’t the ‘pure’ race that triathlon was before.”
Lance Armstrong was, of course, a triathlete before he focused on cycling, and it’s to this pre-Sydney ‘golden age’ that he looks when disparaging the sport in its current form. However, the disgraced Texan’s conversion to cycling shows where he felt his strengths lay, and the introduction of drafting arguably diminished the value of the bike leg. But he’s not the only big name who believes it fundamentally changed the sport.
“When drafting was first introduced I wasn’t a big fan. Why would I be? I was a strong cyclist,” says Spencer Smith, ITU world champion in 1993 and 1994 who later rode as a professional cyclist. “They were taking away an element that made it an individual sport and turning it into a collective sport, so you have to look at it differently. I don’t think drafting’s dishonest – it’s just makes a triathlon a different sort of race. It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different.”
Amid the talk of whether drafting has compromised the sport’s soul, it shouldn’t be forgotten that triathlon, as a formalised swim-bike-run race, is a young event. The first Ironman was run in 1978 and the ITU wasn’t set up until 1989. “Triathlon is such a new sport that any definition of purity over its 35-year history is different to looking back over the 100 years of development in soccer or rugby,” says Steve Trew, a leading commentator and Triathlon Plus’s columnist.
“In terms of crowd friendliness and TV coverage, which, as we know, is all-important, I think it’s fascinating when you’ve got pack racing.”
Pack racing can indeed be a fascinating spectacle, but another development that goes hand in hand with drafting is arguably less than thrilling. To keep as much of the pack within reach of the TV cameras and spectators for as long as possible, bike legs now tend to be multiple laps of a short course.
“The ITU has let people down a bit by taking a lot of the races on tough, hilly courses out of the circuit,” says Leanda Cave, the current Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world champion, and 2002 ITU world champion. “That’s again down to wanting to have a lot of laps to make it more spectator-friendly. But actually it’s really boring watching people go round and round a loop for eight laps.”
Alistair Brownlee agrees. “I’m all for making courses harder, more technical and hillier because that will make it more interesting and make it better all-round for the athletes. There are still some countries and coaches who advocate doing as little as you can – really sitting on and doing nothing. It’s a great tactic if you’re the fastest runner, but if you’re not the fastest runner then God knows why you’d want to do that.”
Things are different in Ironman events where drafting remains illegal, with age-group competitors having to stay seven metres behind the bike in front and pros 10 metres behind. But savvy racers know how to get an advantage while staying within the rules. “The rule is that it’s non-drafting but, honestly, at 10 metres you can get a draft and every athlete out there knows that,” says Cave. “So if you can ‘draft’ legally, that seems to be the common thing these days.
Common but not unnoticed: Cave, along with Caroline Steffen and Mary Beth Ellis, each received a four-minute drafting penalty during 2012’s Ironman World Championships.
But drafting isn’t a problem confined to the professional ranks. A common complaint among female Ironman pros is that age-groupers have a habit of sitting in behind them and benefiting from their hard work. And it’s a habit that’s not always rigorously penalised. This doesn’t bother Cave, but a related phenomenon does.
“[Age-groupers drafting] isn’t a problem for me as long as they’re not interfering with my race,” she says. What infuriates her is “if they’re coming through the field with other female pros drafting off them – and that happens. The advantage is huge and it’s your living so if someone’s cheating, they’re really cheating.”
Whatever the rights and wrongs of drafting in Ironman are, in ITU races it’s here to stay and whether the sport’s integrity has been diminished seems, to Trew, to miss the point. “I don’t think it’s a moral call – no one has sold their soul like some of the stuff Lance Armstrong was saying,” he says. “You might not like the rules but if you don’t, you should get your own football and play your own game.”
on Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013 at 5:30 am under Latest Issue, Magazine.
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