Drafting is when one rides behind another to take advantage of the lower wind resistance in this “slipstream”. This allows the drafting rider to use less energy while traveling at the same speed. Conserving effort this way pays off in endurance sport, because the one who can maintain the fastest pace over the long distance usually wins.
Unlike cycling with its team dynamics and support cars, triathlon is a notoriously self-supporting sport with an emphasis on awarding the fastest individual to cross the finish line on their own effort. This is one of the major reasons why drafting on the bike isn’t allowed in triathlons.
While it’s easy to put “No Drafting” in the rulebook, enforcing it during races is another story. Compared to basketball, soccer, or tennis where the field of play is easily visible to referees, triathlons have massive footprints due to their distances; even looped ones are difficult to see from end to end, and events need plenty of marshals patrolling the bike course to catch drafting.
Additionally, there is no standard distance to maintain: draft zones can range from five meters up to 20 meters depending on the organiser and the ruling body overseeing the event. Some, like USA Triathlon, will even require you to stagger your position on the bike course so you’re not riding in the same line as the athlete in front of you – even if you’re not in their draft zone. And if passing a long line of athletes, some organisers require you to pass the entire bunch and ban you from slotting in among the group.
Drafting is one of the most common infractions athletes commit on the bike course, whether through ignorance, carelessness, or malice. So how do you not draft?
Train Yourself to Determine Distance Visually
Once you know how long the draft zone is at the race you’re attending, determine your frame of reference. I like to visualise distances in number of bike lengths (the average road bike is 1.7 meters long), or fractions of the length of a 25-meter pool. Then practice this while riding in training, staying clear of other cyclists or vehicles ahead of you.
During a race, you can keep the distance between you and the cyclist ahead of you constant by counting the number of seconds between when they pass a landmark and when you pass it. This is easy if there are lampposts or markers on the side of the road; in Kona, Hawaii the cateyes on the middle of the road are a constant distance apart so the pros use this as a guideline for staying away.
When Passing/Being Passed
When passing another rider, do it quickly and decisively. Once you enter the rear of the other rider’s drafting zone, you must pass; if you approach that rider’s rear wheel but fail to make the pass, that’s already considered a drafting violation.
If in doubt about your ability to hold the increased effort needed to pass a big group, err on the side of caution and don't begin the pass attempt. So the simple (but not easy) remedy to this is to train to be a stronger cyclist.
If you’ve been passed by another rider, let them go instead of trying to match their pace. Use the opportunity to coast and take in some nutrition or hydration.
When Riding Uphill
Passing on rolling courses with many uphill and downhill sections requires the rider to have good timing. Most times, athletes get in trouble going uphill when the rider in front slows down, causing the rider behind to enter the draft zone inadvertently.
In these situations it’s good to have a reserve of power so you can make that pass; if you train yourself to be a strong cyclist on hills, you have that extra gear to be able to bounce up that hill.
Again, it’s always better to anticipate the situation, so keep your eyes on the athlete ahead of you to make sure you’re not creeping up on their draft zone.
But What If I Get a Drafting Penalty Anyway?
Despite best efforts to avoid drafting, you might still end up with a penalty; that’s always a risk when competing on crowded courses (unless you’re the rare athlete who’s a frontrunner from start to finish).
When this happens, it’s best to roll with it; instead of arguing with the marshal, take the penalty and treat your stop at the penalty tent as a bit of a break. You can always fire up a protest afterwards, but while the race is still ongoing take the opportunity to refocus so you can still put in your best effort.