Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ironman World Championships 70.3 - The Bike Leg

The Bike Leg - Ironman World Championships 70.3
The Transiton area
Heading out onto the bike course - Part 1
Heading out onto the bike course - Part 2

Finishing up the bike course - I am the guy at the back

A pack of riders finishing the bike course

The transition area could not have been set up in a more beautiful location, in a park alongside a boardwalk between the Gulf and the Bay with palm trees scattered throughout the park. The start of the bike course was lined with cheering fans enjoying the fantastic November weather, which climbed up to the low 80’s during the run.

I picked up my bike transition bag which contained my socks and ran on into the transition tent to put them on. There were long rows of chairs in the tent so I sat down on one and started putting on my socks. I felt my calf start to cramp so I decided to remain standing and pulled my socks as quickly as I could. I should have listened to this body indicator and adjusted my fluid intake during the ride. Exiting the tent I ran over to my bike, snapped on my helmet, pulled the bike off the rack and ran with the bike towards the transition exit. I had to slow down to the pace of the people in front who were also leaving the transition area as there was no room to pass. I was surprised to note that even at the World Championship level competitors have not mastered the running bike mount. I ran past 3 people mounting their bikes directly after the bike mount line and then hoped onto my bike and rode away.

I felt like yelling out a war cry as I switched from just getting by in the water to attack mode on my bike. Starting out at the end of the 12th wave and posting a mediocre swim time, there must have been 1000 competitors in front of me as I started out into the bike course. I got up to speed and began passing people; lots of them. I had to call out “On your Left!” many times as I made my way past. The course could only fit a maximum of 3 bikes across in the most spots and I often had to pass someone that was in the process of passing someone else. As I made my way by people I started to notice that some of the cyclists were not obeying the clearly communicated rule of keeping four bike lengths in between themselves and the rider in front of them. When I first spotted this infraction I called out to the rider and held out 4 fingers indicating that they needed to follow the rule and back up. Clearly I am no race official but what I was seeing was a blatant disregard for the rules and a complete disrespect for the honour of the sport; unfortunately this was only the tip of the iceberg, which really pissed me off.

I kept on riding at a good pace, hammering away on my pedals enjoying the speed. In the two plus years that I have been competing in Triathlon’s and Duathlon’s I have seen the rare case of a younger rider lingering in the sweet spot too long after being passed, but I have never seen such outright cheating. After calling out to a few individuals who had been drafting behind the rider in front of them, I came across a literal pack of about 8-10 riders; a mini peleton. Not only is pack riding totally illegal, totally cheating, it is also dangerous on a time trial bike that is built for speed not manoeuvrability. When you are following closely in a group you need to be able to react to sudden changes in speed and obstacles in the road that are blocked from view, this is more challenging on a TT bike. I yelled out to the group “Pack Riding” and pointed to them as I passed by...no response.

It was not until about 20km’s into the ride that I came upon a rider moving at a pace close to mine. Just as I expected after passing him he picked up his speed and followed me, he was not drafting just using me as incentive to increase his effort. A few km’s down the road he rode past me. This kind of thing is common as you can be easily encouraged by a slightly faster cyclist just in front of you. The extra adrenalin usually wears off after a bit and the faster rider continues on up the road, each cyclist going on at their own pace. After getting passed I stopped pedaling, adhearing to the rules, to let the gap between us reach four bike lengths. I then took a short break getting a drink and collecting myself. I knew that I was faster that this guy otherwise I would not have caught up to him in the first place. I stayed back for a few minutes until his adrenalin wore off and then I rode past again I called out to him “Here’s a carrot for you”, on the way by; indicating that once I got back in front he could use me as inspiration to dig in and increase his effort again.

I continued to pass many riders including a group of three guys that were clearly too close to one another; separated by 2 bike lengths instead of 4. The 3 cyclist were travelling fairly fast but certainly kidding themselves if they thought they were following the rules; they were definitely enjoying the benefits of drafting. Most likely one of them was trying to do the right thing and the other two were not letting him get away. I worked my way by and so did the strong cyclist who was still behind me at a legal distance. What happened next will help to demonstrate how the packs of riders were forming. The group of three riders (including at least 2 cheaters) increased their pace and then started following close enough to enjoy the draft being generated by the strong rider behind me. As soon as you move inside the 4 bike lengths you don’t need to put in as much effort to keep up with the pace; a weaken rider can therefore easily stay with a stronger one. The guys who were drafting may have been putting out 30% less energy that the guy in front of them who was following the rules.

