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The endless drafting debate - Jimmy Riccitello speaks

Written by: Herbert Krabel
Date: Sun Sep 07 2008

Complaints about drafting are often heard after various triathlons, but more so after certain events. So who is to blame? Should we point fingers at the athletes themselves, the race directors or the officials? Slowtwitch talked to Jimmy Riccitello about this issue.


ST: Jimmy, a hot debate came up on Slowtwitch after Ironman Canada where pro Scott Curry said that not enough is done to prevent drafting in the pro ranks. What is your opinion here?

Jimmy: Scott is entitled to his own opinion. During my racing career, I watched Ironman do more to prevent drafting in the age group and pro ranks than any other organization. Now as an official, I continue to be impressed with Ironman's broad and immediate changes to better prevent drafting. Ironman has mandated more officials for the pros and age groupers, which is crucial. Other changes include: notifying an athlete at the time the infraction, informing the athlete what the infraction is, lengthening the pro and age-group draft zone, not allowing the pros to slipstream when passing (must move out to the side once inside the draft zone), the introduction of a time trial start at an Ironman distance event (IMKY), and the use of penalty tents on the bike course so that draft marshals can temporarily remove a penalized athlete from the race, which works to better break up packs.

Removing the athlete from the group, in and of itself, has a tremendous impact on reducing drafting. With the previous system, the athlete simply received a time penalty at the end of the race. The previous system didnít really do a lot to reduce drafting during the race. Athletes may have received penalties, but the packs did not break up. As any athlete knows, packs travel much faster than single athletes, and seriously affect the outcome of the race. The four minute penalty added to one's time at the end of the day did not do much, in my opinion, to deter drafting or break up packs. Generally, the time gained in a pack is much greater than four minutes over the course of the race.

My philosophy, and the one of Ironman is that we have to focus on breaking up the packs during the race. Allowing officials to notify athletes on the spot, at the time of the infraction, and having the athlete serve the penalty on the course removes the athlete from the pack. Other athletes see the athlete receiving the penalty (a red card) on the spot, and this further works to break up the pack. Breaking up the packs, and preventing them from forming, leads to a more accurate (and fair) race outcome as compared to simply adding four minutes to one's time.

Regarding Ironman Canada: I wasnít there. But the Head Referee is an experienced USAT official and an experienced UCI official. Draft marshals can only call infractions that they witness. Sometimes itís impossible and unsafe to be where the athletes are due to the presence of traffic or due to road conditions.


ST: Clearly certain races are more often associated with heavy drafting such as IM Florida in Panama City, FL and the 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, FL. Is it possible to race these races clean? And the emphasis here is the word race.

Jimmy: When draft marshals are not present, (most) athletes will cheat. It only takes a couple of blatantly drafting athletes to turn a perfectly clean group of riders into a "pack" of riders who are too close. My contention is that heavy drafting at certain races is caused more by a lack of coverage by the officials than the flatness of the course. For example, IM Arizona is a three-loop flat course that generally has little drafting. IM Florida, on the other hand, has quite a bit of blatant drafting Ė mainly as a result of not enough officials on the one loop course. One loop is very hard to cover unless you have 15-20 draft marshals. Even with 15-20 itís hard to be everywhere. 15 draft marshals in FL works out to 1 draft marshal for every 7-8 miles of course. In AZ, 15 draft marshals works out to 1 every 2 miles. When draft marshals arenít there, (most) people will cheat. The visible presence of draft marshals is a huge deterrent and is a big factor in preventing packs from forming.

Clearwater has plenty of officials (15-20), but the narrow course and heavy car traffic leave us relatively ineffective. Itís very tough to safely get a motorcycle in position to properly make calls because the athletes must ride in the median lane and the two adjacent lanes are full of traffic.

Is it possible to race cleanly? Absolutely. Blatant drafting is a choice. We are all free to decide how we will race. The decision is not an easy one if youíre the slightest bit competitive. Especially when, despite the most rigid rule enforcement, the low road is the one most likely to produce the highest reward Ė in terms of your finish line results. I made difficult choices in my career that impacted me economically Ė in a negative way. It was hard, to occasionally watch some of my peers finish ahead of me when they really shouldnít have. But every once and a while, the system worked in my favor, and ultimately made the reward that much sweeter. Iím not wasting time and energy worrying about those who are fooling themselves by drafting their way around the course. I am spending a good deal of time trying to catch them, though. We will never be able to completely eradicate drafting. But we are doing the best we can and if anyone wants to join me as a draft marshall to help, I welcome them.

