There is no doubt that even a brief period of drafting gives an athlete a distinct advantage. 70-90 percent of resistance on the bike comes from the air in front of a cyclist. By having another cyclist block this air flow, the amount of energy an athlete has to expend is drastically reduced.
In a large pack of riders, a cyclist can motor along barely touching the pedals and, perhaps, at speeds much greater than would be sustainable under their own power. Drafting not only takes minutes off the bike split, it leaves the legs nice and fresh for the run.
You can imagine the annoyance an athlete feels when they are passed by a rider, or in many cases, groups of riders working together in flagrant disregard for this rule. Athletes have their individual reasons they race and many take a casual approach to their race performance, but others take their racing very seriously.
These athletes may be competitive age groupers who have worked hard for months, or, perhaps, an entire season to be at their best for a race. Their goals could include attempting to qualify for a coveted event slot or team, accumulate points in a series or win their age group. Losing to someone who cheated can leave a very bitter taste in your mouth and even question the legitimacy of the sport.
After one of my recent races, I listened to athletes comment on how much drafting was observed. One of the athletes I coach decided to politely address it with a race official. The official responded that he was writing penalties as fast as he could, and he simply did not have the manpower to cover the event adequately.
In the same race, I was passed by a pack of riders drafting and making no attempt whatsoever to change position by dropping back out of the draft zone or passing. At the time, my position was in approximately the top five percent so this drafting was not occurring at the back of the pack.
After being passed by several motorcycle officials, I assumed there would be a lot of drafting penalties on the board that day. There were, in fact, only ten penalties written for the entire race; two of which were for drafting. The drafting that was occurring could most definitely have affected the race results.
I don't blame the race officials. They are doing a largely thankless job for little pay and sometimes a lot of grief. I have the utmost respect for the work they do. I realize they have a lot of ground to cover and are sometimes very understaffed. The process of writing a penalty is arduous and time consuming, and they have to be very precise.
I also think they err on the side of caution and have to look for the worst offenders. Each official may have their own "pet peeve" rule they like to enforce over drafting, and some of them are just as important for athlete safety. Much is left to their discretion and judgment, and there may not be much continuity of enforcement from race to race.
Some of the responsibility has to fall on the race directors. They choose how many officials to hire for an event, and the more they hire, the more costs go up. Race officials are the first to point this out.
I think even more weight rests on the governing body. The position of the governing body I have inferred is that "drafting is against the rules; if you break the rules you have to live with your own conscience." Although I agree with this, one has to look no farther than professional cycling to see how well the "rely on your conscience" system works.
Imagine a football game in which the officials walked off the field and said, "we are now going to leave it to you guys to call the penalties." Self-officiating simply does not work in any sport.
There is also a safety issue here. I am assuming the reason behind the drafting rule, beyond the obvious physical advantage, is that it creates a safety zone between riders. If this rule is not enforced properly, or any rule that involves participant safety, it creates greater risk.
The most responsibility rests on the athletes themselves. I believe there is a "herd" mentality and the more drafting that occurs, the more drafting will occur. If you were to ask an athlete why they were drafting I believe a typical response would be "the course was congested, and I could not pass." Some courses are very congested, especially at the start, but this does not keep an athlete from dropping back out of the draft zone, or calling out "left" and moving up.
If one athlete sees a group drafting, perhaps they assume it's okay for them to do so as well or they may assume there is safety in numbers. I believe that some athletes simply do not realize how long the seven meter draft zone really is. There is also a natural tendency to pace off of other riders. These are not excuses, just observations.
So what can be done? I have a few suggestions...
- Education. The rules need to be exhibited in places other than a website. I suggest a "Ten Commandments" of the most frequently broken rules to be posted at every race. I also suggest a simple display of a 7 meter draft zone be set up (a cord stretched between two bikes or cones.) Race directors should have links to the governing body rules on their websites and perhaps a short list on the back of entry forms. Prior to starting a race an official should introduce themselves and give a brief review of the rules and what they will be looking for. A simple member survey would determine how many athletes actually know the rules.
- Enforcement. It may be a tough pill to swallow, but there needs to be a standard participant-to-race official ratio. Race entries fees have increased dramatically in the last few years, and this may cause fees to go a bit higher, but it is necessary to protect the integrity and safety of the sport. The means of enforcement should also be updated. Currently detailed reports of each infraction must be filed including a rider / bike description. A picture or short video clip would exhibit incontrovertible evidence, catch more offenders and provide greater deterrent value.
- Penalties. The penalty for drafting needs to be stiffer. The pros take their penalties on the spot, and this may or may not be practical, but it would certainly make an example of offenders. Increasing the time penalty is a good start and a tiered infraction system is even better. On the second offense, I believe an offender should be allowed to participate, but not place, in any race for the remainder of the season. On the third offense they should be banned from participation in any event for one year, and on the fourth, take up golf.
- Logistics. Spreading participants out on the course will help some, especially in larger races. This may mean starting races a bit earlier and having more waves.
- Participant help. Those that choose to disregard the drafting rule must have an accomplice, either knowing or unknowing. I regard my rear wheel as protected air space, and I have no desire to pull another athlete to the finish line. Often the "Lance" look is enough to scare a wheel sucker off; you know the one. If that does not work, signal the athlete forward or call out "pass" or "move up." If none of the above change their behavior, then stay on your game, note their number, and report them to the officials post-race. Do not use profanity, hit your brakes, or use any other unsportsmanlike conduct. If you do, YOU will be in the wrong as well.
- Two-tiered participation. Some athletes are non-competitive and are out to complete the race and have fun doing so. By creating a "competitive amateur" registration class, greater scrutiny could be placed on those vying for a placement awards. This would entail a specific wave for this class, specific markings, and perhaps a slightly higher entry fee. Officials could spend more time scrutinizing this entry level.
Multi-sport participation has grown tremendously in the last few years, and I think this issue is a result of growing pains. The governing body is struggling to catch up with a sport that has gotten away from them a bit.
For the most part, they do an excellent job of administration, but the drafting issue, and others, will need to be addressed in a forthright manner. If it is not, a great sport will continue to be diluted. It is easy for me to play armchair quarterback, and I realize some of my suggestions may or may not be practical, but the big question is should something be done? If the answer is "yes," then the questions become what and when.
Matt Russ has coached and trained elite athletes from around the country and internationally for over ten years. He currently holds expert licenses from USA Triathlon, USA Cycling and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is Head Coach and owner of The Sport Factory and works with athletes of all levels full time. He is a freelance writer, and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines such as Inside Triathlon and Triathlete. Visit www.thesportfactory.com for more information or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.