Triathlon, just like distance running, cycling, or swimming is not just one sport. Within triathlon we have subdivisions of distances for example. Just like track has the 100 meter dash up to the 10,000 meter run, triathlon spans from a race lasting around an hour to a race lasting over eight hours. This is essentially equivalent to comparing a 5k to a marathon or comparing the 1500 meter swim to a 10 kilometer swim. These are drastic differences and about as far as any distance sport will span without the exceptions of the ‘ultra’ endurance athletes.
However, just like in road cycling or running, triathlon has different styles of racing. For example, a cycling criterium around a less than a mile loop is a completely different race than a road race that could go for a distance over 100 miles. Professional cyclists will specialize in these disciplines and some will radically excel at one while completely failing at another. Distance runners may choose cross country over track or steeplechase.
Within road triathlon, however, the difference lies in the rules about drafting. This variation lies almost solely in the Sprint and Olympic distances with Ironman and 70.3 distance triathlons being solely draft illegal. The International Triathlon Union (ITU) has adopted a style of racing for the elite competitors that is known as draft legal racing. The only major difference between this style of racing and the typical triathlon rules are whether or not a cyclist can ride directly behind another cyclist. The USA Triathlon rules, similar to the majority of triathlons and federations all around the world, state that a rider must be at least seven meters behind the cyclist in front. If the trailing rider wants to pass that cyclist in front, they must do so in fifteen seconds or will receive a penalty in the form of time added on to their overall time.
ITU style racing eliminates this rule and in doing so simplifies the regulation of the race but dramatically alters the race. Because cyclists can draft on the swim, run, and the bike in ITU races, this promotes pack style racing. The consequences of eliminating this rule are apparent immediately from the start. Because of the chaotic style of draft legal racing, the field must be limited to approximately 100 athletes or less as well as all the athletes must start at the same time. In draft illegal racing, there can be as many waves for the athletes as is necessary.
From 100 meters into the swim, the difference between an ITU triathlon and a draft-illegal triathlon become even more apparent. In an ITU race, athletes battle to stay with a “pack” of swimmers. Drafting has just as much benefit in the water as it does in cycling. However, in a draft illegal triathlon, there will be much less emphasis on staying with the leaders on the swim because in a draft-illegal style cycling leg, the riders can simply pull their way up to the leader.
Once out onto the bike course, cyclists will quickly try to find one another’s wheels in a draft legal race. As a cyclist makes a pass, it is common in triathlon for the rider to quickly jump behind the faster rider, gaining the significant advantage from the front rider breaking the wind resistance. Packs of riders will soon form while in the draft-illegal style racing riders will be stretched out along the course. This highlights why a triathlete would be willing to bury him or herself on the swim to stay in contact with the pack. In a draft legal race, a racer off the back can be one versus a pack of up to seventy five riders working together. In a draft illegal race, the bike leg ends up essentially being one on one. As the ride continues, the packs typically become larger as chasing riders catch on.
Coming into T2, a field of riders will pop off and sprint through transition to change into their running shoes. This pack style racing is not over yet, as the drafting benefit in running, while smallest, is still very apparent. Runners will stride directly behind the heels of a lead runner until in the closing kilometers, the faster runners will attempt to breakaway.
The main differences that a spectator may imagine between the two sports in addition to the visible differences is that draft-illegal triathlon results in a less tactical, race against the clock while draft legal triathlon drastically decreases emphasis on the cycling leg. While both are true, many people see these differences as negatives of draft legal racing. Having raced both types of triathlons, I know the differences first hand and have absolutely fallen in love with both types of racing.
Let’s tackle the misconception that draft-illegal racing is solely a race against the clock. As I said earlier, many triathletes will place less focus on the swim because it is at the beginning and there is so much time on the bike and run to make up lost ground. People claim this de-emphasizes the swim. However, if you look at the results of any competitive triathlon, the winner did not just have a great biking leg, or a strong run. A winning triathlete pops out of the water with a time comparing to a college swimmer, and puts down power similar to the region’s fastest time trialists and closes with a run that would crush any local 10k. Did they win it on the bike? No. Did they win it on the swim? Certainly not. However, while a triathlete can lose the race on any leg, including transition, they win it by being one of the best at all three. It is tough to recognize that there are three ways (five including transitions) to lose but only one way to win.
