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To draft or not to draft

By Gary Brown

As for what a collegiate triathlon would look like, it probably wouldn’t mirror the public sector brand or the “Ironman” races. Because of the team aspect that the collegiate proponents are after, they’re favoring an Olympic-style format that allows “draft-style” racing in the bike portion, rather than the customary “every-woman-for-herself” approach.

“Drafting makes the race more team-oriented and gives everyone a role,” said the ACC’s Brad Hecker. “Someone drafting is riding 30 percent easier than the person in front of them, so exciting team tactics and race strategies can be used on the bike circuit.”

For example, Hecker said, if a team has an exceptional runner but its swimmers are on the slower side, team members can organize themselves to get out of the water and onto the bike as a group. The team could then “protect” the good runner by letting her “draft” in the slipstream of the other teammates, who can rotate to try and catch the leaders of the race on the bike course. If successful, the good runner would be in position to go for the overall win from the front of the race pack, with fresh legs for the run.  

“Then there’s still the team standings to consider, so everyone who worked really hard on the bike to protect the good runner has to run as fast as they can to place well in the team competition, which is scored like cross country,” Hecker said. “That’s what makes this format exciting and where the team approach comes into play.”

But draft-legal has its detractors. Lance Armstrong, who recently went pro in triathlon, started a Twitter battle last spring when he hinted that draft-legal was little more than “a damp blow dry and a footrace,” meaning that the bike portion was not the best-of-the-best pushing themselves toward the run.

Navy club coach Billy Edwards likes the draft-legal style for colleges, though, because it would attract strong swimmers who likely would finish the swim portion close together ahead of the chase pack and then be able to take advantage of the draft rules in the cycling portion to keep their lead and get to the run with a head start.

“That adds energy to the bike portion and is more attractive to spectators,” he said. “That allows schools to condense the bike course, too. For a non-drafting race, you’d need about an 18k loop, but with the drafting rules, you can set up a 3k loop, which makes it more realistic for colleges to secure the required roads for the bike course, and it allows spectators to see the whole race unfold from one spot.”

New Marymount triathlon coach Zane Castro said draft-legal is appropriate because it addresses a developmental need for the college-level triathlete. “Draft-legal doesn’t mean forever,” he said. “It means it’s the best chance to develop the least-developed aspect of most triathletes. It isn’t a matter of which is better; rather, it’s about the viable developmental option for any aspiring triathlete.”

The ACC’s Hecker said that to accommodate triathletes who are accustomed to non-draft racing, advocates for the sport at the collegiate level are evaluating a team structure to include a “novice” group that would compete in non-draft events. The novice structure could be similar to what is used in collegiate rowing.

Hecker said a novice structure would allow schools to work with the talent that exists at the collegiate level and develop it appropriately to handle the challenges of draft-legal racing.

“We have found the interest is definitely out there, but most junior triathletes compete in non-draft races,” Hecker said. “The opportunities for draft-legal racing are mostly limited to the elite pros, which means there are competitive adjustments and acclimation periods we need to account for as we develop the current triathletes while providing more draft-legal competition opportunities.”

The novice approach also would create larger squads and provide more popular female athletics opportunities, Hecker said. In the collegiate format, the novice squads could start first as a specific “collegiate-only wave” in the non-draft public race, which would be conducted before the varsity draft-legal race.