A few km’s down the road I was passed by the strong cyclist again, so I dropped back 4 bike lengths as per the rules. Then one of the 3 other guys came by me so I backed off another 4 bike lengths, only this guy was not observing the rules, he stayed just two bike lengths behind the strong rider. Then the other two cheaters did the same thing and just like that I was four bike lengths behind a group of four riders, three of whom had no business being there. I stayed off the back for a bit contemplating my next move. During that time one of the group of three tried to do the right thing and take the lead instead of following two bike lengths behind. This guy slowed almost instantly without the advantage of the draft and was passed again by the strong rider. I decided to ride away from this pack and hammered my way out ahead of the group; trying to put some room in between myself and the followers.

I could now see riders headed in the opposite direction as we neared the turn around point close to the half way point on the course. I was shocked to see two large packs of at least 20 riders zoom by in the opposite direction. What the f&ck?! Do these people know that this is the World Championship, where is the honour, where is the respect?

There was an aid station set up just after the turnaround point, as well as a timeout tent; which was empty. Didn’t I just see two large packs of riders headed in the opposite direction? Where was the enforcement of the rules? Where were the race officials? In the mandatory pre race meeting we had been told that officials on motorcycles would hand out yellow and red cards on the bike course for infractions such as drafting and those penalized would have to spend 4-minutes in a time-out tent. So far I had not seen any motorcycles and I was half way done the 90km ride.

After the turnaround I felt someone on my wheel and I mean right on my wheel, I quickly looked back and confirmed my suspicion, there was someone less than 6 inches off my back wheel. I waited for the guy to pass but he did not, he was just following my wheel like you would in a cycling road race. I called back to the guy “Are you serious?!! Pass or drop back”. The guy dropped back and I never did see exactly who he was.

A few km’s up the road the strong rider and the other three drafters caught up to me again and by this time they had made two more friends. Just like before after the strong guy came through I dropped back four bike lengths. Then the other five guys came by one after the other with no more that two bike lengths separating them. One of the 5 guys named Pedro was following right on the wheel of the guy in front of him…Rules Schmooles I guess, eh Pedro. I quickly ended up in the back of the group. These five guys must have seen the four bike length that I allowed in between myself and the guy in front of me as an indication that they needed to pass me to close up the legal gap.

All the while this jockeying was going on, we were passing other riders, no one had ridden away from me nor would they on this day. Some of the guys that we passed also joined our pack and then proceeding to pass so that they could stay closer than four bike lengths away from the pack. I gathered my strength for a few minutes as my frustration grew and then decided to make another attempt at breaking away from this growing group. The drafting was getting so bad that I started to hear a lot of free wheeling; which meant the guys in the pack did not even need to peddle consistently as they conserved energy. On my way past the guys in the pack I called out to one guy named John pointed out what was a maximum of one bike length distance in between himself and the guy in front of him and asked him “Do you feel good about this?” he answered “No” and I followed with “Then why do it”. I have to give John credit his conscience kicked in (temporarily at least) and he dropped back to the legal distance. On my way past Pedro all I could do was shake my head as he had his head down and arms in the aero bars in full draft mode an inch behind the guy in front of him.

Once I got to the front I put in a huge effort to try and break away; staying far to the left as I could so as to discourage the drafting behind me. Unfortunately I could not hold off this increasingly well organized and growing pack and I was caught and quickly assumed my spot at the far back. The bike course at this point was only wide enough to fit two bikes, possibly three. That is when our pack caught up to another slower pack of mostly women riders; all regard for the rules went out the window as we got all jammed up. I could see that the riders in the front of the faster pack moved into the left lane and started passing by the slower group. Unfortunately some of the people in the slower pack tried to join the faster group; this served to block everything up, creating a huge slower moving group of close to 50 riders.

