Thoughts on triathlon bike penalties (USAT & WTC)

I’ve always thought the USAT and WTC penalty system does little to deter racers from committing penalties, in particular – – on the bike.

And just to be clear why I care primarily about the bike – the penalties on the swim and run pretty much fall into the ‘stupid mistake’ category of either disposing of litter, wearing a music/headphone device, or having someone pace you on the run.  And penalties being given for most of these in my opinion these are extremely rare  (though having an outside pacer would can a significant advantage, but it’s still a rare penalty).

But the bike, the bike is full of places for people to cheat (yes, I said it – cheat) and gain an advantage – with the most common being the drafting penalty.  The other common penalties on the bike (all relating to position) while annoying, don’t typically give the rider committing them a significant advantage.  Sure, a blocking penalty could and on occasion does offer an advantage to the rider – but nowhere near the same ballpark as a drafting penalty.  Btw, if you aren’t fully familiar with the different penalties, see my earlier post on them.

The problem with today’s penalties is that they don’t do much to adversely/negatively impact the athlete committing them.  Instead, they simply apply a time (2:00 for standard USAT rules) penalty.  But a time penalty doesn’t take away the fact that the drafter is working less than everyone else.  Typically drafting will save you 20-30% effort on the bike.  Imagine cutting your heart rate or expended effort down by 20-30%.  That’s huge.

Further, look at WTC races.  In an Ironman, a drafting penalty will only cost you 6:00 minutes.  That’s nothing over the course of a 5 hour Ironman bike leg.  Especially on courses like Florida.  In the case of Florida, folks will (and do) draft for hours on end.  That effectively makes the 112 bike leg more like a 70-80 mile bike leg.  Wouldn’t you like to do an Ironman and only have ride 75 miles?  Oh – and the kicker is, that four minutes they get to spend relaxing, as WTC rules dictate the penalty is served in a roadside tent just hanging out.

Now, before I get into my proposal, note that licensed Pro’s in a non-drafting event (such as those that might compete at the NYC Triathlon) instead do what’s called a ‘stand-down’ – where they have to stop and stand on the ground (both feet) for 60 seconds before being allowed to continue.  During this time their bib is marked with a slash, representing a penalty.  Subsequent penalties get additional slashes.  This of course breaks the rhythm of the race for them – and is better than the AG system, but I don’t think it goes far enough.

In my opinion – a penalty should truly penalize your race and your performance in the same manner that cheating inversely helped your performance.  As such, I would suggest that at the start of the run leg, a quarter mile segment be set up.  Basically, the same length as a single 400m track.  This can be as simple as an out-and-back on the normal run course itself, making a 400m segment.

Using the pro-based system of bib-slashes, the athlete would have to complete one lap for each lap (Oly distance, two laps for Iron distance).  For most competitive age groups, this would likely take about 1:30-1:45 per lap.  While this is less than the 2:00 penalty system, this truly penalizes the athlete from a performance standpoint.  It tires them out, in the same way that everyone else is more tired from not cheating.

The level of suck for the cheater greatly increases in this scheme, and thus the incentive to draft greatly decreases.  I can guarantee you that those AG elite folks earning multiple drafting penalties at the NYC triathlon race would have been far less likely to draft if they knew they had to run an extra half a mile.

And as you move to long course (Ironman) – if you rack up a mile’s worth of penalties, that makes a far bigger dent in your day than just 6-24:00 worth of tent time.  And I’m not the only one that thinks Ironman penalties need to be more strict, so does a longtime and high-up USAT ref.

Now, some might say that this would add complexity.

Yes, it would.

But, triathlon is an inherently complex and messy sport to begin with.  Adding a cone 200m into the run course with a sign that says (Penalty Lap Turnaround), isn’t hard.  Nor is adding a single volunteer to check in/out penalty folks as they start their laps.  A volunteer must already be stationed at the penalty tent today anyway, this just moves that tent/location (or in the case of an Oly, adds one volunteer).

From a ref’ing standpoint, this does indeed add a level of suck as well as you’d have to ‘stand-down’ the athlete to mark their bib.  But, I think this would also INCREASE the validity of penalties.  Ref’s would be more sure that they were catching a drafter due to the extra steps taken.  Further, drafting penalties aren’t appealable now anyway, so waiting until after the race to tack on time doesn’t change the appeal process any (as there is none).

So, what do you think – am I off my rocker?  Or is there hope here?

Note: The above represents my opinion alone, and not that of being a certified USAT Official/Ref.


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  1. tim

    Happy Birthday Ray!

