I was a pretty active triathlete from the mid 1980's to the mid-1990's. It was a great experience being part of triathlon in Canada in the 1980's. The sport was still new and the community was close knit and open to anyone. My first triathlon is a bittersweet memory. I bought a bike and entered my first tri (London, ON) just a couple of weeks later. The race itself was very, very painful. The swim and bike were actually not too bad. I can remember seeing a friend on the early part of the run course, as I was heading back into the transition. I can also remember thinking to myself that I was going to get of the bike and run him down. Except that I literally lost the ability to run. It took every ounce of energy just to walk/jog/crawl the 10km run.
If this was what triathlon had turned into in the 10 years since I'd left the sport it was a big, big disappointment. But I decided to reserve judgment. So this year, I've been watching as many of the new, Dextro Energy Triathlon, ITU World Championship Series, as I can to see if the pattern I'd witnessed live was in fact a common theme. Sure enough it seems it is. The swim and bike are essentially neutralized, making the typical ITU "triathlon' nothing more than a glorified 10k run. Plus the bike section is very, very boring. Right up there with watching paint dry or grass grow.
- Introduce trade teams. If you make the teams large enough (minimum 5 athletes, not the 2 or 3 we saw at the Olympics) they allow for the real introduction of tactics. If the teams are large enough they can be tweaked to suit different courses. For example on a hilly course you might have 3 swim bike specialists and 2 all rounders (or one all rounder and one run specialist). This would allow teams to initiate breaks that would be large enough to make significant time gaps (not the typical 90 seconds or under that always result in a catch by the run specialists). Breaks need at least 3 minutes to make it hard for the runners. Teams also allow the introduction of counter-attacks if an initial break is brought back and other tactics like blocking etc. This would make the bike (and the swim) section more meaningful.
- Introduce greater variability into the courses. This includes both terrain and distance. Why does the ITU feel the need to stick to the same boring distance for every race (1.5/40/10). This too makes the race predictable and generally means that the same athletes are going to end up on the podium most of the time. The ITU would do well to take a page out of cycling's Classics races which have highly variable terrain and distances which suit very different athletes. Early classics like Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris Roubaix suit big strongmen like Boonen, Cancellara and Hushovd, while later classics like Liege and Amstel Gold suit climbers who can can pack a punch (Cunego, Rebellin, Bettini). Then there's San Remo custom built for the sprinters like Zabel, Cavendish and Freire. The point is that the courses favour different riders and team compositions. It makes if fun and interesting. Why can't the ITU make some of the bike courses longer and more difficult so that it has more of an impact on the race?
- Teach the athletes how to ride. There's no excuse for the terrible bike handling skills we see regularly at the ITU races. These guys are supposed to be the top pros in the field and yet you regularly see bizarre crashes. Kitzbuhel is a perfect example. There was a crash in the middle of the pack on a perfectly wide, straight, flat road. Even the crashes on the one corner were strange. It was a wide sweeping corner. I've been in master's races where we've descended at over 60km/h over terrible roads (sand, broken road) and seen fewer crashes than the pristine courses these guys ride on. There's no excuse for this but the terrible bike handling skills could also be a factor on why there's so little action on the bike.