I sat up on my bike and looked around trying to figure out a way past this mess. I was discouraged at this point knowing that I was stuck following at a slower speed. My strength in the bike leg was being taken away from me; I had to find a way to overcome this unforeseen challenge. This whole mess had been caused by a culmination of cheaters slowly eroding the no draft zone from four bike lengths to zero. I had spoken to these people before the race and I respected them, could these possibly be the same people? Who could feel good about their results after riding in a draft pack conserving energy for the run? I held up my hands in disgust and the German guy beside me began sharing his frustration, although I could not understand a word of it.

Maybe I am being too hard on my fellow triathlete, after all there are rules in all sports which are broken all of the time. It is typically up to the league to ensure that the rules are enforced and those who break them are penalized. When rules are not enforced they are not followed. The organizers knew that drafting was a problem as they went to the trouble if setting up time-out tents and warning us about drafting in the pre race meeting…unfortunately the warnings amounted to empty threats. From what I saw out on the course at least 25% of the people showed a total disregard for the drafting rule.

At this point in the race an official showed up on the back of a motorcycle and yelled out at the front of the pack to break things up, then began making strong arm gestures and taking down notes. I did not see any violation cards being pulled out, and that is a shame. I do appreciate the effort of that race official, but it was not nearly enough; yellow and Red cards should have been flying out like at a dirty soccer match. I stayed in the far left lane and backed off four bike lengths as the pack seemed to be reacting somewhat to the official. It was at this point that I decided to get aggressive. Some guy behind me yelled out “On your left!” indicating that he wanted me to move over so that he could pass. I yelled back to him that that I was going to pass the guy in front of me as soon as I had a chance, and then did not let him by me. I knew that that guy behind me had no chance of staying with me if I could only break free of this pack.

The were the occasional 100-200 meters opening on the left side of the road that closed down pretty suddenly, I used these gaps the power past riders and them force my way back into the full passing lane before crashing into the obstacles ahead. I did this a few times and worked my way up to the official who was still taking notes near the front of the pack. I was out of my saddle and yelling out “Coming Through!” to the riders in front to ensure that the official knew I was passing and not drafting to avoid any potential penalty; little did I know that no penalties were being handed out. It makes me wonder what the race official was writing down in the notepad. When I checked the standings after the race there was not a single penalty imposed - pathetic. Through my aggressive riding I made my way to the front and broke away from the pack; head down I put in a monster effort and never looked back.

Then something positive happened, the course widened as we headed south over a bay. Not only was this scenic but it felt almost luxurious to have the whole road to navigate down. I looked up ahead and who did I see, it was the strong rider from earlier in the race; he had also managed to break free of the pack of cheaters. As I rode past him I looked over and said “That was F&cking Awful!” he agreed and I rode off ahead never seeing him again.

Up ahead near the end of the causeway over the bay I saw that the rode was going to narrow again. I also noted another pack of riders not moving too fast. I dug in and raced ahead at maximum speed to ensure that I got past them to avoid getting blocked in again on the narrower road. I kept my tempo high for the final ten miles of the bike leg and did not experience any more issues with pack riders.

I finished the bike course in 2:05:01 which was the top split in my age group and fourth best amongst all amateurs. I dug in deeper than I wanted to in order to avoid the drafting packs but I do not regret my strategy. I most certainly suffered much more out on the run put I am proud of how I competed.


  1. A 2:05 bike split...That's insane buddy!! Considering all the traffic you had to deal with, that's amazing! I guarantee the pro's wouldnt have done any better if they had to put up with that shit.
    Way to go!

  2. Great report Bruce. I was there and I agree the drafting was brutal. For me I was in wave 13 and by the 20 km mark it opened up and I was always trying to stay to the outside to pass. But low and behold a couple of time as huge pack of 8 - 10 riders would come through together. It was frustrating and I agree is there no honour for the WC and wanting to know your time was legit.

    Unfortunately I broke my chain with 12 km to go, but thankfully they I lucked out and had a support vechicle right behind me and got me going in 4:55 to be exact.

    Your ride was unbelievable, great job and great time. I've gotten to know Mike Dunbar through my blog and he sent me to your report. Great report. You really captured the bike leg.