    Hope you get a cupcake…

  2. Ben


    I just raced Ironman 70.3 Antwerp (Belgium) this past weekend.

    Anyone who got a penalty on the bike had to run a 1km loop in T2 (pretty much the perimeter of T2), so 1 lap for 1 yellow card, 2 laps for 2 yellow card, and a DQ for 3 or more.

    So looks like it’s already sort of happening in WTA races outside of the US.


  3. I completely agree with that. I was racing a local sprint tri and finished inside the top ten overall, only to see that I had been DQ’d. After some digging, I found out that I received a “Chistrap violation” out of T1. After there were no USAT officials on site to protest to, and I didn’t actually see any official on course except for near the transition area

    Now jump forward to a recent Criteruium that I raced in and I was riding around on my bike after the race with no helmet on. The head official blew a whistle at me and yelled “HEY, PUT A HELMET ON IF YOU ARE ON A BIKE ANYWHERE NEAR THIS RACE!” and that was it, no DQ, no penalty. This makes sense to me. The purpose of the rules are the same in both USAT and USAC (the road cycling governing body): we are supposed to wear a helmet when on the bike. But when coming from a safety standpoint, the USAT official did a lousy job. Even as I was being DQ’d, the ref -if truely looking out for my “safety”- should have stopped me to make sure I had my helmet on, not just passively penalized me as I biked passed.


  4. I completely agree, Ray. It’s simply wrong when solid citizens avoid races because they are know to be draft-fests. I also think WTC could choose a much better location for 70.3 Worlds. A better, single-loop course would cut down on the drafting.

  5. sounds similar to what they do in the biathlon in the winter olympics, 1 lap on the penalty track for every missed shot. I like it, triathlon is FULL of “strong cyclists” who draft most of the race, then brag about their awesome bike splits. Freakin’ hate those people.

  6. Love your angle. To be honest, this would deter a LOT of people from hanging on the rear wheel.

    Push for this :)

  7. Wes

    adding more distance to the race would be a no go for me.

  8. I’m somewhere in between on this, so I only think you are half way off your rocker ;) The reality is that these rules are set up for a fair race (not necessarily to penalize) and in many cases, officials are looking toward the front (read: competitive) triathletes. And it is exactly at the front of the pack where these times would make the greatest impact on a race result.

    In a Sprint/Oly distance event, a penalty will, without a doubt, negate a triathletes ability to place. In fact, that happened last year at Nations at the top of the field. Further, the top 5 in the Elite AG in NYC were all within 2 minutes, so the penalty would have changed the results at the top there too.

    At the longer distance events, perhaps you have more of a point. However, those same concepts apply – a fair race is the top priority, not disqualification. I think the mental issue with having to stand down during a race could be more harmful, because the athlete will want to “make up” the lost time, pushing his legs harder than he would otherwise plan. In a long race like an Ironman,this would likely cause problems later in the race anyways. But in the grand scheme of things, 6 minutes is not much, so perhaps you could argue for a longer duration.

    BTW – Happy birthday!

  9. I thought Lesser is More was going to go in a different direction with his reply which prompted a different thought from me.

    He made the point that the penalties tend to effect those towards the front of the pack much more so than your amateur “i’m just doing this for fun” crowd. After all, what’s 2:00 minutes to a soccer mom doing her first triathlon? She doesn’t care b/c she’s not doing it for a podium spot to begin with. If I were training for my first Ironman for months with a good friend, I’d gladly take a drafting penalty if it means the two of us could take turns helping pull the other along. The point is to finish the race. So with that mind-set, who cares about drafting penalties. However, if we were told we had to run an extra 1/2 mile because of it, I’d be pissed!

    But on the other side of the coin there are the elites/pros and various age-groupers who are doing it to try and podium and are actually competing for money/ranking/prizes. If they draft then they could be directly effecting the positive results of another racer with the same goal… which is not cool.

    Without it getting too complicated, would there be a way of policing only those elites/pros and/or those vying for a podium spot or award money? For instance, if you’re caught drafting as an amateur then you’re ineligible to earn a spot on the podium or receive any award money – end of story. If you’re an elite/pro caught drafting, then you can start to get into the use of a penalty lap system similar to how Ben described the one in Antwerp.

  10. I think you’re right on with this. Whether an AGer or pro, I think having to run the extra distance would be a big deterrent to cheating.

  11. Happy birthday Ray!

    I don’t think you are off your rocker at all. For instance, check out the Great White North Half Iron:
    link to
    One drafting penalty and you have to run a 2 km lap of shame before starting the run course. Second offence gets you a DQ.
    Draft marshalls on the bike are sure to let you know if you get called. Your number is radioed in to T2. There is a white board set up just outside of T2 with the numbers of those folks who have been caught for drafting and have to run the lap of shame. In the results those with drafting penalties are noted.

