Over the past couple months, there has been a lot of talk about the ITU Age Group World Championship races in 2016 being “draft-legal”. For those of you that have been in the sport for a while, you know what draft legal, or ITU format refers to, but for the rest of you, it is the format of triathlon that most international cup races as well as the Olympics use. There are several key differences in these kinds of races, but first, I’ll talk a little bit about the two distinct sanctioning bodies in triathlon, the WTC and the ITU.
WTC stands for World Triathlon Corporation. These are the people that own, endorse, and sanction the Ironman, Ironman 70.3, and the 5150 Series races. Essentially, WTC is a giant, worldwide race production company that specializes in long course events that we are all used to. ITU (International Triathlon Union) is the governing body for triathlon worldwide. They are the parent body for national federations, such as USA Triathlon and are the body affiliated with triathlon in the Olympic Games. The ITU also organizes is in charge of national championship and world championship races other than those sponsored by Ironman (Kona and 70.3 Worlds)
Now these two sanctioning bodies have two distinct race formats. WTC races are all non draft, meaning that you may not ride your bike less than 3 bike lengths behind the athlete in front of you, and if you have to pass, you must do so in a specified amount of time. These races can be done on TT bikes, and the rules regard what constitutes a legal bike are much more broad. These are the rules that we are all used to with USA Triathlon. No drafting, no blocking, specified time to pass, and TT bikes. Its what most people think of then they think of triathlon.
ITU format is much different, and is really a different kind of race entirely. The number one difference for ITU is that drafting is allowed, meaning athletes can be on their bikes in a pack, working together. This leads to the second most important rule: road bikes only. That means absolutely no TT bikes, just as if it were a road cycling race. These bikes have a strict criteria they must adhere to including saddle position, mini clip-on aerobar length, and wheel depth. A minor rule difference is that ITU athletes must wear a particular kind of jersey that is a one piece suit with their last name and country abbreviation.
Draft legal, like I mentioned, is an entirely different kind of race. In non-draft races, the bike portion is usually the most important since it comprises over 50% of the race and you have to do all of your own work (no drafting). In ITU races, everything is important and you really can’t get away with slacking in one particular discipline. Starting from the beginning, the swim, unlike in non-draft, can either make or break your entire race. Since athletes are allowed to draft and work together on the bike, it is critical to be able to get out of the water with the lead pack. If you don’t, your entire race will likely be ruined as the pack will work together in order to prevent athletes caught by themselves from catching back up. On the flip side, if you are the first out of the water by a good margin, you will be caught out by yourself and usually be swept up by the main group on the bike, meaning you wasted a lot of energy swimming faster. Once out of the water, having good bike skills is important since you are riding in a pack at very high speeds. One false move could send you to the pavement, along with everyone in the immediate area. Not to mention the fact that you have to be strong enough to at least hang on to the pack during the bike in order to not get dropped. Once you can get through the first two portions, it becomes a running race for those that are left. In non-draft races, a weaker runner can over-perform in the swim and bike and still win a race. Draft legal athletes have to be phenomenal runners because there is very little chance of them getting a head start on anyone off the bike.
With ITU AG Worlds looking at going Draft Legal, we may see an increase in Age Group draft legal racing here sanctioned by USAT in order to prepare those that are interested. So before you try to sign up for one, remember that it is a difference race!