ST: Are the officials at the various races qualified and empowered enough to handle this various situations?

Jimmy: There is only one way to get experience as a draft marshal and thatís to get out and officiate. Iím very comfortable with the overall level of officiating I see at Ironman events. USAT has a great officialís program and the reality is that all of the Head Referees at Ironman events (except me) are USAT certified officials and most of the events use USAT officials. Like anything, some are better than others. But overall, I am impressed with the dedication and quality of those who officiate.


ST: In your opinion, what should the penalties be for pros and age groupers when it comes to drafting?

Jimmy: The more races I officiate, the more I believe that the drafting time penalty should be more severe. Right now the risk/reward balance favors the devious. For drafting in Ironman distance races, Iíd like to see an 8í first penalty and then 12í for a second penalty.


ST: That being said, are you satisfied with the habits of riders at the races at which you and your crews officiate? If not, what needs to change, and is it in your power to make those changes?

Jimmy: When I first started officiating, I saw more people blatantly draft than I expected to see. But it has gotten better. I see more of an effort by athletes to not be in a compromising position. Itís noticeable and makes me feel like what Iím doing is worth it. If I didnít see improvement and potential for more improvement, I would not have stuck around as long as I have.

I think we need to continue to make more athletes aware of the rules. Some athletes, for example, don't know that failing to make a pass once theyíre inside the drafting zone results in a drafting penalty. I think that the athletes should demand the presence of more officials at certain events. More officials equals less drafting Ė itís that simple.

ST: Do you believe the officiating on the bike course at Ironman-branded events yields better results than the officiating at those USAT events that have the same number of officials on the course?

Jimmy: Ironman rules are basically USAT rules, with a few differences. But I do feel like those few differences yield better results. The main differences are that Ironman uses a longer draft zone (7 meters between bikes vs. 7 meters front wheel to front wheel), allows 20 seconds to pass vs. 15 seconds, notifies athletes at the time of the penalty, and uses penalty tents on the course so that time penalties are served during the race instead of added to your overall time at the end of the race. For the reasons I mentioned earlier, it is my opinion that these rules work better to reduce drafting. Most athletes want to know what they were penalized for at the time of the penalty, not after the race. Serving the penalty on the course helps break up packs and allows athletes to know where they stand at the finish line. I also think it is helpful that Ironman and NAS demand 10-15 draft marshals.


ST: Did WTC leave USAT because the latter was not willing to allow WTC to fairly enforce its events?

Jimmy: WTC did not leave USAT. Several years ago, USAT refused to allow Ironman to use the same modified USAT rules that Ironman had used (with USAT's approval) in the past. USAT refused to sanction WTC unless WTC used USAT rules without the modifications. This forced Ironman to seek its own insurance and find its own officials. All of this happened within a couple of weeks of the event. I literally was asked to help only two weeks from the event.


ST: With the time elapsed between then and now, is there evidence of the bike leg being more fairly contested at WTC races?

Jimmy: Weíve tweaked things a little since the then Ė the biggest change being not pulling athletes over, but instead sending them to penalty tents. Without a doubt, Ironman rules work much better for Ironman distance events than the USAT pro stagger rule.

ST: Is there a difference between North American triathletes and European triathletes, in terms of what bike riding behavior considered legal and ethical? Do you perceive a higher level of tolerance for drafting at these European races, and if so does WTC think that's a problem worth solving?

Jimmy: When I raced in Europe, which was quite often, drafting was more tolerated. It is my understanding that things have not changed much in that regard. Therefore, when Europeans come here, there is an adjustment period. Once the European athletes become familiar with our rules and lack of tolerance for drafting, however, they race just as fairly as everyone else. Iíve had many European athletes say to me that they enjoy racing here because we try hard to enforce the drafting rules. They also comment on the level of respect athletes here show to the officials. I consider this positive feedback, which means a lot Ė especially since weíre seeing more and more foreign athletes racing in America.


ST: Drafting is unfortunately not the only way athletes cheat. Course cutting for example seems to be not uncommon either. What are your thoughts?

Jimmy: Considering the number of athletes in a race, I donít think course cutting is common, but it does happen. There are many systems in place to catch course cutters, and Ironman does a great job of catching those athletes. We have an amazing timing system with an experienced group of people monitoring it. The design of the course and ample timing mats are crucial. I think it is a rare instance in which a course cutter does not get caught.


