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Draft-legal racing in action
Draft-legal racing in action
photo: Wechsel / triathlon.org

Elites Discuss the Challenges, Tactics and Misconceptions of Draft-Legal Racing

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Elites Discuss the Challenges, Tactics and Misconceptions of Draft-legal Racing

As a competitive age group triathlete, your racing schedule is probably pretty packed this summer. But if you approach the new few months as a fan, you can experience some high-level competition by some of the top elite triathletes in the world… and in a format not seen much in the U.S.
 
Four draft-legal events will be held in the U.S. between now and late August, each perfectly located to draw in spectators from around the country. Check out the race nearest you. Here’s the breakdown:
 
June 21
ITU World Championship Series
Washington, D.C.
 
June 27-28
ITU Hy-Vee World Cup and Team World Championship
Des Moines, Iowa
 
July 11
ITU Pan American Cup at the San Francisco Triathlon
San Francisco, Calif.
 
August 22
ITU Pan American Cup/USA Triathlon Elite Nationals
Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The races in Des Moines, San Francisco and Tuscaloosa are part of the USA Triathlon Twenty-12 Elite Race Series.
 
Don’t know much about draft-legal racing? Well, it’s the style raced by elite triathletes on the world cup circuit, and it’s what you see every four years at the Olympic Games as the world’s best hammer it out over a 1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run course.
 
What you get is a spectator-friendly event with lots of action, multiple-loop courses, pack riding on the bike, and runs that often come down to sprint finishes.
 
Want to know more about the intricacies and skills needed to race this style? We caught up with four of the top U.S. elite triathletes to give us their take on what draws them to the sport.
 
Here is our panel: Sarah Haskins (St. Louis, Mo. / Colorado Springs, Colo.), 2008 Olympian and 2008 ITU Worlds silver medalist, Andy Potts (Princeton, N.J. / Colorado Springs, Colo.), 2004 Olympian and 2007 Ironman 70.3 World Champion, Matt Chrabot (Virginia Beach, Va.), 2008 ITU Pan American Triathlon Confederation Champion, and Ethan Brown (Lowell, Mass.), 2007 and 2008 USAT U23 National Champion.

What do you enjoy most about racing ITU-style events?
Matt Chrabot

The level of competition is unmatched in triathlon. ITU style is typically much more spectator friendly so my family and friends find it more entertaining. 
 
Ethan Brown
I enjoy the fast-pace and unpredictability of ITU racing. Every race is unique and anything can happen on any given day. I also like ITU racing because you can race frequently. If you have a bad race one week, you don’t have to wait long to redeem yourself.
 
Sarah Haskins
I enjoy the speed and the head-to-head racing. I also like the fact that the races are more spectator-friendly, so the fans can watch most of the action.
 
How does a draft-legal race affect you differently physically than a non-drafting race?
Matt Chrabot

I average about the same amount of power on the bike. But in draft legal, I find it's much more explosive. Off the bike, running with a group of 20 guys is much tougher than by yourself.
 
Ethan Brown
In a draft-legal race, the swim and run tend to be more painful and competitive than a non-drafting race. In non-drafting racing, you go at or close to threshold the whole time, but in ITU racing you’re constantly spiking your heart rate and effort level, and while sometimes you don’t have to bike “as hard,” covering attacks and sprinting on the bike can drain your legs much quicker than a 40k TT effort.
 
Sarah Haskins
In the swim, bike and run there is much more surges and changes of pace (especially in the bike). Time trial racing is all about rhythm and staying in your zone. Often times in a draft legal race you have to redline to respond to an attack, and then settle back down below your race pace. Both types of racing are difficult, but in different ways.
 
What are the biggest mental challenges you are faced with when racing ITU style? 
Ethan Brown

The biggest mental challenges you face in ITU racing are preparing for that swim start and first few kilometers on the bike. Those are the most critical points in the race when the lead pack is forming – if you want to be in it, then you have to prepare yourself to go max effort to get there at those two points.
 
Sarah Haskins
Making sure you have your transition nailed down. If you have a poor transition, it can cost you a race, so I try and mentally rehearse the transition area. Also, if you come out of the swim just 10 seconds back from the leaders, you mentally have to stay in the game and try catch up to the pack on the bike. Heading out on the run in T2, athletes are going very fast and you can't let people 100 yards ahead of you let you down mentally, but stay within yourself.
 
