This article is inspired by a recent The Real Starky interview with Craig Alexander. I highly recommend you listen to the interview because Craig is a truly class act (I don’t believe the interview is public yet, unless you become a Patreon of the show, but it should be soon). He has probably been my biggest inspiration within the sport. Since December 2009 I have been staring at a picture of him winning Kona that year; banner over the shoulders, teeth gritted, Australian flag in hand. You can tell that every one of his comments come from a place of great wisdom. Around 5 minutes into the interview my first blog post on the 70.3 World Championship comes up, particularly my comment that there is a significant draft effect occurring at the current 10m draft zone, in a race that we call “non-drafting”. Craig Alexander agrees with me that there is a draft effect occurring. He goes on to say that during his time as pro athlete ambassador to Ironman, the general sentiment coming from the pros was that a 20m draft zone is needed to make the race truly non-drafting.
The general discussion for the next couple of minutes afterwards is that being a good swimmer “earns” you the right to take part in the draft effect that occurs at the current 10m spacing; that the swim is very important because being in that pack saves you a lot of energy. This same comment and logic has been the general sentiment coming from the more critical readers of that blog post. In fact, after writing that post, I was a bit surprised at how many times that comment came up. The logic goes something like this:
“Don’t try and change the system. Become a better swimmer so that you get to participate in the drafting dynamics. The guys who were ahead of you are better swimmers than you, and thus earned the right to receive that drafting effect, and take part in those dynamics”.
Quite frankly, I think this is completely backwards logic. What these upholders of the status quo are failing to realize is that the 10m draft zone not only disadvantages myself, Andreas Drietz, Sebastien Kienle, Andrew Starykowicz, and anyone else known as an “uber-biker”, but anyone who is even remotely confident in their biking ability. Said another way, the only group the current 10m draft zone BENEFITS is the “strong swimmer – weak bikers”.
Let’s use Josh Amberger as a case study. Amberger lead out of the water at 70.3 Worlds by nearly a minute. This is absolutely amazing swimming, to be able to gap and put nearly a minute into a swim pack of approximately 25 guys. Amberger is a very good cyclist, who can hold his own on the bike very well. After about 20 minutes on the bike, Amberger was swallowed up by the approximately 25 man pack coming up strong behind him. Amberger’s weapon is his swim-bike ability, and that was rendered useless in a race with such a large draft effect.
I will bet you that after the race Amberger was thinking something to the tune of: “what the hell was the point in me swimming hard, if I was just going to get swallowed up by a huge semi-draft legal bike pack?” This highlights another problem with the current 10m draft zone. It breeds mediocrity. Amberger will be much less likely in future races to take the swim out hard. Just like in ITU racing, it is pointless to swim off the front and not take a group of guys with you. You will expend unnecessary energy, only to be swallowed up by the huge pack behind you. Amberger would have been much better off to save energy, and sit in second or third place in the swim pack, letting someone else do the hard work.
Let’s use Andreas Drietz to do another case study. His swim is much closer to where my swim supposedly “should be”. He came out of the water about 20 seconds down to the main group of swimmers and bridged the gap very quickly. As usual, he immediately went to the front of the group and tried to create separation. Unfortunately for him, the course was dead flat, the winds were very light, and the draft tail was very large. There were also some very good cyclists near the front of the pack who were able to respond to his attacks. Despite being one of the best bikers in the sport, he was unable to create separation. Suddenly, guys who have no business biking within several minutes of him, were biking the same speeds…and judging by the race coverage, able to sit up and soft pedal while doing it!
Andreas’ situation is probably one of the biggest injustices that occurred in that race. He is a very good swimmer and an amazing biker, but his bike was rendered useless because of the current 10m draft zone. If it truly was a non-drafting race, there is not a doubt in my mind that he would have finished top 5. Unfortunately, he finished 11th, with no money, likely no bonuses from sponsors, and a lot of disappointment. But remember, he “earned” the right to experience that!
From Andreas’ perspective we also see where the mediocrity is bred on the bike. If you’re a strong swimmer and a strong runner, where is the incentive to expend energy unnecessarily on the bike? Over time, Ironman racing will look progressively more like ITU racing, where the strong runners all “sit-in” and let the better bikers do the work. Quite frankly, from my own perspective, if and when I do make the front bike pack, why in the world would I do any work whatsoever on the bike? I had the fastest run split after a completely solo bike ride, thus there is no incentive for me to exert any unnecessary energy on the bike. This is the logic that the current 10m draft zone breeds.
In summary, you don’t “earn” the right to get a draft effect on the bike. It’s a flaw in the current system, and that system needs to be updated.