Updated: Oct 12, 2021
Labelling age group athletes ‘cheats’ and ‘people without morals’ overlooks the real problem.
I will start with a disclaimer that the opinions and comments expressed in this blog are mine and not those of Trisutto, our coaches or athletes.
I would also like to explain my ‘relationship’ with Ironman racing. I have been racing IM and 70.3 for more than 10 years. I have completed 25 Ironmans and 40 something 70.3 races. This was my 6th consecutive Kona. I love the sport, it is my hobby, lifestyle and escape from the daily stress at work. I’m passionate about it. I also coach a small number of athletes, most of whom will race events organised by Ironman next year, with some having a realistic chance to qualify for Kona. I would like them to have best possible experience during their races and be able to show what they have achieved through hard training.
I want the best for our sport and for Ironman to continue being as successful organisation as it also allows us to have the great experience of racing long distance. However, in order to deliver best product some things need to change as the format of a number of races, including Kona, effectively have these events ‘semi-drafting’ at best.
Finally, I will also admit that until not so long ago I was of a very strong view that drafting is only caused by athletes who choose to cheat in races. That it was only an athlete’s choice to ride fair or not and this opinion was primarily based on my experience from races having quite hard bike courses – like Ironman UK, Wales or South Africa.
However, following Kona 2016 and discussions with fellow athletes, coaches and people who have a deep understanding of bike race dynamics I understood that riding in a pack is now actually unavoidable in many races. The responsibility for a fair race lies not only with athletes but also the race organisers who design the courses and format of the race.
Men’s AG Race in Kona
I, along with many others, were very disappointed and angry during the race because, despite of what people may say, it was not possible to have an individual race. It got even worse after the race due to a number of comments on social media accusing a large number of male age groupers for blatant drafting. Athletes riding in packs were called all sort of things (cheats, drafters, people without morals are just a few examples); often by people working in the triathlon industry, who should but not always (similarly to me before) understand dynamics of races and courses.
These people ‘without morals’ and ‘cheats’ are your customers. How would you feel if you were called this way if you were being overtaken and caught in a picture in the middle of a pack?
Example of media posts by people from the triathlon industry include:
In Germany we call this: Cycling Tour Ride – not a World Championship.
Bad to see so many age grouper athletes without any morals; The organisation should react with start waves and bigger penalty tents!… Not only for pro-athletes;
IM Kona is a joke…..
We would love to put a secret container next to the road and film cheating age groupers and then present it at the finish line: ‘There is no finisher medal or T Shirt for you… Mr Cheater!’
I waited few weeks for the emotions to settle, waiting for more comments, maybe someone writing something less accusing about this situation, but I have not found anything comprehensive so far (even Brett Sutton’s blog which only touched very lightly on this issue).
There was also a heated discussion agreeing with my conclusion on Slowtwitch where actually they show that the problem exists in a number of races:
Thanks to Jonathan Caron for compiling them:
Recent Ironman events at Kona, Brazil, Cozumel, Arizona, Melbourne, Florida…
I decided to write a cold analysis of the problem, rather than an emotional one.
What was happening on the bike course, my perspective:
Everyone could see the packs riding on the course. There must have been as big as 30-40 riders, maybe more. Often athletes were riding 3 or 4 wide and the space between the packs, if there was any, was very small not allowing packs to spread as there was not enough space on the road. Racing Kona since 2011 it has got worse, but I have not experienced anything even remotely close to what I have experienced this year. Maybe because I exited the swim in 1:05 (instead my usual 1:10 or 1:15).
Looking at the pictures and what I could see on the course 100s of male AG athletes should have received a drafting penalty or got disqualified as not many could actually ride following the rules. Someone made a comment on Facebook: ‘the first 25 guys were ‘clean’ the rest were ‘cheats’. Really? Everyone else are cheats? Or is the real problem somewhere else; maybe only those top 25 very fast swimmers/bikers had enough space to race?
There were no marshals on the course around the packs, they started appearing on the climb to Hawi often giving penalties for slow overtaking into head wind to people who were riding 2 aside. However, I have seen no marshals at all when all those pictures were taken during first 90 or 100km. I assume marshals were with Pros or at the back where they had space to ride their motorbikes safely.
There were 2 or 3 marshals’ motorbikes parked next to Hawi penalty tent and when I ask them why they are not doing anything they replied: ‘It is too dangerous, the packs are too big’…
I was also caught in the middle of all of this but it was really impossible to ride ‘clean’. I tried to go to the front when there was a gap, then I would be caught by a pack, then you are in the middle of the pack, I tried to find some space dropping back only to see that there was absolutely no space as more people were coming from behind pulled by stronger cyclists. I looked back at the top of one of the hills and I could not see the end of the line of athletes riding 2 or 3 side by side so dropping back was not an option. I could have stopped and waited on the side of the road for 10 minutes, but should we train hard and come to Kona to experience this?
I agree that there are a small number of athletes who draft bluntly and intentionally, but most of people I spoke with during and after the race wanted to be able to ride legally and they have qualified riding legally.
