Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Open Letter To Lance Armstrong

Dear Lance,

Welcome back to the sport of triathlon. It's good to see you back to your roots!

You don't know me at all. However, we did share a few laughs over a beer at the Bermuda International triathlon back in the late 80's. Good times!

I noticed last night on Twitter that you and your Nike brethren Simon Whitfield had a bit of  "discussion" about drafting in triathlon. Since you have been away from the sport for many years, I sense that you have missed many of the great drafting debates that has lead us to where we are today.

After you left triathlon for cycling, triathlon grew tremendously, particularly at the Elite/Professional level. The International Triathlon Union( ITU) was formed and the first World Cups and World Championships were held. It was becoming apparent that the gentleman's and sportsman's agreement to not draft on the bike, and to treat it like an Individual Time Trial in cycling, was not working out so well any more. This was due mostly to the size of the race fields and the competitiveness of the athletes. It was becoming harder and harder to enforce the no-drafting rules. Self policing was not working. Putting a number of Drafting Marshals on the course was also having limited impact.

The situation reached it's nadir in the early '90's, when with penalties, disqualifications, appeals to deal with after each big race, it was hard to know who won and who placed where. The arguments and discussions after-the races were over would seem to go on for ever. We would not even know who won or who was on the podium, until well after the race was over( hours!)

At the time, Triathlon had started a quiet campaign to be included in the Olympic Games. Then President of the ITU, Les MacDondald had been advised that if the sport were to be taken seriously by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), one thing thy had to do was to clean things up so that the athlete across the finish line first in most circumstances, was the race winner. The IOC does not like messy things and triathlon at this level had become a bit messy. So the the ITU, in their wisdom, after much discussion and consultation, said, fine: swim, bike and run however, you want in all three sports and the first athlete across the line is the winner. That's simple, clean and easy to understand.

Obviously, this meant that drafting on the bike would now be allowed, in ITU level racing for Elites/Pros in their races. It did change the dynamic and the strategy of the racing. The swim became much more important - a few seconds now mattered. The bike, was admittedly different in philosophy, but became more strategic. Physiologic demands were not that much less, but again different now - it became more like a bike road race. And the run was always the same - of high importance, if for no other reason than it was last!

It did simplify the racing and the officiating for this level of racing dramatically. The IOC liked what they saw and by the late '90's, the sport of triathlon was accepted into the Olympic Games, and as you and just about everyone knows, Simon Whitfield won the Gold Medal that first Olympic Games triathlon in dramatic fashion in Sydney, in 2000.

The previous is obviously all about Elite racing at the ITU level. All Age-Group racing and Pro/Elite racing in longer races, particularly the World Triathlon Corporation's world wide series of Ironman and 70.3 races are still contested under the "old" rules of no drafting allowed on the bike. In the Pro ranks, which are now for the most part separated from the Age-Groupers, the old gentleman's agreement with a bit of "help" from race officials, still seems to work. Field sizes are small, and there is often lots of road and room to work with. I have worked with your good friend Jimmy Riccitello as a Drafting Marshal in the past, and today's Pro Triathletes get the rules - they push the limits of the no-drafting rules right to the edge, as the best athletes tend to do in any sport, but they rarely go over. It's actually beautiful thing to see at a race like Ironman Hawaii with 20 - 25 of the best triathletes all strung out with exactly 10m between them in a 250m long legal pace line out on the Lava Fields

The story back in the Age-Group ranks in many big triathlons is a bit muddier, and less clear. Back there, it's really a question, of numbers and physics. If you stood at the exit to T1 in any big, 2000+ athlete Ironman at about the 60 - 70 minute mark of the race ( something that I would urge you to do when you have a chance), when massive numbers of triathletes are literally flooding onto the bike course you would know what I am getting at. The no-drafting rules are clear, but at times and places on the bike course, the rules are asking the athletes to do something that is physically impossible to do! There is simply not enough room on the road, for them all. Drafting back here, can be a real problem. Officials try and do what they can, but they can't be everywhere on the bike course all the time. Back here there needs to be some give-and-take on the part of both officials and athletes to try and work it out and make it a fair race for everyone, but it can get messy. It's accepted now that passive or inadvertent drafting may happen. Good race officials like Jimmy, know what to look for - for the athlete, who is purposly drafting to gain advantage. It does go on.

The great drafting debate in the sport of triathlon can get quite heated. Just go to the Slowtwitch Forum and put the word, "Drafting" in the forum's search function, to get a sense for this. It's almost as lively a debates about what's better, clinchers or tubulars, or which frame is more aerodynamic!

It's not about which format or style of racing is better. There is room, a reason and respect for both in Triathlon. Perhaps, not exactly the same but in cycling - you were a Stage Race specialist, who re-defined the approach to the biggest stage races like the Tour de France. Whereas, say, a Tom Boonen, will focus on one day cobbled classics of the spring. Both of you are great cyclists!

Hopefully you have found this helpful. Again, welcome back. Best wishes with the training and the racing on your road to Kona. It will be great to see you on the starting line there in October.

Best regards,


P.S. If you are considering adding another Ironman race to your resume this year, I would highly recommend Ironman Canada. It's one of the original five Ironman races and is truly iconic in the sport. The bike course is a beaut, and the course record for it is one that I am sure only someone with your credentials could bring down!


John Young said...

Steve, Loved the entry. I live in Salem, MA but am originally from Toronto, ON. Coming back to race as a para-triathlete this summer in the TTF on July 22nd. Will you be there? Would love to touch base!

Stair ClimbLunatic said...

Great blog post!

h2ofun said...

Great post Steve. Am always amazed how so many can spend so much energy with mine is bigger. Some males just need to get a life. Each sport is different, and usually one will do well with one type, but not another. This is why some pro's can do great at IM races but fail in Hawaii because of the weather. I think it is great Lance has come back to our sport. Why some seem to get their kicks saying they won first place, then find out it was a short totally flat course, and they were racing against 5 year olds. For many on ST, no matter what Lance does, the glass will always be half empty. These folks have a pretty sorry life.

Anonymous said...

John Parfitt said...
Is this the same Lance that won the tour drafting behind his Postal team mates? Lance is just being Lance the red-neck Texan stirring the pot. He goes faster that way.

nardix said...

I am not even a triathlete but I found this post excellently written and very informative.

Steve Fleck said...

Thanks everyone for reading and for the comments. I thought having the history explained, not just for Lance but for everyone, would be helpful. The events that shaped the decision by the ITU, to allow drafting, happened a while ago and many newer triathletes are perhaps unfamiliar with the history.


Bob Mitera said...

Great blog entry Fleck.

Of "non-Kona" Ironman races - IM Canada is the winner by a KO! Love the everything about it - ESPECIALLY the ONE LOOP or out and back course. IM Canada is exceptional and I hope to return in the next couple of years.

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