Thoughts On Drafting

I need to get this off my chest before I can write my Ironman Barcelona race report.

On Sunday I finished my 30th Ironman by completing Ironman Barcelona. I nearly didn’t as during the bike section I got so disillusioned with what I was seeing that I considered pulling out. In all those 30 races this is the first time I chose not to go to the awards. I couldn’t face watching all those athletes getting on the podium and finding myself believing that the majority had cheated to get there.

I feel for two guys I know in my age group. Firstly Matt Molloy who cruised past me on the swim, heading for a stunning fastest swim split. He’s a gun cyclist and yet he got mopped up by packs. He still managed third but looking at the bike splits of the guys ahead and their swim times I am highly sceptical as to the fairness of the result. Then there’s Richard Hobson, he passed me early on the bike (within the first 10k) riding solo with no on around. He’s reported how a pack passed him and he sat off the bike. He says it didn’t affect his race but I think he is being generous. It may not have affected his time but I’m certain it affected his position since many people got ahead of him due to cheating.

To put this is perspective I  was third out of the swim in my age group and then had a strong bike ride. My power numbers were good and historically that would have given me one of the fastest bike splits in my age group. At this race just looking at those that finished ahead of me in my age group there were 38 faster than me and a huge number faster by more than 10 minutes. It’s circumstantial but I am convinced probably 90% of them cheated.

On the road I cycled the first 40 km without any issue whatsoever. During the next 35k I had 3 large packs pass me. I sat up and let them by. Following two of those packs was a referee for the whole period of the pass. The cheating was so utterly blatant that I was shouting “ you’re all cheating’, “this is a peloton”, since they had their names I’d shout things like “Marcus, you should be ashamed of yourself” – no one looked at me, no one protested. The only interaction I had was with the occasional other athlete that was sat up, freewheeling and dropping off. The ref rather than penalised anyone indicated to me I should calm down. The penalty tent at the end of the lap was empty. Then I did the next 35k riding pretty much solo with the odd pass / being passed. Turned again and saw the next big group approaching me. They passed me in the next section.

The reason for explaining this is that the amount of time i spent on my own indicates the large bits of open road before and after these packs. This means they could have ridden legally if those in the groups chose to. I’m not saying Ironman are not partly to blame but don’t justify this blatant cheating by blaming it on Ironman.

For me as a fast swimmer I can keep my head straight by thinking to myself that the pack is catching me so if I let it pass I can continue at my pace and it will pull away. This means it’s only affecting my bike split by a small amount – i.e. the period I’m spending freewheeling. There are others though that are far more affected by this:

  1. Female pros – they get mopped up and what are they going to do, freewheel ? They are racing to make a living. They should not be forced in to making this choice
  2. Slow swimmers and strong bikers. A guy I coach had this problem. They are riding faster than the packs so they catch the pack. Then they have to surge to go by only to find the pack latches on to them and then comes by. This continual surging ultimately screws their race.

In my 30 Ironman races I have been on other flat courses. Drafting has been bad (not this bad) on some – notably Florida and Austria. On others is has not – Roth and Western Australia. The latter saw lots of Age Group pace lines. This adds to the experience as you get to race like the pros. At Barcelona it felt like the majority just felt it wasn’t cheating unless they got caught.

What can be done about this ? Here are things I think would help. Ideally all would be done. Before I start I’d like to try and address one misunderstanding in my opinion. It seems a lot of people think that lapped courses increase the risk of drafting. To me this makes no sense, packs aren’t forming due to athletes that are being lapped merging in with them. Lets face it if someone has been passed for 60+k they’re unlikely to be able to ride with the pack. At most the slower rider may introduce some bunching though I think it wouldn’t be huge. At Barcelona with two laps of about 72k and then a short one of 30k I can’t believe it was an issue at all.