What I would like to highlight with this is that non-drafting races emphasize all legs of the race. A poor swimmer could lose ten minutes to his competition just as a bad cyclist could lose that time as well as a weak runner. Also, tactics play a huge role on all three legs. As a predominately non-drafting triathlete, I know very well that the first 200 meters of the swim are decisive. I have lost races as well as sealed wins in those first two minutes. For example, one of my competitors is a very strong swimmer but a weaker runner. If I can draft on his heels on the swim and accelerate to the swim exit to get an early gap, it is game over, race won. Another one of my competitors is a very strong cyclist but not a very good runner. If he were to get a significant gap on me on the bike, I could end up not having enough time to close the gap on the run. But if I get out of the water with him, I can pace off him on the bike and crush him on the run. As far as the strong runners go, it is a game of fear for everyone else. Go hard from the gun and just hope that the buffer is big enough at the end of the bike.
Sitting outside of the draft zone while maintaining the same speed as the other cyclist is known as pacing. Just outside that seven meter distance, there is still a significant benefit and because of that benefit to riding behind someone, tactics play a key role. In the last three years I have been racing, never have I let a triathlete simply ride away from me. I always attempt to hang outside of that box and pace off them. In addition to being beneficial, letting them ride away is like admitting defeat, a tactic that never bodes well with the bloodthirsty competitors at the lead of a race. The reality that I want to illustrate is that this style racing with rules against drafting is not a tactical desert. Planning and being savvy and smart still play an extremely important role in non-drafting racing.
The next misconception I want to tackle is two-fold: that ITU style racing is a running race with a swim and bike parade for the sponsors. In Chris McCormack’s first race back to short course, he was dropped on the swim and fought and failed on the bike leg to pull himself back into the race. This was a defeat that may have cost him his Olympic spot. Do the swim and bike still seem to be unimportant? On the swim, the pack will typically swim in the 17 minute range. The fastest age grouper I have ever witnessed has swam no faster than two minutes slower than that time, a time that would lose them the race before they could even start the bike.
Once out on the bike course, the triathletes who were shelled on the swim will battle to catch back onto the main field. Many athletes who worry about the run will attempt breakaways on the bike to get a gap on the majority of their competition. In the World Cup triathlon in Auckland, New Zealand last year, the New Zealand team used tactics to get two athletes up the road. On a hilly bike course, the New Zealand athletes used the home course to their advantage, initially getting several Kiwis up the road from the main field. The remaining riders athletes with NZL across their chest imitated a pull through at the front of the main field, actually slowing the pack and helping their teammates ride away. Kris Gemmell from New Zealand still was not confident with this move so he and another teammate crushed one of the hills out on the course and zipped through the technical turns to get a gap on the small group. Their teammates back in that intermediate pack when they were supposed to pull through sat up and delayed the chase just enough to allow the two Kiwis at the front a larger gap. Kris Gemmell jogged the eleventh fastest time of the day, high fiving his teammates along the way, to comfortably take the win by over a minute. In this case the race was won on the bike. To say that cycling strength matters as much in ITU as it does in non-drafting racing would be a lie. But to say it does not matter would be equally untrue. It is evidently not a runner’s race if Kris Gemmell could have theoretically run the twenty-fourth fastest time and still taken the win.
Just as in a cycling race, there are many reasons to sit in the field and rest but also many reasons to jump out and take the wind. For weaker runners, they have the most obvious logic: to create a gap before the start of the run. For moderate strength runners, such a tactic could help them win or podium in a race that they otherwise would finish middle of the pack. For the strong runners, they have to defend these attacks the entire race. It is true that the course can play a huge role in the tactics of the race, with flatter courses tailored for strong runners. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a race I was in in Lake Lure, North Carolina last year was so hilly that the best cyclists jogged to podium placings. Triathlon, while commonly seen as a time trial, is in reality an intensely tactical sport. In the years before I realized this, I was consistently relegated to the lower steps on the podium. But when I began studying my competition and the sport, I saw improvement in results as well as in my excitement for the sport.