No more excuses: Basic triathlon road rules you must know

Credit: Donald Miralle/Allsport
Domestic Ironman season is upon us. This means that many athletes will have taken time off work and shoved their families into the minivan for a long drive, or into the coach section for a flight.

That's in addition to the many miles traveled on bike and afoot in preparation.

And the entry fee. And the equipment purchases. And the whole realizing-the-dream thing.

It would be bad, then, to spend your dream on the side of the road next to a draft marshal. This article will help you avoid that.

It's easy to get a penalty during the bike ride. You don't have to be overtly cheating to get a penalty. In fact, many or even most of the penalties handed down are for doing things that won't give you any advantage. Doesn't seem hardly fair, does it?

The dean of USA Triathlon's officials is Charlie Crawford. He's a very nice guy who told me, "It breaks my heart when I disqualify someone at an Ironman. It breaks my heart on the plane all the way back home."

Yet the same man will absolutely not hesitate to hand down a penalty at a race. No warnings. No "proactivity." No excuses accepted, no whining allowed. It's that simple.

While he has never said as much to me, I suspect the thing that upsets Charlie the most is not blatant cheating, it's hearing over and over again from people who receive penalties that they don't know what they did wrong.

This galls Charlie. For him, it's black and white: You've trained all this time, paid all this money to get to the race, placed a good bit of yourself into this race, and you didn't bother to read the rules.

So here it is. Charlie has reduced the "position rules" to the following concepts, which everyone can remember:

  • Ride on the right side of your lane [Slowtwitch note: A third of all triathletes still don't seem to grasp this].
  • Keep three bike lengths between yourself and the cyclist in front of you.
  • Pass on the left of the cyclist in front, never on the right.

  • Complete your pass within 15 seconds.
  • If passed, you must drop completely out of the zone, to the rear, before attempting to re-pass.

Charlie goes on to say the following:

"Remember, you are racing in a USA Triathlon sanctioned event and there are trained referees on the course to ensure fairness in the competition. There will be NO WARNINGS if you commit a foul during competition. Triathlon is an individual event and you must take personal responsibility to understand the rules and avoid penalties. At the end of the race all citations by the marshals are reviewed by the Head Referee, who then decides if a penalty should be assessed. The Head Referee's ruling is final in the case of Position Violations, and there are no protests or appeals of Position penalties."

According to Charlie, here are the violations drawing the most citations:

Illegal Position or Blocking: riding on the left side of the lane without passing.

Illegal Pass: passing on the right.

Overtaken: failing to drop back three bike lengths before re-passing.

Drafting: following a leading cyclist closer than three bike lengths and failing to pass or exit the draft zone within 15 seconds.

I've listed these four common violations in the order in which Charlie wrote them. Does that mean that blocking is the most commonly cited violation? I don't know. I only know that Charlie listed it first, and it would be my guess that it is (based on personal experience).

It's easy to imagine why people have no idea what they've done when they get called for blocking, because the infraction occurs behind them, so to speak. You're not getting an illegal draft from the person in front of you; you're impeding the person behind you -- in all likelihood a person you haven't even seen.

Furthermore, you can get a position foul without actually impeding anyone! Just the fact that you've been riding on the left without passing anyone is enough to warrant a penalty.

There are other rules, of course, such as making sure your chinstrap is always buckled from the time you leave your bike rack spot until the time you return to it, and there's unsportsmanlike conduct, and littering (be careful to toss your empty bottles and gel wrappers only in the vicinity of aid stations).

Me, I'm not a huge fan of rules, and if Charlie and I have any gentle disagreement it's that I'd err on the side of fewer penalties when and if possible. But there is one infraction I wish was enforced more vigorously. It's the "abandonment of equipment" rule, and it's rarely enforced, because people (obviously) don't abandon equipment they've paid good money for.

But if I was an official I'd hand one of these penalties out every time I see a water bottle launched out the back of a behind-the-seat water bottle carrier. Bottles get heaved out of these things like depth charges from a destroyer. This usually happens when:

1. The athlete (thinking he's clever) freezes his bottle overnight, turning it into a missile.

2. The carrier's cage is angled backward instead of straight up and down.

3. The rider chooses $3 cages for his $3,000 bike.

Besides the fact that there is nothing in racing that puts the fear of God in me more than bearing down on a full water bottle in my path while in the aero position, these bottle carriers are a dumb idea.

I rode up to a guy recently who was, for about a quarter of a mile, reaching behind him trying to get the bottle back into the cage after a drink. As I passed him I told him that there already was a bottle in that cage, the empty cage was on the other side. But I digress.

If you're going to IM Utah, or wherever you're going for your next race, please do two things, one for me and one for yourself: Keep your water bottles away from my front wheel, and learn at least the rules above.

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