Chances are that words and abbreviations like; ITU, Olympic Distance, 70.3, WTC,draft legal, non-drafting, full distance, and half distance mean either nothing or something completely different to the majority of Americans than they do to triathlete Americans. Triathlon as a competitive sport just doesn’t have the penetration in American culture that it does in other countries. This is probably due to the fact that as a sport it has only existed since the seventies and it has only been in the Olympics since 2000.
Generally speaking, Americans are inpatient with endurance events. Did anyone really know who Meb Keflezighi was before he won the 2014 Boston Marathon? To give another pertinent example, in the last Summer Olympics many people can remember Missy Franklin’s fantastic performances, but do you remember who won the 800 meter freestyle gold medal? Many have forgotten that there was another young American woman who decimated her competitors, her name is Katie Ledecky and you will see her in future Olympics. In swimming we tend to focus on events 400 meters and less (Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe, Mark Spitz) because it takes a lot less time to get the race finished. Watching a race for 9 minutes (800) or 15-16 (1500) is tedious to people because often the finish isn’t as exciting as it is in the sprints.
To the point, if you didn’t know who Katie Ledecky is then I am all but certain the name Javier Gomez means nothing to you. Javier Gomez is the World ITU (International Triathlon Union) and World WTC (World Triathlon Corporation) 70.3 distance champion as well as an Olympic silver medalist. This is what he looks like:
Those times without the proper context don’t really mean anything. Lets just focus on his run. One hour, nine minutes, and twenty seven seconds. That is for a half marathon which is 13.1 miles. That puts his split time at roughly 5:27 a mile. Can you run even one mile at that split? To put that into perspective, that time would have placed him 4th in the Denver Colfax Half Marathon in 2014. He would have placed 20th at the Boston Half Marathon – a much more competitive race. Now for the proper context; he also swam 1.2 miles and biked 56 miles before he put on his running shoes. If I took the top Boston 1/2 Marathon finisher (1:00:34) and had him ride his bike for 56 miles at any pace and then start the half marathon once he was finished (and Javier rode his normal pace), Javier would surely beat him on the run, not to mention easily besting him at the other two disciplines.
Considering those times, anyone who asks “who is the best endurance athlete right now” Javier’s name would be in the top 5. Among other people you have never heard of like Alistair Brownlee (Olympic Triathlon Gold Medalist), Marino Vanhoenacker (Ironman distance world record holder), Frederik Van Lierde (reigning Ironman World Champion) and those are just the men…and just the men competing in traditional triathlon. We aren’t even talking about XTerra triathlons which are incredibly challenging triathlons. I haven’t even touched on the women who are growing more impressive to me every time I see a race result. I wonder to myself, will there come a time when people are posting times in the individual triathlon events that are about as or more competitive than their open race counterparts? If it can be done, it will probably be done by someone named Gwen Jorgensen…
Ohhh so much has been said about this topic and this is sure to stir up a pot somewhere, but even a very basic logical analysis of the drafting issues at M-Dot races conclude that the sport should be come almost universally draft legal. If you are reading this and thinking “Draft beers should always be legal!”, you are thinking of the wrong ‘draft’ and an example of how cycling and triathlon are not exactly mainstream in the United States.
To explain the difference between draft legal and non-drafting races, just look at either Olympic or UCI bike races. In these events you have two principle types of cycling, the mass-start road race and the time trial. The mass-start road race is the one you typically see on TV, people ride in huge groups and occasionally a star will break from the “peloton” and make a run for the finish, first one across the finish wins. The time trial is a different race. A course is set up and a biker will race the course alone and the winner is the one with the best time. By very definition, the time trial is “non-drafting” because there are no other bikes to draft off of. Drafting in a bike is similar to drafting in NASCAR, if you get close enough to the low pressure area behind another moving object, your high pressure area is sucked along behind the low pressure area in front of you – thus requiring less power to move you along. In NASCAR this is done to save fuel, in biking it is done to help conserve power, measured in watts. Someone behind a few bikers can exert fewer watts per speed unit than the leader.
Originally triathlon was very small, the idea was that you did all three events yourself, in as much of a time trial format as could be managed. This is the true test of the athlete – what can you do on your own. However, as races get larger, they start taking on the feel of a mass start event. In most triathlons, you only get a small slice of road to ride on (it is not common for entire roads to be closed) and depending on the number of participants situations arise where drafting (riding within 3 bike lengths of the person in front of you) is not only impossible, to attempt it would be dramatically unsafe.
The result is predictable, a high profile race occurs, drafting occurs, and a bunch of people complain on forums like slow twitch (link here). A lot of ideas come up, stagger the swim start, more officials, etc. but none of them really work. If we have learned anything about trying to ban something that everyone will do anyway (like marijuana) it is to stop banning it and wrap rules around it. There is precedent for this; the ITU series of triathlons and the triathlon in the Olympics are all draft legal and unsurprisingly not only did the world not end, but complaints of drafting went away.
There are a few reasons why this is not a popular idea but I suspect the real problem is the cottage industry of time trial bike manufacturers. In draft legal races you will notice that everyone rides a similar style of drop handlebar road bike. In time-trials and non-drafting triathlons the bikes are different, commonly referred to as “TT” bikes. Because of some safety concerns about the way TT bikes are set up, mass start races ban TT style bikes. For professionals, this isn’t an issue, their sponsor will simply provide the required bike for the race the athlete is doing and be done with it. The problem is with the thousands and thousands of age groupers who had enough money for one high end bike and chose a TT style bike. Changing the format to primarily draft legal racing would alienate those racers. I am unsure of how those racers could be un-alienated, but just as sure as the US will eventually have universal health care, WTC races will and must become draft legal.