Healthy Living on July 6, 2011 by

Burning Matches

I did an impromptu race-recap with a new athlete the other night, as she explained how things went for her first Olympic distance duathlon. For the most part the race went as planned and expected. However, there was one frustration during her bike leg that I thought I might share with others, who’ll no doubt have or will experience the same thing, so they’ll know what they can do to mitigate it. It happens to do with the Drafting Zone (DZ). This has to be one of the areas new athletes probably fear the most, as penalties for violating it can be tough to swallow and even tougher to protest. Of all the rules that I can think of, DZ violations are probably the easiest to commit because of the gray area of interpretation (estimation of distance) by the offender vs. the course marshal. In the interest of fairness, course marshals might err to the lenient side, but this makes the protest even harder

U.S.A. Triathlon (USAT) sanctioned races have very specific rules regarding drafting, because they are not draft-legal events. A certain amount of distance must be maintained between you and the bike in front of you, depending on whether you’re racing as an elite or age-group athlete. This distance is supposed to eliminate the advantage of riding in another athlete’s slipstream as they break the wind for you. Most races, for consistency, choose to adopt the USAT Competitive Rules as their “Rules of the Day.” It is always your responsibility to be familiar with all rules in use for any particular race. For this explanation, I will be using distances that equate to age-group athletes and fall in the subheading 5.10 Position Fouls, under Cycling Conduct in Article V. The DZ in this case is 7 meters long and 2 meters wide. Position fouls penalties can range from 2 minutes added to your total time, to complete disqualification.

The Situation: As she rode the bike course, our 34 y/o fit-female began to close in on a 23 y/o male. Can you see where this is going yet? She decided she could make the pass safely within the 15 second allotted time for avoiding a penalty. She made the pass, and proceeded to maintain pacing. Soon thereafter, the male athlete came along and passed her in a similar fashion.* She dropped out of his DZ, only to then find herself needing to pass again, due to his pace slowing. However, as she attempts to make the pass, he speed up in an effort to keep her from passing in the allotted time. She must then drop completely out of his DZ – three bike lengths back – before attempting to pass again. This goes on for quite some time, until she is able to pass (and drop) him for good on a hill. Unfortunately, during this scenario, she lost mental focus and became frustrated with having to deal with his conduct. Frustration causes stress levels to rise, raised stress levels cost unnecessary energy expenditure. She took her head out of the game and was forced to respond to his actions rather than ride her own race plan. There’s nothing in the Competitive Rules to address his conduct. She asked me what solutions or options were recommended short of trying to get the attention of the Course Marshals.

The Solution: Burn A Match! First, be very safe about this by making sure ALL overtaking traffic is clear. At this point you’ll also need to confirm that the rider being passed isn’t about to pass another rider and abruptly come out around them into your intended pass. You get the penalty if you cause an accident. You’ll also need to make sure there will be a place for you to re-enter the “traffic flow” after the pass.  Start by coming straight up their wheel line to make the pass. This will keep you somewhat “hidden” both visually and aurally. In essence they won’t see or hear you coming until moments before the pass. Come out to their left at the last second by at least 1 meter, go as hard as you can to make the pass and continue 20 – 30 meters out in front of this person, then settle in to maintain your pacing plan. Hopefully, that’s the last you’ve seen of them. For more on Burning Matches, watch this short explanation video by Robbie Ventura of the CycleOps Company.

I’ve confirmed this with USAT’s Rules Director as the best method for handling this type of conduct. For complete USAT Rules (PDF) go to

For the new athlete, the DZ can be difficult to discern while positioned directly behind another rider. The average bike is 65″ long from leading edge of front wheel, to trailing edge of rear wheel. It’s safe to estimate three bike lengths from your front tire’s leading edge, to the trailing edge of the tire in front of you. Practice will make this easier and will keep you out of the penalty box for DZ fouls. In Ironman events, there are actually Penalty Tents on the bike course that your are required to pull into upon receiving a penalty from a course marshal. Upon arrival and racking your bike, officials hand you a stopwatch and start your penalty-time count down. From there, you get to watch all the people you may have passed, ride on by. The tents are affectionately known as “Ironman County Jail.”

So how big is your matchbook, and do you know when to use it?

Doug Carr

*This is what I call “leap frogging”. I pass you and you pass me, etc. Over a long race with two similarly matched athletes it’s not only unavoidable, it can also be enjoyable if the both athletes like to encourage each other.


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