I’ll take my swim starts en masse, please!
Triathlon isn’t really a sport about times because courses are so different. It’s fundamentally a sport about racing, and rolling starts take away the thrill of the head-to-head race and erode many of the reasons people keep coming back to compete.
With rolling starts, now you have no idea if you’re ahead or behind, or if that person you’re trying to out-sprint has already beaten you. Isn’t that a little less motivating? If you’re going for a world championship slot, you can find yourself infinitely frustrated as what was once a race has turned into an exercise event. Now, we all just exercise in the same general area, then wait around to see who exercised best. That starts to sound an awful lot like Strava.
Of course, the mass swim start can be a limiter for many athletes and has the potential to be dangerous. But there are ways to craft events so those who want to compete for awards would be in a mass start or an age-group wave, with a rolling start following them.
It’s also not fair to judge the people at the front of a rolling start against those who begin their races an hour later. The conditions are not the same. The course is more crowded later; drafting is more of a factor on both the bike and the swim; weather changes. That’s always been true, but previously everyone in an age group at least faced the same conditions. Now age-group podiums are being awarded and slots are being handed out based on those drastically different races. It’s not an accident that some top age-groupers are now making calculated decisions about whether or not to start at the front or much farther back so that they can take advantage of legal (or illegal) drafting.
Plus, the rolling start only really works if everyone seeds themselves accurately, and we all know triathletes are always honest about how fast we are.
Rolling starts have allowed new athletes to access triathlon, which is great, and it has let races cram in more people in the same time window, which isn’t as great. But it’s also killed some of the excitement of going head-to-head with people near you, the thrill of trying to out-kick someone as you come down the chute. There’s a reason the world championships never had rolling starts—until 70.3 worlds last year. Because if there was ever a time for a head-to-head race, a championship is it. Plus post-race war stories over beer aren’t as much fun when you don’t have a little friendly race rivalry to relive, and that’s reason enough for me to duke it out with the masses.