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.