    If a race director feels strongly about drafting there are ways to discourage people. I think this is a good one.

    Just a thought on Sean in NY’s comment about gladly taking a drafting penalty to pull a friend along. Drafting is cheating in my opinion, and it doesn’t matter if you are in it for the money or not. Those rules are in place for a reason and just because you aren’t racing for a podium spot does not mean you should be able to throw the rules out. Everyone wants a fair race.

  12. I’d also have to disagree with Sean’s soccer mom example. Triathlon is an individual sport and by planning to draft it turns it into a team sport.

    The soccer mom should be using the “race” to evaluate her performance against her own goals.

    I like the idea of a penalty lap. Where would this show up on the results page? Tacked onto the run time?

  13. Just wanted to leave a quick response to a couple of responses to my comment.

    Leanna – I agree with everything you say except for the premise that everyone enters a triathlon to compete with someone else. A lot of people are viewing triathlons the same way people view marathons. They’re in it to participate. Maybe they just want to ride next to their friend and finish it together. Why punish them for accomplishing their goals?

    Ian – Who’s to say the soccer mom’s goal isn’t to “only” complete a triathlon as opposed to race in one? Your comment is a bit of a contradiction because if triathlon IS indeed an individual sport then who cares how other people fare? You should only be worried about your own time with respect to your previous times/expectations.

  14. SSB

    That’s not a bad idea. But i think there would still be a problem with ref’s actually giving penalties.

    I did Vineman last week. I had a ref ride next to me for about 5 miles as I made my way through the waves ahead of me. Nerve racking, but I was doing everything right so i tried to ignore them. They were in transition DQing people for having their helmet strap undone before they racked their bike. And then making sure race #s were on the front as you left T2. They were all over the run course looking for litterbugs and headphones. I guess they were all over the T2 and run because the bike is so hilly/technical that there’s not much of a chance for packs to form. And the waves start 8 minutes apart, so lots of separation.

  15. Sean – if you enter an event you should respect the rules regardless of your motivation. I do not think it is okay to accept penalties with disregard.

  16. James I think it’s very naive of you to assume I disrespect the rules in any way. I was simply offering up a non-competitive perspective that people might not have considered. I would hope for our sakes that your contributions to future discussions would be more thought out and have some meaningful value.

  17. Tid

    Just finished the Lake Placid Ironman. The drafting was rampant – mobs of grouped riders going past, everyone drafting off the next guy. That said, there were just as many of us following the rules and riding individual bike legs without the drafting. It was a little disheartening, however, and I have to agree, more aggressive marshaling of the bike leg would help to preserve the individuality of triathlon and the spirit of the sport.

    If you need to draft to perform, that’s fine – do it in draft legal venues. The rest of us prefer to be real “Iron-Men.”

  18. 1/2 and full IM’s, sounds like a good solution.

    Sprints and Oly’s… for a local race not as much. It’s more difficult for a local RD to organize that with all the race logistics. I’d rather he focus on course marking and making sure the timing chips work right.

  19. Absolutely the BEST idea yet for PROS AND AGERS. Eye for an Eye

  20. I agree with you and your idea. I think there are a lot of judgement calls that need to be made too. Blatant drafting should be penalized.

    However, in the instance of the NYC Tri, the pro and elite group may be spread out enough to avoid this, but when you have 3400 AGers setting out in waves 3 minutes apart it is almost impossible not to draft at times. Even more difficult when you have a lot of inexperienced folks out there on the course riding all over the place.

  21. Jilani

    To be fair, not-drafting is harder than simply keeping the required distance apart. In some AG ranks, there’s not always space for a ton of separation given the size of fields, relatively similar ability levels and short courses (although this is also true in IM & half IM races given laps & field sizes).

    Assume you’re drafting someone legally (outside the zone) and you get passed. It’s your responsibility to slow out of their zone. But if you have someone(s) behind you (legally or not), by slowing you’re suddenly in their deraft zone and they HAVE to pass you (letter of the law). So technically you have to slow again, into arguably someone elses draft zone. Suddenly, you’ve regressed yourself 5 people because you have to (once in the draft, the person HAS to pass or they’re technically penalized) and its not like the guy in front is waiting for you to work your way back up. :)

    I don’t have a solution (and I think refs do a good job within the leeway they have), but “just don’t draft” is too simplistic response in crowded fields with more-or-less similarly abled competitiors.

