Triathlons are an interesting sport because it seems like there aren't any rules to keep track of. It's not like soccer, where you get in trouble for holding the ball in your hands, or basketball where you have to dribble a certain amount while you're moving, or any other team sports that have whole books of rules. In triathlon, if you are propelling yourself toward the finish line and you stay on the course, it doesn't seem that complicated.However one of the primary tenets of triathlon is that each participant stands on his own and doesn't gain an advantage from anyone else. At least in most races. (There are some ITU/draft-legal races in the United States, but it's not common for age-groupers.)The governing body for our sport is USA Triathlon, and their full rule book covering rules to keep athletes safe and keep them from having an unfair advantage is located here.An easy-to-read list of the most common triathlon rule violations is here.In this article, we will focus on the rules governing drafting (riding close behind another rider to stay out of the wind) because these are the rules that provoke the most questions.Drafting is great in training because it allows two riders of different fitness levels to ride together. In races (unless the race is draft legal) it is not permitted. And while it seems easy to say "No Drafting," reading the legal definition of it can be a bit confusing.If you prefer to take the common-sense view, simply don't ride too close behind anyone. If someone passes you, and now you are too close behind them, drop back within a few seconds rather than continue to ride their wheel.The tricky part comes when you are the one passing someone. The rules state that once you enter someone's draft zone in order to pass, you must overtake them, and quickly. As a small, female rider, I used to get very anxious about this rule. What if I begin to pass someone, they notice I'm passing, and they speed up? I'm required to overtake them, but what if I physically can't do it?First of all, almost no one is ever penalized for the scenario I described above. The rule is there partially to prevent you from riding side-by-side with another rider, chit chatting and blocking the lane. Secondly, if a rider is being passed and they suddenly speed up to keep you from overtaking, that's not a good strategy for them. If they were smart, they would allow you to pass, take maximum advantage of the 15 seconds they are allowed to slip behind you and get some rest while in your draft zone, then pass you back. Thirdly, I've tried to come up with other ways of writing the rule that keep people out of each other's draft zone, and there's not a great alternative. If you aren't trying to gain an unfair advantage, you're unlikely to be penalized. I did get a penalty once during a crowded half-iron race when there were a lot of cyclists clumped together. I was in someone's draft zone more than the allotted time. I wasn't sucking their wheel. I was exhausted trying to keep going on a bent rim after my rear wheel detached in the middle of a tight turn earlier in the race, and I was struggling to keep my head up high enough to see the cyclists in front of me. Did the time penalty ruin my day? Only because I let it. I wasn't in contention for a top placement anyway.There are specific exceptions in the rules for tight corners and other circumstances in which riders can't help but be too close together.Here are the full drafting rules, printed below:5.10 Position Fouls. In accordance with the Rules as set forth in this section, a participant is not permitted to position his bicycle in the proximity of another moving vehicle so as to benefit from reduced air resistance. While on the cycling course, participants shall not work together to improve performance, efficiency, or position by teamwork or other joint conduct. A variable time penalty shall be imposed for any violation of this section. This section shall not apply to off-road triathlons and duathlons and shall be excluded from enforcement at those events. a. Drafting. Except as otherwise provided in these Rules, while on the cycling course, no participant shall permit his drafting zone to intersect with or remain intersected with the drafting zone of another cyclist or that of a motor vehicle. With respect to a motor vehicle (including authorized race vehicles); it is the athlete’s responsibility to move out of the vehicle’s drafting zone or to continually communicate to the vehicle to move away. b. Definition of Drafting Zone. The term "drafting zone" shall refer to a rectangular area seven (7) meters long and two (2) meters wide surrounding each bicycle. The longer sides of the zone begin at the leading edge of the front wheel and run backward parallel to the bicycle; the front wheel divides the short side of the zone into two equal parts. With respect to a moving motor vehicle, the "drafting zone" is a rectangular area extending 15 meters to each side of the vehicle and 30 meters behind the vehicle. c. Right-of -Way. A participant is generally entitled to assume any otherwise proper location on the cycling course provided that the participant arrives in the position first without contacting another participant. When taking a position near another participant, however, a cyclist shall not crowd the other participant and shall allow reasonable space for the other participant to make normal movement without making contact. d. Blocking. Cyclists must not block or obstruct the progress of another participant. e. Passing. A participant who approaches another cyclist from the rear or from another unfavorable position bears primary responsibility for avoiding a position foul even if the cyclist being approached alters speed. A participant must not attempt to pass another cyclist unless adequate space is available and the athlete is confident of his/her ability to pass the other cyclist. All passing is to be done to the left of the cyclist being overtaken unless otherwise specified. f. Position. Except for reasons of safety and when no advantage is gained, all cyclists shall keep to the right of the prescribed course unless passing. g. Being Overtaken. When the leading edge of the front wheel of one cyclist passes beyond the front wheel of another cyclist, the second cyclist has been "overtaken" within the meaning of these Rules. A cyclist who has been overtaken bears primary responsibility for avoiding a position foul and must immediately move to the rear and out of the drafting zone of the passing cyclist. The overtaken cyclist shall first move completely out of the drafting zone of the other cyclist before attempting to re-pass the other cyclist. h. Exceptions. A participant may enter the drafting zone without penalty only under the following conditions:
(1) When entering the drafting zone from the rear, closing the gap, and overtaking all within no more than 15 seconds. (2) When cyclist reduces speed for safety reasons, for course blockage, for an aid station, for an emergency, when entering or exiting a transition area, or when making a turn of 90 degrees or more; or (3) When USA Triathlon or the Head Referee expressly excludes a section of the bicycle course from the position foul rules because of overly narrow lanes, construction, detours, or a similar reason.