A sea change in triathlon’s history was triggered because it was decided that drafting – the act of riding in a competitor’s slipstream – couldn’t be properly policed. It was almost 30 years ago, and the switch to draft-legal racing, abolishing the need for triathletes to mind the energy-saving gap, was a critical if controversial step to earning the sport its Olympic bow in Sydney 2000.
The rifts of that period – and there were plenty – have mainly healed, and triathlon has evolved so now short-course draft-legal competition and the longer non-drafting scene reside more or less happily alongside one another.
But the issue of how to solve drafting, or – more bluntly and in the eyes of many – cheating, drags on. For amateurs looking to complete a first Ironman it’s rarely a topic of concern, yet for those who love competition, especially the strong cyclists who feel most compromised, it remains the bane of racing lives.
While different strategies have been adopted to try and enforce fairer racing, such as lengthening draft zones, putting more technical officials (or draft-busters) on course, and even introducing shame-inducing penalty laps on the run, nothing, as yet, has cracked the code.
Solving the drafting problem
It’s long been thought that technology would provide the answer. But would any system be accurate enough, and would anyone be crazy enough to invest the years and cash in devising a niche product that had no guarantee of being embraced by race organisers?
Step forward two former pro triathletes from New Zealand, James Elvery and Dylan McNeice, and rewind nine years to the origins of Race Ranger.
“Dylan was racing long course in the US and was frustrated by the drafting,” Elvery explains. “I remember him saying: ‘Someone is going to solve it with technology. We should have a go.’”
The crux of the issue is being able to reliably track the distance between two moving bicycles and then somehow relay that information to the riders and race officials.
But after the initial excitement led to the pair investigating the use of high-powered lasers (too easily manipulated; must be bright to the point of illegality on a sunny day) and ultrasonic sensors (more accurate, but the sound signals bounce off everything, not just the rider in front), momentum started to fizzle out. Perhaps the tech just wasn’t out there.
Elvery’s motivation was dealt a further blow when French triathlete, Laurent Vidal, who was a best man at Elvery’s wedding, and placed fifth behind the Brownlees [Alistair and Jonny] and [Javier] Gomez in London 2012, tragically died after a cardiac arrest in 2015.
Living on New Zealand’s South Island with a young family to think of, it was Elvery’s wife Tatiana, who helped stir him from the stupor. “She asked: ‘What would Laurent do?’ recalls Elvery.
“He’d never leave any stone unturned, and believed nothing was impossible. I thought there’s nothing stopping me other than hard work and common sense. Then we’ll find out if it can be done.”
More than a labour of love for the Wanaka-based chief executive, the fledgling Race Ranger became a pledge to honour the memory and indefatigable spirit of a best friend. And as anyone who has tried to get a small business off the ground appreciates, there are times when you need the ‘why’ to retain impetus.
Elvery recalls spending night upon night trawling the web for anything linked with distance measurements and wireless technology, and eventually came across Ultra Wide Band (UWB).
The technology has since been implemented in Apple AirTags; small tracking devices that are particularly handy in helping triathletes locate lost bike boxes in transit.
But UWB was predominantly used for tracking objects in warehouses. With locations triangulated from fixed anchors around the buildings, it isn’t affected by temperature or altitude.
Elvery found that over a distance of around 20m (the longest draft zone in triathlon) the accuracy was within 5cm, a significant upgrade on even the sharpest-eyed race referee.
Never not complicated
A potential solution found, Elvery and McNeice now needed the software engineering skills and seed funding to make headway with a prototype.
Moreover, what they needed most was kindred enthusiasm for the project, and in Marcus Clyne, a successful entrepreneur from Christchurch with a track record of “making things that worked”, they found a willing ally.
Along with a government grant, a keen professor and triathlete from the wireless research department at Canterbury University, a university graduate who would make Race Ranger central to his PhD, plus a dad who’d do the books, the business was starting to take shape.
Not that it was ever not complicated. They found that while UWB could get a good measurement between two objects, when a large number (i.e. multiple bikes) needed to communicate at once, the network could become overloaded.
“If we had a dense group riding in one direction and another group coming the other way, it still had to work,” Elvery explains.
The complementary solution became Bluetooth beaconing that works in a similar way to household Bluetooth devices, with messages picked up by receivers that identify themselves and report GPS position.
In layman’s terms, it was a two-tier system that gave an overview of where the field of riders were through GPS, and then precise measurements through UWB when approaching the draft zone.
Still sounding complicated? As Elvery explains: “That’s why it took five years!”
But of course, it also had to look the part. Such is the triathlete’s want for both aesthetics, minimal weight and aerodynamics, the devices had to fit into the smallest possible unit and with four separate antennas it took some engineering “dark arts” to effectively curl it into a tight enough loop, which results in Race Ranger’s distinctive disc shape.
“It also looks inherently different to anything on a bike… and we hoped it might look a bit cool,” Elvery adds.
Other puzzles, such as working out what distance the ‘buffer’ zones should be as riders approach the draft zone (see explanation below) and the colour sequence of the LED lights (green for example can be confused by anyone who is colourblind), were thankfully easier to solve.
How does Race Ranger work?
The system is fiendishly complicated in its development but straightforward to understand for both tired triathletes during a race and technical officials, who can use the information it provides to make informed decisions on issuing penalties.
Assume a standard non-drafting race such as an Ironman with a 12m draft distance rule…
- Cyclist A approaches Cyclist B on the road.
