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Why draft legal racing will make you a better cyclist

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Words: Tom Epton 

The Olympics are here, and that means that draft legal triathlon is about to be front and centre of the triathlon world for the next few weeks. Draft legal racing is over a short distance, it’s fast and exciting. It differs from long course racing in a number of ways but the two main differences are the fact that drafting, sheltering behind other riders, is allowed on the bike and the races are short taking between one and two hours. This means they’re raced at a very hard pace and involve very close finishes. The best thing about draft legal racing, by far, is that you can have a go at it! There are a number of reasons to do this.

Firstly, draft legal triathlon is really fun. There is nothing quite like the feeling of being in a bunch on the bike working well together trying to hold the chasing pack off or closing the gap to the fastest swimmers. It’s the form of triathlon which is the purest ‘race’ in the sense of the word. The best tactics are to be in the front group from the start and have as smooth a ride as possible to transition two then it’s time to get your trainers on and bury yourself. Empty the tank and run like a large number of people are chasing you down – because they probably are!

Photo: Pads Dads Pics

Racing draft legal triathlon is a skill in its own right but it will also develop you as an athlete more generally. There’s no coincidence that most of the best long course athletes started off racing this format. There’s a number of reasons that draft legal triathlon will improve your race craft across all distances.

It makes you a better athlete in a number of ways, including but not limited to…

Transition improvement

It takes (broadly speaking) six weeks of training to see a significant difference in performance. What if you can achieve gains that amount to the same time savings by just transitioning faster? Draft legal racing forces athletes to focus on transition as only a few seconds lost here can make or break your race! This can be frustrating but it really forces you to develop your skills in T1 to ensure you make that bike pack! In longer course and non drafting racing savings of seconds in each transition by simply running a bit faster through T1, nailing a flying mount and flying dismount can make a big change to your race result. Especially if you’re vying for a top age group position or a Kona slot.

Swim improvement

On a similar note to improving transition ‘making the pack’ is also a reason to really focus on your swim. I know a lot of triathletes struggle to motivate themselves to push hard in the pool or really focus on swimming but the thought of missing that pack can provide the fire needed to drag yourself down to the local leisure centre. The saying ‘you can’t win a race from the swim, but you can definitely lose it’ is more true in draft legal racing than any other kind of triathlon.

Bike handling improvement

Once you’ve made that pack you’re going to have to ride in it. Where you position yourself and how much work you do in the group are decisions you need to make and these need to be different dependent on the race dynamic. For example, if you’re in a front group keeping away a chasing pack and you’re less confident in your run then you might want to work hard but if you have a team mate up the road then you might think twice about contributing to the pace of the chasing pack. All of these decisions need to be made at high speed in close proximity to other riders. This stress on your decision making can improve clarity of thought when racing over longer distances helping you stay relaxed and not get the dreaded ‘race brain’.

Top end improvement

One of the main differences on the bike in draft legal racing is the need to go full gas at periods in the race to make contact, break contact or keep contact with the group you’re in. This means you need to learn to go into the red and then recover while still riding fairly hard. The ability to do this raises your overall ceiling meaning that your power output at submaximal levels will also be improved. On top of this, it’s faster to ride non-drafting races in a somewhat varied way (using your energy up the hills and recovering on descents for example) so the ability to go into the red and recover fast, as is necessary in draft legal racing, will improve all types of your cycling leg in a triathlon.

Running off a stochastic bike

Studies have shown that normalised power is a key factor in determining an athletes speed off the bike. Put simply, you’re much more likely to run well off a bike which is smooth than one which involves lots of sprinting. This makes sense as an athlete but a smooth bike ride isn’t always optimal so learning to run off a bike with a high power variability is a skill which transcends all types of racing.

Getting used to higher speeds

Finally, in a draft legal race, everything happens very quickly. The swim start is hard, the first buoy is physical and everything else in the race is done at maximal speed. This means you need to get used to racing, taking on nutrition and making decisions at high speed. Being able to do all the things you normally do in a race but fast will improve all your times across all types of the sport.

In short, draft legal triathlon is great fun and will improve your race-craft and skills which will lead to better results across all distances. Head over to British Triathlon’s ‘find an event’ tab and select the draft legal option under race type to find one near you. As restrictions are removed they’re becoming easier to find and will continue to do so into winter with draft legal duathlons and then into 2022. Draft legal triathlon will improve your overall triathlon performance and, above all, is really fun.

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