In March of 2017 I was invited to compete for Team USA at the ITU Triathlon World Championship in Rotterdam, Netherlands. I'll be completely honest, when I said YES to this event I knew very little about draft legal racing. The thought of doing a triathlon and not being able to get down on my aerobars was a little scary. That and having to ride in a very close pack of experienced riders at an International event seemed a bit intimidating to me.
So I hired a triathlon coach for this event and a few races leading up to it. My coach began to tell me about what to expect in a draft legal race and everything that goes into it. Pack skills, drafting in a group, communication, and even getting dropped. What? Getting DROPPED?? Immediately I went on the defensive because there was NO WAY I was going to get dropped in a major international race while representing the United States!
I knew I had to figure out this draft legal racing thing.
I started by asking the most experienced riders in our riding group if I could hang on their wheel and learn some skills. So pretty much every Saturday for the entire summer I made it a point to go out hard and fast with the fastest guys in our group. This was a little intimidating for me but I was determined to learn how to ride better in a pack. I came to know everyone and their style of riding and soon my bike handling skills were improving. You have to work to earn the respect of the most experienced riders when you are an apprentice like me. Eventually I gained enough experience to actually pull the group a few times.
There is a Wednesday night ride here in town with some of the fastest most experienced cyclists around and I had put off attending this ride because I wasn't sure if I could hang with the crowd.
But I said a few prayers and went anyway.
This was about a two and a half hour ride way out in the Texas countryside in an area of town that I really don't know very well. I was the only female present and there were a few guys that showed up from the college cycling team. Even though I was wearing my Garmin I was a little nervous that I was in unfamiliar territory in the event that they dropped me. I was determined to hang on though for as long as I could.
Fortunately, there was only one really fast cyclist that night and he set himself apart from the group right off the bat and the rest of us hung out together taking turns pulling and drafting as a group. It was one of the hardest workouts of the summer for me but I was so glad I did it. And I didn't get dropped at all!
I was ready for Rotterdam.
As a coach of an athlete getting ready to do a draft legal triathlon, I would recommend the following to help the athlete feel confident and ready for race day:
1. Specificity of training. The only way to get better riding in a tight group is to do exactly that- practice riding with an experienced group. Your athletes should let the group know ahead of time that their patience is appreciated.
2. Make sure their bike is in great working order. Be sure they check the brakes, cables, detailers, wheels, etc to be sure that nothing is loose and can fall off or break when riding at a fast pace in a tight group.
3. Wear a watch with a GPS. In the event that they get dropped they will need to know where they are in order to find the route home. As with any ride, bring plenty of hydration and snacks, cell phone etc.
4. Tell them to talk to the crowd as they ride. Verbal cuing and hand signaling is crucial when riding in a close group. Be sure they keep their eyes on the road and exercise good situational awareness at all times.
Race Day Strategy:
Tell your athletes to get with a lead pack as soon as possible out of T1. This is crucial because it's very hard to catch the pack if a rider is left behind and this will take a tremendous amount of extra energy. They don't want to let any gaps form between themselves and the pack because they will end up working about 25-30% harder just to keep up. Tell them not to get caught at the back of the pack, as this makes it hard to stay in the draft. Somewhere in the front to middle is safe but not at the very front because they may end up pulling the entire ride with no benefit from the pack. Tell them to be ready to push it around corners and up hills and go hard when the group goes hard. Riding in a pack means being responsive, alert, and having good communications skills.
With focused practice and determination, triathletes can successfully go from aerobars to draft legal racing and have a lot of fun learning a new skill.