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Is the technology on its way to get rid of drafting in triathlon?

First competition test for the RaceRanger system takes place in New Zealand

Photo by: World Triathlon/ RaceRanger

We’re used to seeing technology used to evaluate calls in many sports (video replays, the Hawk-Eye Line-Calling system in tennis, etc.), but triathlon continues to rely on subjective judgements of its officials when it comes to enforcing the rules. In the future that might change when it comes to drafting calls.

This weekend’s Tauranga Half triathlon in New Zealand will go down in history as the first competition trial of the RaceRanger draft detection system. We wrote about the RaceRanger system when it was announced in November 2021 – it’s a system designed by a couple of Kiwi triathletes (James Elvery and Dylan McNiece) backed by the World Triathlon Sport department.

The RaceRanger system is designed to take the guesswork out of drafting calls.

“The system makes accurate measurements of the distance between athletes while they ride,” World Triathlon wrote in a press release announcing this weekend’s trial. “The rear unit features 3 coloured lights that signal backwards to a following competitor, providing information about their following distance. In future, the system will detect when infringements are occurring and send this data to technical officials patrolling the course, via a tablet app interface. The official will assesses the situation in real-time and can then make a decision on whether a penalty needs to be applied through the system.”

Photo: RaceRanger

The 24 elite racers in Tauranga will race with RaceRanger devices and the system will be evaluated by Triathlon New Zealand and World Triathlon technical officials.

“We are thrilled to finally bring RaceRanger into the real world this week, to be used on bikes in a race,” said RaceRanger founder and CEO Elvery. “It is our long held and firm belief that RaceRanger will fundamentally change our sport for the better, improving transparency around the drafting rules and removing subjective guesses by both athletes and officials. Using RaceRanger for the first time really is one of those technological advancements that just make immediate sense to the users, and it is hard to imagine going back to the ‘old way.’”

Photo: RaceRanger

“Literally years of work and countless hours from our team and partners have gone into getting us here,” Elvery continued. “While the system is not yet fully operational and 100% polished, we feel it is important to get it in the hands of athletes as early as possible. In sport, as in product development, there is nothing like a race to accelerate progress!”

So, will this stop drafting?

In theory, yes, but for the system to work, triathletes will have to buy in. While it’s easy to see pro events utilizing the technology, but one would imagine the costs for outfitting an entire age group race would be immense.

But are age group athletes at, say, Ironman races, sick enough of drafting issues to be willing to pay for the technology at their races? It’s hard to imagine Ironman or Challenge Family picking up the cost of this technology and not passing the added expense on to the athletes.

The other issue is that for races with thousands of participants, the fact that the system will ultimately be dependent on an official making a call will be a huge limiting factor. The technology makes it easier to make a call, but if there aren’t enough people to make the calls, we won’t be much further ahead.

All of those are issues that can be overcome, though, if the triathlon community is serious about doing something about drafting. RaceRanger offers a great solution to an issue that plagues many races. Its success will depend on whether or not people are willing to pay for fairer races.