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The Future of Draft Policing Began With Lasers

James Elvery and his company Race Ranger aim to change the way triathlon enforces its rules by adapting space-age technology to multisport.

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It all started with lasers.

James Elvery had a problem that had kept him up at night. The Kiwi and former pro triathlete was unhappy with the way that drafting in our sport was being policed and enforced—with old-school methods of a few race referees darting around on loud motorcycles, obvious from miles away to spot check random drafting offenders.

He had literally stayed up late for months racking his brain about how to use technology—any technology—to not only penalize drafters, but also educate them and prevent drafting before it even starts. Punishment is one thing, but the goal is to have no drafting, and a fair race to begin with.

Elvery wrestled with a problem that sometimes felt like it didn’t have an existing solution, but inspired by the death of his friend and training partner, Laurent Vidal, in 2015 (“I asked myself, what would Laurent do?” Elvery said), he kept pressing forward.

The Breakthrough

“Early on, we tried lasers on bikes, but that didn’t work,” Elvery said. “After that, it was a dreamer’s hobby for a couple of years. Then I spent two months online every night all night trying to find the technology that would do it. I found something that was used in warehousing—ultra wide band—what’s come out in the Apple Air Tag.”

Air Tags use proximity from other devices, rather than their exact GPS location, to determine closeness. This is a much more elegant (and efficient) solution for draft policing, where it’s more important to know the distance between two objects rather than their place on a map.

Race Ranger Today

The latest iteration of Race Ranger uses a combination of ultra wide band (UWB), Bluetooth, GPS/GNSS, and LoRa—a techno-brew similar to what warehouses use to track indoor inventory. The lightweight devices are placed on the front and rear of the racer’s bike, and when a rider approaches a pre-set threshold (which can be altered, based on the race’s rules), the rear unit begins to flash. At first, the light will flash a slow, red light, before the approaching rider has done anything wrong, but as they get closer to the front rider’s draft zone, the red light will begin to flash quicker. Once the rider enters the draft zone, the light changes to a quickly blinking blue light that’ll flash red every five seconds to help the rear rider know how much time they have to make their move and either pass or drop back.

A rear view of the Race Ranger anti-drafting technology for triathlon.
(Photo: Race Ranger)

Already, this is a huge leap up in tech for policing drafters, which currently have to just guess if they’re inside a draft zone or not. Some drafters, Elvery and his cofounder fellow former pro Dylan McNeice posit, might not even know that they’re breaking the rules. But Race Ranger’s tech goes a step further by not only displaying the offender’s infraction with lights, but also broadcasting and keeping a “high score” board of the worst offenders at a race to referees. This can help refs—who would still retain final say in handing out penalties—a better picture on who is doing what and how often: Are these “serial drafters” or just tired riders making a simple mistake?

Elvery’s creation has even more features, like a range of miles—not just line of sight that race refs used to operate in—and their system has an incredibly impressive mobile tablet interface for refs that interacts with both racers’ tracking units and penalty tents to help serve out punishment quickly and efficiently. (For more on what Race Ranger can and cannot do, check out our story when it was announced.)

Moving And Shaking?

Right now, however, Elvery and Race Ranger are at an inflection point. In order for Race Ranger to effectively prevent and punish drafters, it actually needs to be on bikes in races. And the onus is now on race directors and race companies (like Ironman) to decide that this is an investment they’d like to make. If racers themselves don’t make a case for better draft policing, then it’s unlikely that race directors will be interested in the additional cost and extra step on race week.

RELATED: Do Triathletes Really Want To End Drafting?

Elvery is setting his sights on European events to start and then hoping to get enough momentum to bring Race Ranger elsewhere. His ability to change the fairness of our sport—fixing the problem he and his McNeice saw so long ago—is ultimately in the hands of everyday racers who may or may not feel as strongly. Either way, Race Ranger’s tech could move and shake even other applications in and outside of our sport.