The words leapt off the webpage and stuck in the mind in much the same way as a wet mackerel to the face. Surely not?
But it was true. Drafting had been introduced in the sprint category of age-group triathlons in the previous year. Not many people had died, and thus health and safety at British Triathlon (and perhaps also, more crucially, their brothers and sisters at British Triathlon Insurance) had seen fit to approve it for the second year. I signed up without hesitation.
My confidence was high, the results this year have been good. 2nd in Edinburgh in January, and a maiden win at St Neots only 2 weeks hence. This was a different kettle of fish however. This race offered the chance to qualify for the Sprint World Championships in Rotterdam and would therefore bring a few good beasts out of hiding. Competition was sure to be rife.
Sure enough, upon arrival at Eton Dorney, the atmosphere was professional. Human Race Events are always slick and this was no different. Tannoys boomed. Extremely lean men and women walked around wearing jackets riddled with sponsor’s logos. Expensive bike hubs clicked menacingly through the early morning breeze and compression socks were everywhere. I was wearing a yellow and black striped hoody several sizes too big. I looked, for all intents and purposes, like a large wasp. I hoped it was intimidating.
Transition was a who’s who of expensive bike manufacturers. Top of the range Cervelos and Specialiseds hung, already racked and ready for action. Athletes slouched nonchalantly around the fringes. Heart rates low. Calm. There were no Sea Slugs here. An earlier wave was out on the course, athletes already whizzing round the Eton Dorney rowing lake – the outer rim road humming thick with the whir of Zipp carbon wheels slicing through the breeze.
My wave – male under 30 – was called to the start line and quickly ushered into the water. I spent too long chatting to a friend and was last in. Unfortunately, due to the start line being extremely narrow, this meant I was right at the back. Not good news for a good swim time.
The hooter went, and carnage ensued. The water turned white and frothy as limbs flailed, desperately grasping for some purchase in the water. Due to the limited space, my first few strokes were all neoprene, and I received a few elbows and feet in return. It took longer than usual to thin out, but thin out it did, eventually. I made headway through the field, but was still well down on where I wanted to be.
Climbing out of the water, I dashed for T1, completely forgetting the golden rule of Swim Exit.
“You absolutely must take your hat and goggles off as soon as you exit the water, otherwise you end up looking like a plonker.”
This photo is a prime example.
I ran on, furiously battling to extract myself from the grips of my wetsuit, desperate to get out onto the bike leg in a decent group in order not to lose any further places.
The bike leg. What all the pre-race chat had been about. Draft legal. What this meant was that you could position yourself directly behind someone whilst cycling, thereby gaining an aerodynamic benefit and having to expend less effort. Usually this is not allowed for safety, but as mentioned above there had been a change of rules in the previous year. Opportunity was abound.
Clearly the best tactics would be to find someone quick and sit on them for 20km, doing absolutely nothing and leaving yourself fresh for the run. However, finding such an altruistic person in a field of ultra competitive athletes would be difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, next best and optimal, was to find a group of similarly paced athletes and work together, sharing the work in order to gain maximum benefit for all involved. It was essentially, an enormous game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, albeit played out on bikes at 45kph+. Cooperate – high speed and high fatigue. Defect – low speed and low fatigue.
Most people seemed to be defecting. I had caught up with a group that was strung out like a concertina, the lead man alternating between pedalling furiously and weaving over the road trying to wave people through to help share the work load. Nobody was helping, the group was snaking all over the road, and he was caught between trying to lose the parasites on his tail and hoping someone would help.
I sat on the back for a minute or so, catching my breath and observing the lead man’s plight. This group was going nowhere, so I had to pass them, but in doing so would risk becoming the next person the group would cling to. A chicane approached and I moved to the front to make my move. The group weaved around the bend, the concertina stretching. I put on a spurt of speed, and as I passed the lead man, pointed at him and motioned for him to get on my wheel. I couldn’t see, but heard the clicking of gears as he accelerated. Hoping he was on my tail, I pushed hard. Glancing back I could see the elastic stretching before finally snapping, the rest of the group dropping away, broken – we were away. He took the front and we exchanged a few words, agreeing to cooperate going forward. Another rider joined shortly after and we formed a trio for the rest of the race, alternating turns and keeping the average speed high enough to prevent anyone else latching onto us.
Other riders appeared to be less successful. A few, mainly futile, skirmishes followed by confused and disorderly cease fires seemed to be the order of play, with some unfortunate people faring even worse. One man missed a corner entirely and went straight off the road into a hedge, whilst another was seen lying face down in some reeds next to the lake. In fairness, both of these may have had nothing to do with difficulties of racing and may merely have been attempts to find a lost shoe.
We saw little of this however, furiously pedalling, rotating and focussing on nothing other than the wheel in front, making our way up the field. 30 maniacal minutes and 4 laps later, we approached T2, elated at having survived and made the most of the bike leg. Physically however, I was fairly spent. The two athletes I had been cycling with bounded off on the run, leaving me plodding in their wake. Remembering St Neots, I forcefully restrained myself from trying to follow them and running off too quickly, trying to keep an even pace and settle in. This seemed to work, and after the briefest of mini-sicks at the turnaround point, I began to feel better and decided to push it back in, crossing the line not too long after.
[The mini-sick was no doubt caused by my now, oft quoted, stock phrase: “Always, always try something new on race day.” Today’s was a new gel, and it was foul.]
The post race analysis revealed much of what was already known. A slower than desired swim, a storming bike, and solid run had left me in 20th position and 4th in age group. This was a very satisfying result, a lot higher than I had been in previous races of the same calibre, and with it I had earned a qualification spot for the sprint World Championships in Rotterdam this coming September.
An excellent day out all in all, wonderful weather and well organised. Sadly, I just missed out on my main aim of the day – fastest T2 – and the chance to win a suite of incredible prizes, but I suppose it’s always good to to have something to work towards next year.