Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Not just a blow dry

Earlier this year at the ITU World Championships we saw both race winners reach the finish line first in what many would consider unusual ways.  First, in the women's race, American Gwen Jorgensen came off the bike over a minute behind the lead pack of 18 athletes but nonetheless proceeded to run her way to first place.  It also might not have been possible without help on the bike from teammate Sarah Haskins.  Then in the men's race Alistair Brownlee, defending Olympic champion, broke away with two other riders toward the end of the bike leg and built a lead of over a minute to start the run that he held on to despite faster runs by his brother Jonathan and the two Spaniards, Gomez and Mola.  Both of these results challenge the stereotype of draft legal racing, which says that in order to win you need to get in the lead pack out of the water, simply stay in it on the bike and then be the fastest runner in that lead pack.  Lance Armstrong once called draft legal triathlon a "shampoo, blow dry and a 10k".... others have called them wet 10ks and claim that the bike leg is meaningless.

This is a topic that I've considered writing about for awhile, but now that ITU has announced that it will soon be converting the AGE-GROUP Sprint World Championships to the draft-legal format, it's an issue that suddenly affects a much larger portion of the people who might be reading my blog.  The point of this post is to discuss draft legal triathlon and how it fits into the sport as a whole.
To be clear, I'm not trying to make one type of racing out to be better or worse than another, or to argue that one type of racing is more of a "true" triathlon.  Personally, I enjoy racing, coaching and  following both formats.  The point I want to make is that the different distances and formats are simply different and fans of triathlon should appreciate them for what they are rather than argue about which is better or more of a "true" triathlon.

The first issue I want to address is the idea of what constitutes a "true" triathlon.  Many people who use this term watch an ITU race and don't like the fact that the outcome of the bike leg is not solely based on an individual's ability to produce power in a time trial. (which is very true).  Because of this, and the fact that the swim becomes relatively more important in determining who an athlete starts the ride with, they decide that the three disciplines aren't equally weighted and conclude that non-drafting triathlons are the "true" triathlons.  But here's the problem with that.... please show me a non-drafting triathlon where the three disciplines are equally weighted.  I don't know of one.

Let's use the (non-drafting) 2013 Ironman 70.3 World Championship race as an example.  We'll look at two big names in triathlon: Andy Potts and Sebastian Kienle.  Looking at their split times, Andy swam 8.6% faster than Sebastian.  Sebastian then proceeded to bike 3.7% faster than Andy and then run less than 1% faster than Andy.  So if that's all I told you, who would you think won?  If you said Andy, you'd be wrong.  Sebastian Kienle was crowned World Champion and Andy Potts finished 4th; off the podium. Why? Because the swim only accounted for ~10% of the race by total time.  Not exactly equally weighted.  Does that mean that Andy is actually a better triathlete or that he somehow got cheated?  Some might argue yes but I will point out that both athletes knowingly signed up to race a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run event.  The approach in training and the approach on race day are going to be different for that race vs a 1.5k swim, 40k draft legal bike and 10k run.  To succeed, you have to race these two events differently and you have to train for these events differently.  Also some athletes are going to be naturally better at one or the other depending on their skill sets.  Sebastian was a faster triathlete that day at the 70.3 distance and format, and Andy would very likely be a faster draft legal triathlete.  (In fact he used to race that format very well)

The second issue I want to discuss is the importance of the bike leg in a draft legal triathlon.  Is it important? How is it different?  Sometimes, when watching an elite WTS event, the bike is neutralized by a large pack that forms soon after the swim which contains most of the field, resulting in everyone deciding not to try until the run.  However this is actually becoming more rare due to the tactics of some of the riders (the Brownlees changed the game when they showed up and made everyone else work on the bike), and seems to only ever happen at the very highest levels of triathlon.  That's because the athletes are all so good there's not much of a spread in the swim, even over 1500m, so it's harder to get separation.  Personally, I'd love to see hillier, more technical courses for the pros but at the collegiate and junior elite level, that is never really an issue.  In fact, the bike has been a very important factor in the outcome of the race at every collegiate and junior elite race that I've participated in or coached.  Instead of the enormous, 30+ person packs that many think of when they imagine draft-legal triathlon, in reality, when you're not at the absolute highest level of the sport the packs are usually between a handful of riders to groups of 10-20 at most.

The cycling leg often relies less on sustainable power, but more on technical riding ability.

What results is an exciting chase where the bike leg is very important in determining how an athlete does.  It's just not the same as a solo time trial.  Instead of individual riders making their way through the field and opening or closing gaps, you have motivated packs moving up and down through the field as a group, popping people off the back, swallowing up individual or small groups of riders and small group breakaways throughout the bike.  Where threshold power is at a premium in non-drafting triathlon, the skill set of a successful draft legal triathlete involves bike handling and technical skills, tactical skills, teamwork and/or communication skills with the other riders in your group, VO2 and anaerobic power and the ability to recover quickly from hard efforts.
At the Girl’s Junior Nationals race this year, the four top swimmers worked together to increase their lead from 15-30 seconds out of the water to 2 minutes ahead of the next pack (of 8) by the end of the bike.  It took someone from the second pack running a sub-18 minute 5k in order to catch the slowest runner in the lead pack, and those 4 girls finished 1, 2, 3 and 5.  The top 3 runners were untouchable to the rest of the field because of how they used the bike leg to their advantage.

In Richmond this year, one of my athletes, Sofi Nehring, came out of the water in a group of 6.  Over the 20k ride, her well organized group spit a couple riders off the back, swallowed a couple more individual riders who were caught between packs, and on the final lap bridged up to combine with the group of 10 or so that started the ride ~45 seconds earlier.  I use both of these examples to show how the bike can be a very important, even a race defining, part of the event.  It's just not in the same way as a non-drafting event.

You also get to dive in.

Of course, it isn't always that way.  I used the example of Sofi's very organized group in Richmond, but she had a couple other races where the other girls in her group simply didn't want to work or weren't strong riders, which resulted in a frustrated ride where no time was made up or time was lost vs other groups.  That's one of the variables with draft legal racing... who is on the start line, as well as how the athletes approach the race can drastically change how the race turns out.  For some people, that's a terrible thing because they like to fully control their own destiny, but others like the unpredictability of sport.  Of course, both formats have a degree of unpredictability... we don't race on paper by comparing our fitness markers... but that degree is much higher in draft legal racing.

Think about cycling for a minute... there are 3 formats: road racing, criterium and time trial.  All are different, all require different skill sets, all are exciting in their own ways and some riders will naturally be better suited to one vs another.  But it would be laughable to claim that one is real cycling and the others aren't.  I think that as triathletes, we should look at our sport, with its variety of distances and formats, in the same way.

As draft legal racing becomes more popular, age groupers will probably have more opportunities to race if they desire.  Hopefully this will help athletes decide if draft legal racing is for them.  It's not going to be for everyone, but I also hope that more people will drop the negative attitude towards it and learn to appreciate it for what it is... a different, exciting format of triathlon that is not better or worse than any others.