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Pros weigh in on how the 20-meter drafting rule was applied at two Challenge races.
At the two Challenge Family races held in the Middle East so far—Challenge Bahrain in December and Challenge Dubai last month—a 20-meter drafting zone was implemented in the pro race.
The standard draft zone in professional Ironman racing has been 12 meters, and athletes are given 25 seconds once they’ve entered the draft zone to pass without being penalized. The draft zone has been extended to 40 feet (or 13.5 meters) in the Ironman World Championship’s pro race. Even so, there are frequent complaints from professionals regarding whether the draft zone is being properly enforced and whether the distance does in fact eliminate drafting. (In an experiment in 2012 conducted by the staff of Inside Triathlon magazine, it was found that the 10-meter drafting zone then enforced in Ironman racing still allowed a 12-watt savings at 25 mph, which equates to cutting 4 minutes and 30 seconds off of an Ironman bike leg at that speed.)
To rule out both of those questions affecting the results in the two high-paying Challenge races, the Challenge Family introduced the 20-meter rule. “The rule creates an absolute fair race with no influence other than the athlete’s ability,” Challenge’s marketing and communications director Victoria Murray-Orr told Triathlete. “We introduced the rule in Bahrain given the large, high-caliber field of pro athletes combined with a fast, flat course with no hills the break the field up. Given that a record-breaking $500,000 was on the line, it was important to ensure the race was as fair as possible.”
In addition to increasing the distance, the passing time was also increased to 35 seconds to pass through the drafting zone. Murray-Orr says the rule was well received by the pro athletes who raced in both Bahrain and Dubai. “Given the popularity of this rule, we will certainly be applying it to all our Triple Crown races and potentially to other existing races where the course design allows,” she says. There are two remaining Triple Crown races in 2015—Challenge Oman (date TBD) and Challenge Bahrain (Dec. 12)
Challenge Bahrain champion Helle Frederiksen, who also raced in Dubai, is a proponent of the rule: “There is no denying it makes it a much more individual race,” she told Triathlete.
However, she’d like to see a few changes to how it’s implemented, namely very clear visual markers for athletes as well as possibly a slightly longer passing time. “In Bahrain, it was very easy [to eyeball 20 meters] because the organization was great in letting us know what the visual markers for assessment were to be for the officials,” she says. “This, to me, is how it should be—transparent in communication. Dubai was a little tougher. Despite asking numerous times pre-race for an indication of what the referees were using as their visual marker, I got no confirmation. This I don’t like, as it is suddenly purely all down to what the referee says and feels he sees. I’m not a fan of that.”
She also thought the 35-second window was a “tough ask,” because “it definitely requires an athlete does not hesitate and in most cases an athlete will need to surge to make that pass. I’d like to see it potentially increased to 40 or even 45 seconds, but for me it’s not a make-or-break thing.”
2012 Ironman world champion Pete Jacobs, who also raced both events, agreed the increased drafting zone made for a fairer race, and he had no trouble gauging the distance: “20 meters is easy to guesstimate while riding—you just leave a lot more gap than normal,” he says.
Regarding the 35-second time allotment, Jacobs thought it worked OK. “But I think all time limits on passing are discouraging of a competitive race,” he says. “If slip-streaming is not allowed, and you must pull wide before attempting to pass, then there is no advantage to attempting to pass. Should the rider in front speed up and/or hit a downhill, making the pass impossible, the rider attempting the pass should not be penalized for his unsuccessful attempt. Officials should warn people who appear to be sitting beside another rider too long in a cross-wind, but if they have an understanding of what is and is not a legitimate benefit to a rider, then riders should be given the benefit of [the] doubt to encourage more passing and competitive riding. However, a time limit on the rider who has been passed and needs to drop back is reasonable.”
Both Jacobs and Frederiksen would like to see the rule applied at more races. “Given the success of this and how much the professional athletes support it, I would like to think that race organizations take it upon themselves to implement it,” Frederiksen says. “That said, for me, when it comes to non-draft competitions, I feel this really should be the norm. I’d like to see it in all non-draft events globally. On courses with loops, I agree it is more difficult but for sure in major championship races and races hosting large prize purses, I would welcome it being the standard.”
Jacobs also thinks it should be applied at all races. “It allows the gaps to expand beyond the draft zone more easily,” he says, “and therefore makes it possible more often for an athlete making their way through the bunch to do so with less chance of penalty, as per the current rules of needing to pass an entire group who are spaced at the limit of the draft zones.”