The professionals abide by a uniquely stringent set of drafting rules at Ironman Hawaii that until now have been unknown to the public.
About a month ago, I got an email from Ironman’s head referee Jimmy Riccitello at 9:02pm that said, “Can you give me a call at your earliest convenience?”
Two days earlier triathleteeurope.com had posted a video (The Kona Drafting Experiment) detailing a test we conducted to measure the energy savings of riding at the legal distance for the pros—10 meters—behind another competitor. The results showed a savings of 12 watts, which we called “a really significant difference.”
Riccitello wanted to talk immediately. He ended his email saying, “I’m up late if you have time for a quick explanation tonight.” I called him and we talked, but he needed to get permission before he could go on the record. He called Ironman’s CEO Andrew Messick and got the green light to share a secret policy they had been enforcing for years without the public’s knowledge.
The rulebook governing the pro race (rules for amateurs are different) states that the draft zone is a two meter-wide rectangle that extends 10 meters back from a rider’s front wheel. Bikes are about 1.5 meters long, so a trailing rider must keep about 8.5 meters behind their front wheel and the next cyclist up the road. The rules sound simple, but abiding by and enforcing the policy is difficult in practice.
Eyeballing an 8.5-meter gap while absorbed in a race is challenging for racers and referees alike. This puts a big burden on everyone involved to make important snap judgments with little for reference. Riccitello, himself a former pro triathlete, decided several years ago that he wanted to “make the draft zone less nebulous and more objective.” He found his solution on the side of the road.
“I ride a fair bit [on the Ironman bike course] and I noticed these reflectors right on the white line where the athletes ride,” said Riccitello. “I measured it and [the gap between reflectors] is 40 feet. I figured since these reflectors are there, it would be easy for the athletes to use them.”
Instead of worrying about distance between front wheels, Riccitello wanted to use the reflectors to mark the distance between the trailing rider’s front wheel and the leading cyclist’s rear. But 40 feet is slightly longer than 12 meters. Combine that gap with the length of the bike and the distance from front wheel to front wheel—the standard set by the rulebook—is about 13.5 meters. Using the reflectors to designate the draft zone would help athletes understand the legal distance and referees spot an infraction, but it also meant enforcing a substantially longer draft zone than the one every pro agrees to at the beginning of the year.
Riccitello was a strong cyclist and a relatively weak runner (he says he “sucked” at running) while competing professionally and he is passionate about neutralizing any potential drafting advantage. As the they are currently written, a cyclist can save substantial energy, even when following the drafting rules. “You do get a savings when you’re the legal distance back,” said Riccitello. “When you’re 10 meters back—8.5 meters between bikes—you save 10-15 watts. And the faster you go, the greater the difference.” The test we conducted showed a similar advantage, and others have also yielded results in that range. At 40 feet, however, it’s significantly less. “Between zero and 5 [watts] based on my power meter and experiments I’ve done with my buddies,” said Riccitello.
Changing the draft zone from 10 meters to 13.5 has consequences for the race. In addition to reducing the potential aerodynamic savings of riding in a group, it also makes passing more difficult. Age groupers can slot between athletes and take a few seconds to space out to the legal distance, but pros don’t have that luxury. To make a pass, they must pull into an existing opening the size of the draft zone. This policy applies when riding in a group of three or thirty. So, if a rider toward the back of the large leading group at Ironman Hawaii wanted to make a pass, he would have to ride past the entire length of riders or hope someone made a mistake and drifted backwards to provide an opening. With about 20 riders typically grouped together for the first 40 miles of the ride, that means passing a 270 meter-long row of people.
To understand the impact this has on the athletes, I calculated the speed required to make this massive pass with the written rules and with the rules applied in Kona. To ride four hours and 30 minutes, a typical front-of-the-pack bike split, a rider must average 25 miles per hour. With a 10-meter zone and 20 seconds to execute a pass, an athlete passing a string of 20 riders—admittedly a very rare situation—would have to accelerate to 26 miles per hour and hold that increased tempo for 6 minutes and 40 seconds. With the extended 13.5-meter zone, that rider would have to hold 26.5 mph to make the same six-plus minute pass.
With these effects in mind, Riccitello wanted to use the reflectors and effectively extend the zone to 13.5 meters. He decided to pass it by the athletes and they signed off. WTC, the corporation that owns Ironman, gave him permission to make the change, and Riccitello and his referees have been using this longer draft zone for the past four or so years (he can’t remember exactly how long).
Enforcing the Reflector Rule and penalizing athletes for riding as far as 13 meters behind the next creates the potential for vehement ( and possibly legitimate) objections to being punished for riding in that space between 10 and 13 meters, but Riccitello has created a gentleman’s agreement of sorts that all the pros have bought in to. “As long as we do our job letting the athletes know what is expected of them on race day in Kona and be very clear about what’s expected of them in other races, they’re good…It’s just letting athletes know what’s expected of them,” said Riccitello.
“It’s clearly written in a letter given to every pro athlete prior to race day. It’s clearly explained to them in the athlete briefing. So it’s something that they know and expect. We haven’t had any issues. …It’s 100% certain that the athletes know what’s expected. The reflectors are their draft zone. For all I know, most may think that is the 10-meter zone, I don’t even know. We don’t get up there and say, ‘Hey, we want you guys even farther back than the rule allows.’ We just say, ‘Here’s what we’re looking at.’”
Riccitello says he has received “zero [negative] feedback” about extending the draft zone. “Not one single person has come to me and said, ‘Hey man, the rulebook says 10 meters and you guys are using 40 feet between bikes and I have a problem with that.’ Nobody has said that. There may be the odd person that thinks that, but the overwhelming feeling between the athletes is the longer the draft zone the better.”
Chris Lieto has been one of the pros most impacted by the drafting rules in Hawaii because of the way he races. The American uses the same strategy every year—smash the bike and try to survive the run. Lengthening the zone should make the ride more difficult for faster runners that seek shelter in the leading group. Lieto likes using the Reflector Rule.
“The rule in Hawaii is a farther distance, so I think that makes it a little bit more fair… It’s a complicated situation that everyone is striving to come up with a fair way to assess and enforce,” said Lieto. “Taking one step and making it easy for the referee to eyeball a reflector to reflector, being at 12 or 13 meters, makes it easier for the referees to subjectively judge that distance and it also makes it easier for the athletes to stay that distance apart.”
Rasmus Henning is one of those runners that has been trying to catch Lieto after the bike, but he also supports the lengthened zone policy. “I didn’t realize that it was that much more than 10 meters, I thought it was somewhere between 10 and 11,” he said. “I suggested to Riccitello that they should use the reflectors if they were in a reasonable range because it makes it much easier for us to assess and for the refs to assess, so in that sense I’m perfectly fine with them using it… I think it’s a very good idea to use other points of reference because in other races it gets way too subjective, going both ways. You can certainly see a lot of people going way too close but sometimes you also see people getting penalized for something they shouldn’t have been, but if there are no reference points then it’s hard to really argue about it.”
As a result of Riccitello’s passionate pursuit of an even playing field and the willingness of Ironman and the pro athletes to accept the Reflector Rule, Kona may be the Ironman that most follows the individualistic spirit of the sport.