Andy Potts
You are constantly strategizing as the race moves along. You have to plan for every possible scenario to be successful.  
 
How much is mental and technique and how much is physical when it comes to ITU style racing?
Matt Chrabot

90 mental/10 physical. You have to know how to play the game. 
 
Ethan Brown
Trying to break down the mental, technique-based, and physical aspects of ITU racing into percentages is difficult, if not impossible. Each course presents its own challenge, different competitors can change the way the race plays out, and sometimes sheer luck is involved. All of these things can have a bearing on how much mental prep, pure technique, or fitness is needed to prevail on that day.
 
Sarah Haskins
Much of racing is mental, period. You are physically swimming, biking and running, but everything in between is a mental game, especially in draft-legal racing. Transitions are very skilled as well as bike handling (cornering, turns, downhills). 
 
Andy Potts
There is a bigger mental component to ITU style racing than non-drafting. In non-drafting races you can put your head down and just push. In ITU style racing you have to have your head up and be aware of everything and everyone around you.
 
How key is it to get in that lead group coming out of the swim?
Matt Chrabot

It's huge. Looking at the last three of the last four major races, Ishigaki and Mooloolaba World Cups and Madrid WCS, if you weren't in the first bunch out of the water, there was no chance of winning.
 
Ethan Brown
Being in the lead swim pack is extremely critical for having a successful race. The odds are stacked way against you if you have a bad swim, but once again, anything can happen and you can’t rule out anybody until the race is over.
 
Sarah Haskins
Very key, otherwise you have to work very hard on the bike/run to catch up.
 
What do you say to people who say the bike leg is not as important in ITU style racing? 
Ethan Brown

The critics who say the bike leg in ITU doesn’t matter don’t fully understand how much short-term power ITU athletes need to have to be successful. ITU races play out more like bike races instead of time trials, and having the power to cover attacks, bridge up, and break away is of the utmost importance. A male athlete who does not have a max power output of at least 400 watts for 5 minutes would find themselves occasionally getting dropped.
 
Sarah Haskins
Come try it out! It is very similar to a bike race (like the Tour...but much shorter). The change of pace can be just as taxing (if not more) on your legs than a TT ride.
 
Andy Potts
It is different and hard to put into words. Sometimes the bike can be easy and other races it can be very demanding. It depends on the course and the competition.  
 
What is the difference in the bike leg between the two styles?
Matt Chrabot

ITU is much more explosive. You also have to have the ability to work cohesively with others. If you can't rotate through, and are uncomfortable riding in the pack, you waste a ton of energy. 
 
Ethan Brown
I would say the indicator to success in ITU racing would be having the highest 5 minute power output, while non-drafting would require more of a focus on 1 hour max power output. Developing each of these skills requires two different types of training.
 
Sarah Haskins
Answered above, but to add in – you have to be very aware of what is going on in a ITU race (packs, attacks, surges, etc), otherwise you could get dropped from a group or crash out. In a non-draft race it is much more internal; you have to set the pace and keep the hurt going.
 
Andy Potts
The bike in non-drafting races will always be demanding. In ITU racing you don’t know what you are going to get until the race is on.
 
What are key tactics involved in the bike leg? How does a pack work together? What are the challenges of riding in a group?
Ethan Brown

The tactics involved in an ITU bike leg depend on how many guys are in the group, whether or not the pace is high, and whether or not you suspect someone will attack (or if you plan to attack). All of these scenarios would affect the effort level I would put into the bike. Working in a group can be rewarding but also extremely frustrating. Ideally you want a pace-line where each athlete is rotating through taking short pulls, however, sometimes an athlete will skip their pull or refuse to work, and this causes conflicts, shouting, and slows the group down.
 
Sarah Haskins
If you have a group of 8 or less, it is important to pace line and take turns with pulling to stay away from the group. Hills or corners are a great place to attack a group and to try and get away from a pack. Teammates can help athletes stay away from a pack by sitting at the front of the group and riding slower. You have to be aware of riders who are not comfortable on the bike and make sure to try to avoid crashing.
 
