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Rich Allen muses on how drafting changed his beloved sport forever.

My elite triathlon racing career began in 1994. Back then the sport was a true test of all-round fitness and exceptional swimmers, bikers and runners like Spencer Smith and Simon Lessing dominated. I was a solid all-rounder and seemed to have an exciting future ahead of me. Then everything changed.

In 1995 the ITU legalised drafting for elite Olympic-distance races and this was devastating for me. I found myself in races where athletes just sat in the pack and conserved their energy for a super-fast 10km run. Being far from a pure runner, I struggled in what was essentially a completely new sport. I never gave up though and adapted my training accordingly. However, I never got the same enjoyment out of the sport and, to be perfectly honest, drafting had ruined what triathlon was all about for me.

I don’t blame the ITU for their decision, as it was something they had to do. With more and more pro athletes taking up the sport it was getting too congested at the front of the races. Athletes were drafting and would either have to sit up and drop back or get a penalty. The sport was trying to make its Olympic debut and if half the field got penalised for drafting it didn’t look good. The races also needed to be more exciting and the ITU thought that a tactically explosive drafting race would impress the IOC more than 20 athletes riding around in a long strung-out line. While the drafting issue was resolved, things never quite worked out the way the ITU had hoped as most of the time there would be 60 athletes riding around in a big bike pack.

Having been disappointed by the sport from that fateful day in 1995, all of a sudden things changed again in 2010. I was no longer racing Olympic-distance events but as an onlooker something significant had happened. The Brownlee brothers had burst on to the World Championship circuit and the sport had grown another dimension.

The ITU had a dream of creating an exciting sport for the Olympics and finally this had been achieved. No longer was it OK to be an average swimmer and biker and then pull out a fast run to win. The Brownlees and Gomez are exceptional swimmers, bikers and runners. Not only this but they make the most of their talents by being aggressive from the start and pushing to the max the whole way. Their tactics are simply to go as hard as they can. The likes of Helen Jenkins are doing the same on the women’s side.

We really are in a great place right now because in complete contrast to the Olympic-distance drafting races, we now have a booming Ironman and Ironman 70.3 series. If you are a pro and drafting is not your thing then you can target Kona or Vegas, in a different sport altogether. They are still exciting races in a different way and if I am honest I think I should have gone down that path in 1995 rather than continuing the unhappy drafting races journey which didn’t suit me. Today on the elite/pro side there really is something for everyone with both sides of the sport being exciting to compete in. The icing on the cake is that many of these athletes are from the UK, like the indomitable Chrissie Wellington.

But things are far from perfect. I just said the elite/pro side of the sport is in a great place but the bulk of our sport centres around age-group racing. Illegal drafting is clearly a problem as I have witnessed huge packs of 60 or so athletes in Ironman and Olympic-distance events alike. The problem is there is no easy solution. Drafting is OK for 60 elite athletes but if you introduce drafting to 200-400 age-group athletes it will end in carnage. The way I see it there are two options – to have age-group drafting with very small waves and the events spread over two days to cater for this, or to have very hilly courses to break up the packs. So I am not sure there is an answer and, for me, this is the only real threat to the immense anticipated growth of our sport following the London 2012 Olympics.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

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