Why do we have this problem?
There is now not enough space on the road to accommodate so many strong athletes. Either the format of the race needs to change or the number of competitors should be significantly smaller if the race continues as a mass start event.
The AG athletes are getting faster, they train more, harder, smarter, and are coming from other sports into Ironman. In order to qualify for Kona one needs to be able swim around 60min or faster and ride around 5 hours on a course of an average difficulty. This applies to pretty much all male age groups between 18 and 55. This means that all those competitors exit the water in Kona around the same time and ride at a very similar speed so if there is no space for them to spread out a pack will form. It is not such a big problem in qualifying races as maybe there will be up to 100 people being able to swim and ride that fast, while in Kona there are probably closer to 1,000 – though some races are known for drafting (e.g. type in google ‘IM Barcelona drafting’ and go to Images tab). In a number of other races there are also rolling starts so people spread over 20-30min even before they enter the water, then the marshals also have space to monitor what is happening on the course and give penalties to those cheating.
To illustrate the scale of the issue I’ll give another comparison – pretty much all Pro Men exited water within 5 or 6 minutes. In the AG race over 350 male athletes exited between 60 and 65 minutes – can you imagine what would be happening in the Pro race if there were 350 Pros in it? To make it worse close to 270 AG men swum between 55 and 60 minutes and 285 between 65 and 70 minutes. If you add those 100 who swum sub 55, there are 1000 athletes exiting water within 15 minutes!
The number of athletes racing Kona has been increasing slowly over last years with approximately 2,300 racing this year and with the addition of 70.3 Kona qualifying races in China we should expect that there will be more people on the start line in 2017.
Also the ocean was relatively friendly this year and the swim times were faster. This allowed people who otherwise may have swum 5-10 min slower to exit the water towards the front. As mentioned before there were no marshals on the first half of the course to prevent packs from forming, even if they were there they would not be able to do anything.
Most importantly the mass start format is not appropriate anymore for this race due to the the level and the number of the competitors. It is a Championship race and pretty much everybody is fast here.
By the Numbers
Being an accountant I thought should be able to illustrate my assumption that there was not enough space on the road numerically. I came up with a simple analysis trying to prove that it is impossible for top AG man to ride within the rules – see the table above.
We had ca. 350 athletes exiting the swim within 5 min with the swim time 60-65min. In order to ride legal 12 metres apart (front to front or 6 bike lengths or 10m + a bike) they would need over 4.2km of the road to spread into one long legal line. Travelling at 36kmph 4.2km takes over 7 minutes but they have exited the swim within 5min so already 40% of this group don’t have the time/space to ride legally. Also people swimming between 55 and 60min and 65-70 don’t have enough space as they need more than 5 minutes to cover distance required to ride legally. If people go slower they will need more time so riding slower actually makes the situation even worse.
What about overtaking? Faster athletes may attempt to continuously overtake those traveling at 36k. In order to overtake 4.2km line of athletes riding at 36kmph in one hour the overtaking athlete needs to go 4.2kmph faster – over 40kmph and it would take them 40km to get to the front, not many Pros average 40kmph and over 40k they would be riding parallel to someone else. More realistically a faster cyclist going at 38kmph (also not many of those) would need 2 hours or 76km to overtake such a line! If people were riding side by side 4.2 line becomes two 2.1k lines but is it realistic for 350 people ride at slightly different speed orderly side by side?
Who is affected by the situation?
It is not only problem for the athletes and the organisers. It is a WTC business decision to have so many people but there is a risk associated with it, we don’t come to Kona to ride in a leisurely pack. I come to Kona to test myself in an individual race and I would like to be able to do so.
The coaches should take the note, your athletes train to race individually and some of them will be negatively affected by the drafting problem as they will finish in a much worse position than they would otherwise. Especially if they are not great runners.
The equipment manufacturers are next. All the benefits of aero helmets, super-bikes, bearings, aero clothing mean nothing if you are not riding individually but in a pack. This problem was best summarised by one of the pros who wrote a following message on Facebook:
If I ever go to Kona again as an age grouper, I think I can leave my aero helmet at home, save the trouble and money for bike transport and rent a road bike…
What is also important is the fairness of the competition, the spirit of sport. I think few people might have been ‘robbed’ from the podium and the umeke went to someone else. If a strong swim—cyclist rode solo all the distance it is likely that he/she was outrun by a good runner who was forced to ride in a pack. I’m sure most of us would like to know that our champions are the strongest triathletes not fastest runners.
This year for the first time I started asking myself questions I thought I would never ask: Do I need to race Kona again? Is Kona a Championship course or maybe there are other locations where the race would be more fair? The answer to those questions is still yes – I love Kona and I would like to come back here and I think it is a magical location, however, I would not like to come back next year to be forced to ride in a pack and be called a ‘cheat without morals.’
Happy training and racing to everyone and I hope to see you out there in a genuinely non-drafting race.