Andy Potts
Sometimes the pack works together and other times there is no cooperation at all. It can be frustrating and exhilarating at the same time.
 
How do you decide when to attack on the bike?
Matt Chrabot

When you know the entire field is hurting the most. When everyone is already red lining, it's time. 
 
Ethan Brown
Attacking on the bike is a decision you have to fully commit to or you will easily be caught. I tend to attack frequently going into transition in order to avoid the chaos of T2, especially if there is a large group. Attacking early in the bike leg maximizes the chance that you will be in a breakaway and open up time on the rest of the field for the whole 40k. Also, there may be a certain point on the course that is especially difficult where you may decide it is worthwhile to attack, not to drop everybody, but to weed out the weaker cyclists.
 
Andy Potts
Need to read the pack and then take your chances. Reading the pack takes time and experience.
 
How key are transitions in ITU style?
Matt Chrabot

In a big pack, the difference between the first guy and last guy in could be 20 seconds. 
 
Ethan Brown
Transitions in ITU racing can literally make or break your race. An extra few seconds can be the time it takes to miss that lead pack. Someone from every race has a story about how they “were right there!” but a slow transition ruined their day.
 
Andy Potts
They are important, but like the swim, no one has ever won a triathlon with just fast transitions.

Does your training differ depending on which style of race you have coming up that week? 
Ethan Brown

My training doesn’t vary much the week of a race, regardless of whether it is draft-legal or not. The week of a race I’m focusing on doing shorter, more intense efforts to build speed and feel fast for that weekend.
 
Sarah Haskins
Not too much, but I will be training on a road bike verses a TT bike when I have a draft-legal race approaching.
 
Looking back at your first ITU style race, how did the event turn out for you?
Matt Chrabot

It was horrible. 2005 nationals. I nearly finished dead last. In ITU style, the best guys are very solid at all three disciplines. I thought I was a good swimmer, but got annihilated from the start. Plus racing late in the afternoon was something I was definitely not used to.
 
Ethan Brown
In my first ITU race (2006 U.S. Nationals in Long Beach, Calif.) I feared for my life during the swim. I’d never been in a field with so many good swimmers, and I was beat up pretty bad. When I finally made it to the bike, I had already missed the top 2 or 3 packs, and I ended up riding 30k of the bike with just one other guy, only to get caught by a giant pack with 10k to go. In retrospect, I simply should’ve waited for that pack and conserved my energy instead of working hard with just 1 other guy.
 
Sarah Haskins
Yes, many mistakes. I had a slow first transition and missed the first bike pack (I was not used to getting on the bike with my shoes already on the pedals). I also ran out of T2 with my helmet on! I was also not too great technically on the bike and had to catch up to wheels after all the corners.
 
Andy Potts
I made some mistakes but it was a great experience and very exciting.  
 
How long did it take you before you felt comfortable racing ITU style?
Matt Chrabot

It took 3 years. I'm a slow learner! 
 
Ethan Brown
I would say it took me 3 seasons of racing, up until 2008, to really find my groove in ITU racing and start having good results. To this day I’m still working on my swim as I don’t always make the front pack.
 
Sarah Haskins
A couple of years... and still working on it! I think one of my biggest weaknesses is technical skills on the bike, so focus on the weaknesses, but don't forget to train my strengths.
 
Andy Potts
I was comfortable right away – I was always in the thick of things and love the challenge of it.
 
What advice do you have for someone approaching their first ITU style race?
Matt Chrabot

It looks like we are beating ourselves up in the swim but we aren't! Try to keep your hands and arms in if you want to make it out of the swim in 1 piece. If you want to race on the biggest stage in all of sports in triathlon, ITU is the only path to the Olympics.
 
Ethan Brown
To someone about to do their first ITU race I would advise them to race aggressively and keep their head in the race no matter how it goes. People tend to get destroyed in their first ITU race – the thing to remember is that it’s the experience that counts. You learn something new every race and you have to go into them prepared to suffer, but also with a calm state of mind prepared to learn.
 
Sarah Haskins
Have fun, stay calm, mentally go over the course (especially the transitions). Practice riding with road cyclists on group rides and get comfortable riding close to people, practice pace lining and cornering.

Andy Potts
Be ready for anything and get really comfortable riding in groups.

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