ST: And what is the measuring stick, that is, how will you know that the races are more fairly contested?

Jimmy: Feedback from the athletes is a good measuring stick and based on that feedback, I think the races are cleaner. From my perspective on the course, I see an improvement. That said, thereís always room for more improvement. I sincerely feel that Ironman and NAS are committed to continue to improve. I welcome any feedback, and welcome anyone who wants to become more involved as an official.

  

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Comments

Drafting 3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Enough, Nov 10 2008 6:45PM

I must say I agree that as race directors have tried to bring in more money for their events (through more athletes on the same looped courses), it's become a joke on the bike course. 2,800 athletes on a 2-loop Ironman 70.3 is a joke. After 26 years in the sport, I have decided to race smaller, less-well-known venues in an effort to simply go for PR's at various distances in order to avoid the cluster-f*%& on the bike courses.

Drafting 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Clayton Gunning, Sep 30 2008 3:54AM

Two very good articles from obviously highly regarded US Triathlon Officials. I just would like to see consideration given to noting a drafting penalty in the results book with an asterisks or similar. Just a reminder to the cheat that his riding style for his PB was flawed. It's something I've suggested to anyone who will listed for 20 years but no one with any authority to act seems to hear.

Excuses.... 3 out of 5 stars

tri.bassett

Reviewed by: Greg Bassett, Sep 12 2008 5:44PM

When Jimmy says...
ST: Clearly certain races are more often associated with heavy drafting such as IM Florida in Panama City, FL and the 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, FL. Is it possible to race these races clean? And the emphasis here is the word race.

Jimmy: When draft marshals are not present, (most) athletes will cheat. It only takes a couple of blatantly drafting athletes to turn a perfectly clean group of riders into a "pack" of riders who are too close. My contention is that heavy drafting at certain races is caused more by a lack of coverage by the officials than the flatness of the course. For example, IM Arizona is a three-loop flat course that generally has little drafting. IM Florida, on the other hand, has quite a bit of blatant drafting Ė mainly as a result of not enough officials on the one loop course. One loop is very hard to cover unless you have 15-20 draft marshals. Even with 15-20 itís hard to be everywhere. 15 draft marshals in FL works out to 1 draft marshal for every 7-8 miles of course. In AZ, 15 draft marshals works out to 1 every 2 miles. When draft marshals arenít there, (most) people will cheat. The visible presence of draft marshals is a huge deterrent and is a big factor in preventing packs from forming.

Clearwater has plenty of officials (15-20), but the narrow course and heavy car traffic leave us relatively ineffective. Itís very tough to safely get a motorcycle in position to properly make calls because the athletes must ride in the median lane and the two adjacent lanes are full of traffic.

I'm calling BS. If USAT can't put enough marshals on the course to make the race fair, then the USAT should not sanction the race. If it takes 50-60 marshals to cover IMFL, and they can only get 20-30, then the race can't be sanctioned. If the 70.3 championship promoters can't get the course closed to be safe enough for fair marshaling, then they can't hold the championship at that course.

Why make it more complicated than it needs to be?

IM Canada 3 out of 5 stars

IM Canada officials did nothing!

Reviewed by: Scott Roy, Sep 10 2008 9:27PM

I road completely solo in IM Canada coming out of the water in the top 10 only to see 2 large packs of 20+ riders pass me on the way to Ritcher Pass. I realize officials can't be everywhere, however the female official on the motorcycle did absolutely nothing to break up these packs. If the officials witness the drafting they need to actually do something other than drive back and forth hoping the pack will break up. I totally agree with the increased time penalty for drafting. I vote for a :15 to :25 penalty which would basically keep these cheaters from displacing honest athletes!

Drafting 3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Shane Eversfield, Sep 10 2008 5:01PM

I just returned from ITU Worlds Long Course, in Almere Netherlands. The bike course was not pancake flat, it was POOL TABLE flat. With 1400 athletes on the 2-loop course, it was impossible not to "draft" (10 meter rule was in effect for all athletes). If I coasted or braked once an athlete passed me to open up 10 meters, I would have been continually passed by several more athletes. Like wise, when I passed an athlete and pulled to the right after passing, I was closer that 10 meters to the athlete in front of me. My solution? Ride staggered to one side or the other of the athlete in front of me, choosing the side with the least advantage. I am satisfied that I did not cheat. Race directors and officials must consider the athlete density on the course and officiate sensibly.

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