  22. Jilani – Actually, the situation you are describing isn’t possible. If someone overtakes you, you have to drop back to 3 bike lengths within 15s (or 20s, depending on USAT vs WTC rules). That part is correct. However, if someone is behind you and they now enter your draft zone because you have slowed your speed, the only way for that person to NOT get a drafting penalty would be to make a pass of you within 15s. It is THEIR responsibility at that point to comply. At that point, you’d drop back out of the draft zone and attempt to continue on racing. By the way, 15s/20s is a LONG time, so its not like you have to stop pedaling immediately when being overtaken…just sayin.

    When an official watches the action going on, we (yes, I am an official) watch for movement within the situation, not just whether 1 person is drafting. There are circumstances where there is fluid movement of multiple passes and people being overtaken that last 1+ minutes, where ZERO penalties are issued. It is our responsibility to observe the situation and make a judgment call. And for all non “Elite” USAT events (less than $5000 in cash prize purse), we simply write down descriptions of what we’ve observed, and it is the Head Official’s responsibility to interpret the description and issue the penalty.

    In order to become an official, you go through discussions of these exact types of scenarios. Lots of stuff happens out there. It is our job to try and make it fair. Like any officials though, we simply do the best we can.

  23. One more thing to add…

    Sean – it isn’t just about the rules and whether they are fair to apply to everyone. BTW – if you took turns pulling along during a whole race, chances are you’d get DQ’d – 3 x and you’re out! Most importantly, it is about safety. You know those USAT fees (annual and one time race) you pay? Those go for insurance coverage, among other things. So not only are we out there to ensure a fair race, but also a safe one.

    There is an inherent risk factor that is multiplied if you were to remove the drafting penalty all together. Now, obviously some races do this (non-USAT sanctioned). But you can’t say there isn’t more risk at clipping a pedal, or causing more severe accidents. Not everyone is experienced riding in a pack and personally, I think the average newbie is more scared of pack riding than most other aspects involved in a triathlon (save for maybe swimming).

    What I’m trying to say is there are more the rules than just whether they are fair or not. It doesn’t matter if you don’t care about placing, are there to improve your time, or are a 1st timer just to finish. We want to ensure a safe and fair race. That is why you see officials watching for helmets unbuckled (safety), headphones (safety), littering (bad mojo to the host town), illegal equipment (safety), etc. As a triathlete and official, I can confidently say, we are there for YOUR benefit, though it may not always seem fair.

  24. Like it. Winter Olympic Bi-athlons use a similar setup for missed targets. Miss 2 out of 5 targets…2 laps around the penality track and then back on course. Time and pain.

  25. Sorry I am late to the party. I like the idea of a penalty lap, but think that actual enforcement of the rules is the bigger issue. At most races I have done (even WTC races), I see a race official maybe once all day on the bike.

    If we are going to be add penalty laps, more consistent and even enforcement of the drafting rules is essential.

    If not, then you are going to get erratic and capricious penalties –some small percentage get a relatively severe penalty while the majority of rule breakers are unpunished.

  26. MCooper

    I was talking about this with a friend during my run this morning in preparation for the Augusta 70.3. We both agreed that the rules could use amending regarding drafting, even though we didn’t have solid solutions to suggest. I think Rainmaker has a good idea though…

    I’d propose that the “Pros”, if caught drafting, would be subject to the extra distance penalty. Age groupers, if caught drafting, would be subject to the current time penalty standards AND not be eligible to place in their age group. I think this would clear up a little of the “soccer mom” issue.

    Either way, I think the sport of triathlon needs to make sure that winners are the overall fastest athletes, not the ones who can exploit the system to gain an advantage that makes up for their lack of athleticism/training/endurance/effort/etc.

  27. A Cameron

    I am an average AG participant and completed the IM70.3 in Mont Tremblant last weekend. I got a 5 minute penalty in the last 15km of the 90km bike ride,which is in the mountains section. There were tons of cyclists in this area. It was not possible to be 6 bike lengths apart with that many bikes climbing and descending. I know this probably comes out sounding like denial – but, I was not intentionally drafting or blocking…. I am a very cautious person. I don’t like to break rules. I actually don’t know what I did that I could have done differently while climbing and descending through this section of clusters of cyclists.

    I totally agree there has to be rules. But, it sucks to be picked out of a crowd of cyclists all climbing and descending as best we can. Nobody was doing anything different from the others around us. Then, to have to stand in a tent and watch everyone go by SUCKS. I just wish I knew why I got a penalty out of all the others around me. And, most importantly, if I understood why, I would not ever let it happen again! Penalties – whether standing in a tent or running around a loop – SUCK.