1. Reduce Field Size

Well this isn’t going to happen with Ironman. It’s a profit maximising corporation so as long as we keep entering their greed will just continue to push them to increase the field size. As an organisation I am not a fan of the WTC yet I continue to enter their races. So, I can’t really see athletes rejecting them because of this if I don’t. At this race they proudly announced that they’d more than doubled the entry to 2,500 and had 1,000 volunteers. This immediately made me wonder as many races have as many volunteers as athletes. On race day it was clear they just didn’t have the numbers for the field size. More importantly with this race were the first 3k of the bike. My view is it was quite negligent of them to allow so many people on the course when the first 3k was tight, had speed bumps, sharp bends and chicanes.

2. Widen Gaps between Waves

They had wave starts but by setting off the slower age groups (50+ men and all women) first they served to compress the field whilst also providing a nightmare swim for weaker swimmers. I reckon they need at least 10 minutes between waves and set off the fastest age group first. This can easily be decided by looking at average speed of each age group from the previous years or across other events. If this means reducing cut off times then so be it. This event already had a 16 hours cutoff I think due to how late sunrise was. Moving to 16 hours for other events provides an hour to get all waves off.  At Barcelona I feel the reason for waves starts was purely because a mass start was impractical and not to reduce drafting on the bike.

3. Serve Penalties in T2

This was the case in my first Ironman. So I will use that as an example. They said if you get one drafting penalty you will arrive in T2 to find tape across your bag. This means you have to report to the penalty tent. If you have two, your bag will have been removed which means your disqualified. Combine this with not issuing cards has many effects:

– it should prevent athletes thinking that they’ll risk the first card and then be careful after as they’d have no idea whether or not they’d been penalised yet

– more penalties can be issued as the ref doesn’t have to show a card to each individual. With large packs it can actually be dangerous for them to issue the cards to athletes that are tucked in

– a ref merely riding by a pack will have a big impact as no one will know if they’ve been penalised or not

4. Undercover Ref

Have a referee riding as an athlete. He sets off early from T1 and rides under pace so he can join any packs that come along. He can then observe the group and see those that are attempting to ride by the rules and those that are not. He could have a discrete radio he could use to report numbers. With large fields I think it’s important in the age group field to be sympathetic to those trying to abide by the rules. e.g. – if a pack comes by I would not expected someone to hit their brakes but if they’re seen to sit up, freewheel then they are attempting to abide by the rules. An undercover ref in a few races would be enough, after that just the chance that one may be there would have a big effect.

5. Distinguish between “drafting” and “cheating”

If we had undercover refs it would be reasonable to police this

“Drafting” – this is what we see in the pro race sometimes. This is where you infringe the rules – e.g. don’t pass in 15s, don’t drop back in 15s, don’t execute your pass. This is not cheating, it’s part and parcel of the race. It’s a bit like race walking, sometimes you will infringe the rules and if caught be penalised. Once you break up the packs and have pacelines this is perfectly policed by motorbike marshals, allowing them to give warnings and helping athletes keep legal. This is precisely what happens at Western Australia.

“Cheating” – this is sitting on someones wheel like you are on a group ride. This isn’t something that happens by accident, it is intentional cheating. This is never seen in the pro race (provided they don’t get mopped up by the age group field). This infringement should be disqualification.

6. Heavier Penalties

Depending on whether number 5 above is implemented depends how this would go.

If we have DQ for cheating I would suggest that any athlete DQ’d should be banned from qualifying for Kona that year. I think a second DQ should result in 2 year ban from Kona and so forth.

A proviso on this. I only think this would be implemented if there are undercover refs who can genuinely decide if someone is cheating. I think with motorbike refs there’s always the risk they get it wrong since they can’t really observe a pack long enough without actually impacting the dynamic.

Other than the first two above I don’t see any particular reason why these can’t be implemented and I do think it would have a big impact. The final idea also would hopefully result in a higher proportion of Kona participants being those that attempt not to draft which should help make that a fair race.

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