Is Sanders Stuck? For Now… Yup.

Lionel was kind enough to read and reply to the first post. His response was that the sport of triathlon is at a crossroad, sticking to his guns that the physical draft at 10m is insufficient as it gives an unfair advantage to those who in Lionel’s opinion are not competitive on the bike.

I do not agree that the sport of triathlon is at a crossroad. The 10m draft has been in place for what… three, going on four decades, but now, in 2016, all of a sudden drafting on the bike is the issue. I find it hard to believe that all of a sudden drafting is the defining issue for the Ironman brand, and iron distance triathlons.

As an aside, it is rather convenient to argue that drafting in the bike portion needs to be addressed, but drafting in the swim and run portions are immaterial. If drafting at 10m on the bike gives an unfair advantage then what about drafting in the swim and on the run? Seems rather selective to focus solely on drafting on the bike. Seems to be an issue of self preservation for one or a small group of athletes, not an issue risking the viability of the sport of triathlon.

Anyhow… none of this is consequential to iron distance triathlons, to the Ironman brand, nor Ironman Corporation.

The sport of iron distance triathlons is not at a crossroad, here’s why…

Ironman Corporation has one sole objective:

  • If its a publicly traded company in China, then it must increase revenues, profits and cash flow in order that its stock price appreciates;
  • If its a privately held company in China, then it must increase cash flows in order to return to its shareholders their investment, and then earn them an ROI.

That’s it. Ironman Corporation has one focus: shareholder ROI.  No, not ROI for Sanders, or the other pro triathletes, all that matters is the cash it brings in for its owners.  Ironman Corp ‘cares’ about triathlon, age group, and pro triathletes only to the extent that they fulfill the above goals. That’s it. It is not some charitable entity vested into retaining the history of triathlon, the meaning that triathlons hold for any one athlete, they are in triathlon to make money off it, and off you as a triathlete. If as a pro you help Ironman Corp in its goals, good for you, but that doesn’t mean it owes you anything in exchange. If anything, you already have a career as a pro because Ironman Corp puts on events, so from the boardroom of Ironman Corp. you’ve got all that’s coming to you. Besides, Ironman Corp knows one thing… if any one pro steps down, there are at least ten who will gladly – and without complaint re: draft zone size – step up and take the spot. To Ironman Corp, whether one pro races or not makes not one iota of difference to them.

With this in mind, how on earth is the sport at a crossroad? It isn’t.

Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) owns and operates the Tour de France along with other prolific events in Europe. In operating the cycling events it owns, the ASO complies and upholds UCI (the international governing body for the sport of cycling) regulations, but the ASO could easily run the Tour without the UCI. The Tour de France has become so significant in the sport of cycling, so significant to the corporations marketing and advertising through the World Tour Teams they sponsor, so significant to the career of pro cyclists that the UCI needs the Tour and ASO more than ASO needs the UCI. If the ASO saw that it would be advantageous to set its own rules and standards, to say adieu to the UCI, then there is nothing stopping them. The UCI could threaten not to sanction the Tour, but sanctioning is immaterial. Too many cycling pros feel the Tour is more important than the Olympics.

Ironman Corporation is in an identical position to ASO. It doesn’t need the ITU, it doesn’t need its rules, it simply uses them and will use them until it no longer suits their needs. So what would cause Ironman Corporation to go it alone, and create its own rules and standards of competition?  If generating a ROI for its sharesholders is its priority, then there is only one answer: money.  If there is the chance that the money would roll in if Ironman changed the rules, then I see no reason why they wouldn’t. Widening the draft zone to 20m does nothing except risk declining revenues and profit, so I actually see the opposing argument, one for reducing or eliminating the draft zone in iron distance events:

  • If the goal of Ironman Corp is to add more and more participants to events (i.e. maximize capacity utilization), then that means squeezing in more and more cyclists onto the roads and highways. How is any event going to squeeze more participants, and ensure that those participants are able to compete safely if the draft zone is 20m? The average athlete can barely hold wattage steady, but now you are asking them to surge for 20m to pass another athlete, and if they were polite, another 20m to put another 20m between.  The average triathlete can barely bike a straight line and you want them surging for a relative 40m, which would likely require them to attack over an absolute distance of 400 to 1000m? Are you kidding? If there was a large pack, and an athlete had to pass several riders in a row, then what? Passing would require the athlete to attack for perhaps a few kilometers in order to avoid getting stuck in any draft zone, risk a penalty or a DQ. How does that make the sport more attractive to new entrants? To growing participation? It doesn’t.

