A recent newcomer to triathlon posted the following on RST:

"Drafting is common place, and legal, during the swim segment. Why, then, is everyone tangled up in their singlet over drafting during the bike segment?

"I entered a bike criterium race the other day and enjoyed the drafting aspect of the race. However, USCF crit races such as the one I was in do not allow aerobars. If aerobars are the concern during drafting in tri's, why not ban aerobars and let drafting happen?"

*** (Here I inserted the following:)
***Aerobars are not "the" concern. They are a concern, but not the concern.

"It seems to me that drafting is a natural aspect of all racing activities.

Again remember I am new to tri's, and may not be up-to-date on the roots of the drafting controversy. Please elaborate."

My response:

In bike racing they also have a thing called "the race of truth"---- the time trial. As that name implies, it is a measure of the true individual ability of the rider, stripped of the pack and the draft.

In its original incarnation triathlon was conceived as a 3-discipline race of truth. Even in the days before aerobars were invented drafting was prohibited on the bike. The effects of drafting on the swim have always been considered:

Drafting in triathlons presents several disadvantages. For one thing, riding in a pack is bloody dangerous even among professional bike racers. It's dangerous among amateur bike racers. And among triathletes, who don't spend as much time on the bike in training as either of the above, and who wear even less protective clothing in competition, it is potentially disastrous! With or without aerobars. Aerobars, of course, only pose even more danger.

Another problem stems from the fact that legalized drafting changes the entire flavor/strategy for a race. You no longer have to be equally strong in all three disciplines in order to win. If you focus on your swim just enough to come out of the water somewhere near the front, and then concentrate on becoming a running animal, you can put significantly less work into your cycling. You just have to get into one of the first packs on the bike, and then sit in, getting pulled along and conserving your energy for the run. Then you hop off the bike and blow the doors off the competition, who have just pulled you all around the bike course and wasted their legs while you took a nap in the cradle of the pack.

This type of race is conducive to the formation of teams in which there is a "designated runner" who is pulled and protected by the team's strong bikers and thus set up for the run (just as cycling teams set up their top sprinters for the finish). This is completely opposite to the idea of triathlon as an individual sport, a time trial of individual strength, speed, and effort. Then, you have the possibility of athletes cutting deals with each other in the course of the race, as is frequently done in the pro cycling peloton ("Pull me and I'll share my prize purse with you.").

Now, believe it or not, not everybody thinks this is completely bad for triathlon. Many of us (including myself) think that it's just fine to have different types of triathlons, and let some of 'em be draft-legal; it could be interesting, and some folks might enjoy tri-ing that way. It's not for me personally, but let those who want to do such races have their fun. HOWEVER....

Now you get the politics part of the issue. Most of us who feel this way also feel that the premier events in the sport (World Championships, Olympics, Ironman, etc.) should not be draft-legal, and should remain representative of the original version of the sport (yeah, ok, we do use the word "purer", so call us purists!).

The trouble is that the international governing body of triathlon, the ITU, has decided to foist the draft-legal format upon the professional World Cup series, the professional World Championships, and upon the Olympics. Worse still, because they are of a mind to promote draft-legal racing, in the events they produce wherein drafting is supposed to be ILLEGAL (e.g., the amateur triathlon and duathlon World Championships) they barely make a pretense of draft-rules enforcement. Ask any amateur who went to either world championship in '96 how much drafting they saw on the course. Then ask how many drafters they saw get busted.

The ITU turns a stone deaf ear to amateur athletes. Hell, they don't even give us the deaf ear! They turn their BACKS on us. They don't give a fig about what age-groupers have to say about their sport. As much as anything else, this has caused a lot of the ill feeling on the drafting issue. The ITU and its President (many of us are still trying to figure out how he got to be that), Les MacDonald, consistently engage in shady political maneuvering to put through their agenda. I hate to write that without citing specific incidents, but the best I can say is to look up "ITU" in DejaNews for RST and find all of Steve Locke and USA Triathlon's posts from last summer. (Two months after I first wrote this, the ITU graciously provided me with a perfect example that I include here.)

The ITU's party-line is that amateurs have no business getting in a dither about something that "doesn't affect them". The trouble is, drafting in the elite/pro ranks does affect all of us in subtle ways. It means the pros/elites are taking part in a different sport altogether, and one of the things many of us love about triathlon is the experience of being out there "competing" with our heros. Drafting among the pros communicates the general mindset that drafting is ok; the practice will sort of drift, de facto, down into the amateur ranks. And what about amateurs who have their sights set on the Olympics? Well, they'd better learn how to race draft-legal.

The ITU claims that draft-legal racing makes for better television, and better television makes for MORE television coverage, and that makes for more sponsorship and more $$$$$. Now, that may or may not be solid logic. It's certainly easier to photograph a triathlon when the bike leg can be held on a circuit course with legal drafting, much like a criterium. Personally, I don't find it more interesting television; it's like a straight running race with a swim and bike warmup. Quite frankly, I don't believe there is any way to make televised triathlon particularly palatable to Joe Couch Potato, but I digress.

What the ITU refuse to acknowledge is the fact that pack racing on a circuit course is more exciting BECAUSE it is more dangerous and spectacular crashes are far more likely to occur. That's a big part of why draft-legal racing is considered more TV-friendly, but drafting proponents will never admit that.

As far as the ITU goes, the general sentiment among most informed triathletes is resentment and outrage at their cavalier and dictatorial treatment of the athletes they are supposed to represent. It's bigger than the drafting issue per se, though obviously drafting is a big part of the issue.

In an ideal world triathlons would have time trial starts in which individual racers go off at a set interval, as bike racers do. Drafting would be almost a non-issue in that ideal world. Unfortunately that type of start would result in the first finisher crossing the line before the last racer could start at many events!

I started out as a bike racer myself. I raced for 2 or 3 years before I finally realized that I wasn't having fun because I was always so paranoid about being in a big pack crash. Then I discovered triathlons. What a blast! A chance to race my bike with no drafting. So I've been there and done that as far as pack racing is concerned. I've had enough, thanks, I'll stick with non-drafting triathlons now.

---TriBaby, March 14, 1997

The ITU begins the '97 season with a real lulu... This article from Inside Triathlon provides an excellent example of the kind of slick maneuvering executed by the ITU. Personally, this absolutely gasted my flabber!

The ITU vs. the Olympics: Is it worth it?

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