I’ve raced fast courses before. I’ve been in races with a reputation for drafting. Being a strong swimmer I’ve found myself near the front and all I’ve seen has been pace lines of riders trying to ride within the spirit of the rules. By this I mean riders often sit up to drop out of the draft zone rather than riding by the whole line. I see this as a practical application of the laws with no one trying to cheat.
This was my experience until Ironman Austria a few weekends a go. There I had a great swim and was riding strong but was swept up by some rather close riding packs of riders. Few appeared to be trying to sort themselves out leaving me fuming when I saw officials in tow with nothing being done.
You may think it’s the flat courses that create the packs but Austria is far from flat, which is the problem. When a pace line forms it works well on a flat course but on an undulating course that nice 10m gap on the flat instantly becomes far less on a hill. The letter of the law would often require the last rider in line to get to the front in 15s. This is impractical and the pack bunches up.
I believe riders fall in to one of three categories. The outright cheats who are looking to sit as close to a wheel as possible, keep an eye out for refs and aim to draft the whole race. These I believe are the minority. The majority wants a fair race but don’t want to unduly drop back to fit the rules. The second minority are those that will do everything to abide by the rules and will ease up to let groups pass. I generally fall in to this latter category. As a fast swimmer it doesn’t unduly affect my race but for those hour swimmers out there dropping through one group would just mean another group grabs you minutes later. A recipe for a poor ride.
What can be done to address this?
Firstly field sizes need to be addressed. Austria had 2,800 athletes. 1,000 of them exited the water between about 58 minutes and 1:13 which equates to ~11km on the road requiring the first swimmer to cover 11km @ 44km/h to leave enough room on the road for everyone else. Pretty impractical. A whole post could be done on how better to race large fields but that’s not for now.
Currently the feeling is the chances of getting caught for drafting are slim. The current process means it’s impractical for a motorbike ref to card more than a couple in each group. Also, since you are told at the time of your penalty you can take the attitude of pushing the boundaries till the first penalty then ride ultra safe.
This whole thought process could be stopped by not issuing penalties on the road but by serving them in T2. No cards shown on the course, you only find out you’ve been penalized in T2. Now when a ref rides by a pack he could note all numbers and riders will not know if they have been carded, or how many times. This change alone, I believe, would help break up packs.
Together with this I would propose ‘Undercover Refs”. These would be referees riding in the race as athletes, setting off and riding just off the pace, joining any pack that passes observing the pack and deciding on anyone drafting (or littering for that matter). Again penalties served in transition.
A race, I believe, would just have to make a stand one year (i.e. loads of penalties if needed) and then in future races the fear of an undercover ref should help the majority of riders self police.
Whilst I’m on a roll lets look at my other pet hate within Triathlon – pacing on the run. At Lanzarote I saw blatant pacing for extended periods by people in full running kit who looked like athletes that had lost their numbers. This is cheating. At Austria I had to dodge slower runners with a friend keeping them company. These people I’m sure don’t see it as cheating but they should remember they are not special and if everyone on the course did the same it would be mayhem.
It should be easy to stamp out with a warning of enforcement at the briefing and then handing out cards during the race. It won’t require undercover refs but if they wanted a nice big brick session there’d be no harm in heading out on the running and carding a few with pacers.