Strike one against a 20m draft zone.

  • If the goal of Ironman Corp is to continue to be seen as a relevant sport, then it needs course records to be set on a fairly regular basis.  On the men’s side, there hasn’t been a course record in such a long time that Ironman Corp had to fabricate that Patrick Lange set a new marathon record (2:39.33).  He did not. Mark Allen’s marathon time (2:40.04) includes his T2, Lange’s doesn’t. If you subtract any time for T2 (e.g. Patrick Lange’s T2: 2mins 43secs) from Allen’s marathon time, then Allen still holds the record. Mark Allen and Dave Scott were asked by Bob Babbitt about the lack of course records, what in their opinion is the root cause of the lack of records. Both replied that there is too much accelerating and decelerating by the pros in the bike portion, and that’s with a 10m draft zone. A 20m draft zone would magnify accelerating and decelerating, thereby virtually eliminating any hope of a course record. If Ironman Corp is already straining to remain relevant on televised media, then a 20m draft zone makes no sense whatsoever.

Strike two against a 20m draft zone.

  • If the goal is to maximize revenue potential, then broadcasting iron distance events needs to be entertaining.  The bike portion of iron distance events (for the masses) is boring, its a 6hr snooze fest, where the commentators desperately down play the massive gaps, making it seem that rivals are constantly battling it out for the lead. If Ironman Corp wants to turn its events into riveting, head to head racing that sells advertising then the last thing to do is to widen the draft zone to 20m. If pros from draft legal ITU races start to move up to iron distance races, then the reality is more likely to be that they will bring drafting along with them, selling Ironman Corp on non stop racing from start to finish. How does increasing advertising revenues sound to a for profit corporation in comparison to the plan of a 20m draft zone benefiting a handful of old pros who cannot swim, making watching Ironman worse than watching paint dry?

Strike three against a 20m draft zone.

Lionel Sanders may be at a crossroad as a pro triathlete, but the sport of iron distance triathlons is not (in regards to drafting).  With the Ironman brand recently acquired, there is undoubtedly goals to scale operations, to maximize ROI, and whether Lionel Sanders is competing as a pro is irrelevant to the grand scheme of it all.

As per the prior post, evolve or go extinct, there is no in-between.

2 thoughts on “Is Sanders Stuck? For Now… Yup.

  1. MGrodski Post author

    Quite the coincidence that today, Triathlon Magazine Canada has two articles regarding the proposed changes to triathlon at the Olympics. Instead of the Olympic distance (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run), the ITU is looking to have the sprint distance (750m swim, 20k bike, 5k run) as the competition in 2020 Japan, with the return of the Olympic distance at the following Olympics in 2024. Why? For mass appeal and marketing. “Its quicker and more dynamic from a spectator point of view.”

    Imagine the pros who woke up this morning to learn that their sport has been turned on its head… with their race being halved in distance and in time, and with the possibility of having to qualify for finals, as the short sprint distance would allow prelims to be held.

    Triathlete pros need to figure it out fast – if they haven’t already – that its not about them, the sport is either about mass appeal for the Federations in order to remain in the Olympics, or its about money for event management companies running non Olympic competitions. What the pros think is irrelevant, its what the market thinks.


  2. MGrodski Post author

    Could not have asked for better timing on this sort of news…

    Just to prove how big event organizers “need” any of the sport federations today posted an article sharing that the major tour operators (i.e. ASO which runs the Tour de France & Vuelta A Espana, and RCS Sports which run the Giro d’Italia) agreed to reduce the # of riders per team allowed into the event.


    In response, the UCI (Union CYcliste Internationale) issued a statement that event organizers cannot change the rules without the approval of the UCI.


    Really? And what is going to stop ASO and RCS from doing as they please? The UCI is powerless. This should serve as a wakeup call to athletes, teams, clubs, and sponsors… event organizers once big enough can and will attract not only the athletes but the sponsorship to make their events. If the event is a non Olympic sport, then there is absolutely no power that the sport federation holds over the event management company.

    If the event is an Olympic sport but the sport federation is sufficiently ignorant to believe that it must be in control, that its ass must be kissed… well, then those sports federations are going to eventually be informed that the times are changing. The centralized power that the sports federations wield is a dinosaur that just hasn’t met its tar pit (yet). Its time will come, and with it sport and sporting events will evolve again, like they have in the past many many times.

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