- Cyclist A closes within 16m of Cyclist B and an orange light comes on on Cyclist B’s rear Race Ranger unit.
- When the gap narrows to under 13.5m the light turns red.
- Once Cyclist A crosses the 12m threshold, the light turns blue. They are now in the draft zone and must overtake.
- When Cyclist A passes Cyclist B, Cyclist B’s rear light goes out and Cyclist A’s rear light turns blue showing Cyclist B is now in the draft zone. Cyclist B must now drop back at least 12m.
- The next stage of RaceRanger will alert both the cyclist and the referee to how long they have been in the draft zone, so overtaking cyclists can time their effort without getting a penalty.
Persuading the sport
Yet while all this sounds incredibly exciting for anyone interested in fairer racing, it still needed buy-in from triathlon’s major players, which became the focus of a whistlestop world tour last summer.
Along with a Specialized bike frame, the Race Ranger device and a backpack, Elvery went from the Ironman World Championship to World Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, in Europe, speaking to as many stakeholders as he could.
In partnership with World Triathlon, a first open trial of the technology took place at the Tauranga Half in January, a race on New Zealand’s North Island with the system fitted to all 20 elite athletes’ bikes for the 56-mile ride.
“This is exciting news for the whole triathlon community,” exclaimed World Triathlon president Marisol Casado ahead of the race. “Providing new technologies that will increase the fairness of the competition for all athletes.”
In reality, “there was a lot of drama leading into it for us,” Elvery admits. “My engineer worked through the night all week to fix the issues we’d been seeing.”
A bug fix eventually found in the code proved decisive, and for the elites racing the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s really hard to judge distance and it just takes out the ambiguity,” said fourth-placed pro Sam Osborne, who’d picked up penalties in his first two Ironman 70.3 races at the end of 2022. “It’s just so definitive.
“You see the lights change [as you approach the draft zone] and you can gauge your next move. We need it at every race. Most people don’t intend to draft, they just struggle to gauge it.”
Race Ranger was also trialled at Challenge Wanaka, including on Sebastian Kienle‘s bike, see image below, and will be trialled again at the Ibiza 2023 Multisport World Championships in May; Elvery’s also optimistic about Ironman’s interest, too.
Remote eyes on the field
This is only stage one. Currently, it’s a ‘lights-only’ system where race referees have visual cues from the LEDs on the sensors. It’s when the data is collected and analysed that Race Ranger will really come into its own.
Yes, it can give a snapshot of a rider lingering in the draft zone, but can also take a longer view to provide time-in-zone over a given period, giving agency to home in on the worst offenders rather than those who inadvertently draft for a few seconds when a paceline hits the foot of a hill.
It’s in the power of organisers how to use it, but the referee can have remote eyes on the field throughout. If triathletes already know this, that in itself may be enough to change behaviour.
The touchpad screens can be fixed on the backpack of a motorcycle driver so the officials riding pillion can operate them during the race, but the potential extends further to notify an athlete when they’ve picked up a penalty and served it; the tent being a wireless hotspot to record when the bike arrives and leaves rather than having an official scrambling with multiple stopwatches to clock riders in and out.
To have come this far is a triumph in many respects, but for the product to really become a success it needs to be scalable, and that doesn’t just mean being used by elites. “The aim has always been to scale it to age-groupers,” Elvery says.
“Having it used in professional racing is nice, but doesn’t show investors the ‘hockey stick’ [of growth] they want to see as the next step.”
Research has shown that the uptake might be more favourable in Europe initially, the idea being that Elvery’s team would travel the race circuit in a similar way to how chip timing companies work.
Race organisers would dictate pricing, with the most obvious step for it to be incorporated in the race fee, but it won’t necessarily be foisted on middle-to-back-of-the-pack triathletes.
“One possibility could be taking a 3,000-athlete field, putting the device on all triathletes’ bikes, but only turning it on [fully] for those who want to qualify for the Ironman Worlds, for example,” says Elvery.
There is also the functionality for it to double as a live tracking system superior to the status quo of only knowing when your athlete went over the last timing mat.
Its use should eventually extend to educating the multitude of motorbike drivers required to broadcast and marshal races to keep the requisite distance, too.
Other possibilities include it being used for time trialling in pro cycling to allow riders to be set off at closer intervals, or even using it in the pro peloton and integrating it with a simulation such as Zwift, so you won’t just be watching the Tour de France, but racing it virtually.
All of that is to come. “Literally years of work and countless hours from our team and partners have gone into getting us here,” Elvery says.
Race Ranger is almost his fourth child and deserves to be celebrated as such. Keeping that theme, right now he’d settle for a good night’s sleep.
Drafting rules in triathlon
Drafting rules in triathlon are there to stop a cyclist gaining an energy-saving advantage by tucking in behind another rider.
The rules state that a following cyclist cannot enter the draft zone (the area directly behind the bicycle in front) unless they plan to overtake.
Once within the draft zone, they have a set number of seconds to make the pass, at which point the overtaken rider must drop back to the legal distance.
If the overtaking rider finds themselves immediately in the draft zone of the next rider on the road they must continue overtaking until they have an acceptable gap.
While draft distances vary from race to race, they are typically set from 7m to 20m. The longer the draft zone the more time the triathlete is given to make the pass, ranging from 15secs to 40secs.
If a triathlete is in the draft zone for too long they risk receiving a blue card and time penalty from the race officials.
Top image credit: Challenge Family