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Do Triathletes Really Want To End Drafting?

The announcement of new technology from Race Ranger could drastically reduce drafting and better punish offenders. But does tri even want to rehab its drafting addiction?


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Triathletes have a few very predictable loves when it comes to tri topics: We love it when someone we love does well, we love some good trash talk, we love technology, and (statistics have shown) we love fast/easy iron-distance courses. We also have some predictable hates: We hate it when other triathletes get hurt, we hate things that make training and racing more dangerous, and we hate it (oh, we hate it!) when people break rules.

Nothing puts triathletes’ collective rage/heart-rate monitors into Zone Angry more quickly than pictures of races with packs of riders, seemingly drafting off each other, with smiles on their windless faces and not a bead of sweat to be seen. How could they? We ask. How DARE they? We wail on social media. And like almost everything on the internet, rage begets more rage until a seething, swirling dervish of multisport mania escalates into some sort of witch hunt or whatever else comes next. Opinions are given; ultimatums are thrown down; sometimes drafters are outed. But is that it?

RELATED: Race Ranger Announces High-Tech Draft Detector

Think of some of the draftiest Ironman events out there, and no, I won’t name names (go nuts in the social comments, though). Are these small events with under 1,000 people? Nope. They’re typically very popular large races that often sell out. Where’s all that collective rage when it comes to signing up for notoriously…sketchy…long-course events? Of course, the answer to that question is complicated.

First, many of these draft-heavy events take place in areas with few other options. It’s easy to say “I’ll never do X race” when you have ten other choices within driving distance.

And then, of course, there’s the validity of the drafting claims. We’ve seen tons of photos of triathletes clumped up in what looks like giant, Mad Max-style draft groups, legs looking loose, hands up on the bars because, well, they’re not working, they’re cheating. But sometimes those photos are snapped at inopportune moments, like heading into a tight corner or when the course funnels in or out of a tight space or aid station.

All that being said, there are, of course, plenty of times when people are straight up cheating, because they’re tired and they want to be done or they want to race better than they actually can. That happens a lot, and is the absolutely justifiable genesis of most of our online and first-person Anger Over Those Rulebreakers.

So whatcha gonna do about it?

That’s the thing, outside of the old “taking matters into our own hands” style of internet sleuthing/witch-hunting, which never ends well (it really doesn’t), what’s the best way to prevent drafting?

Is it to carry an extra bottle of ultra-concentrated, ultra-sticky, glucose-heavy sports drink to spray into the faces of our foes as they tuck up uncomfortably close to our bums? Well, yeah, I mean, that works to some extent (and I won’t deny I’ve done something like that myself). But that’s not the change we really want to see.

Is it simply educating racers better on the morals of using others’ abilities to help them look more awesomer? Do lots of drafters just not know what they’re doing to the delicate web of the ethical triathlon ecosystem? Are they classic ignorant polluter savages who don’t understand the evolved multisport culture? Nah, they probably know what they’re doing, and they probably don’t care that you care when their legs are thrashed to half-mast and they just want to get to the finish line before Mike Reilly is back at his hotel room and their families are already halfway home.

So here’s what you can do: Vote with your wallet. Don’t go to races that are notoriously drafty or don’t have enough race officials (or ones who don’t police), and don’t do races with thin/condensed courses that sometimes force racers into draft packs that they can’t escape. Don’t do races with thousands and thousands of triathletes on flat, looped courses.

Better yet, write race directors telling them why you won’t do their race, and be specific and rational (not ragey, edgy, and/or wild). Tell them you’d love to see more officials on the course, tell them you (And your club? And your friends?) won’t come back unless the race invests in technology that deters drafters. Tell them you’d spend more money to make courses safer (meaning usually: with more roads and fewer athletes, which increases costs), or that you’d pay more, knowing they have procedures in place to prevent drafting, police drafting, and effectively punish drafters.

Because here’s the cold, hard, cynical reality in triathlon: Race directors only care about drafting if you care about drafting. They don’t have to issue refunds to anyone who feels like they were cheated by a pack of 45-year-old men who just happened to get out of the water at the same time. In fact, the opposite is true—if a race adds another 1,000 triathletes, most of which draft because the course is too tight or because drafting either can’t or won’t be policed in those conditions, guess who makes 1,000x the race entry fee?

And at the end of the day, large triathlon events are events whose literal job is to make money. Sure, they care about athlete safety and a good racing experience overall, but fairness only ranks high on their list if it ranks high on yours (and you make it known).

So this one is on us. If we really want to see less drafting, we need to force the change ourselves. Obviously, we need to not draft—even if that means pulling out of the paceline, or staggering, or dropping back, or moving up—but we also need to be vocal to those who can do something about the root of the real problem at hand, and we need to be willing to bear the cost of the solution.

After all, you can only carry so many bottles of “drafter repellent.”