Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Proposed Solution to Crowding/Drafting at the Nations Tri

As many people who have witnessed and/or raced the Nations Tri know, it tends to get a little crowded.  And by a little, I mean A LOT.  There are nearly 6000 racers, spread out over a 25 mile course, some of which consists of a single lane of road with both out and back bike traffic each way, separated by cones. With crowding comes a whole host of other issues, the least of which includes (at minimum), the following:
  • Cases where it is nearly impossible to prevent drafting from occurring in the vast majority of people racing
  • Cases where passing large groups of riders all moving at similar speeds within a single lane becomes a game of tetris to find out where your little piece of a bike can fit between the other objects
  • Passing on the right, other times between people, and worst of all, crossing over the double yellow lines into oncoming traffic, simply because there was no room to successfully execute a pass
  • No room for officials who are on motorcycles trying to observe what is going on to safely ride within the same course as participants
  • An inability to issue any penalty violations due to the aforementioned issues with the course and resulting crowding on it - you simply can't fault someone for drafting if they have no other option for where to go
To make matters worse, this year's race was forced to cancel the swim.  The race was unable to secure an additional run course to start to race, so it became a Bike --> Run race, with participants running into transition with their assigned swim waves.  Separation out on the course was based on how quickly one would transition onto their bike.  Needless to say, large packs were both leaving transition and racing the course together with minimal spreading of the field.

I realize little could be done at the last minute to make this any different and I applaud the race for adapting quickly to the changing environment.  However, I still feel like this race leaves so much to be desired, based on the way it is currently structured.  So I came up with a few ideas that I feel could help improve the race experience and minimize many of the issues that cause others to make the same complaints:

  • Make the race draft legal:  Doing so would not only establish this race as one of the few unique draft legal races out there, but it would negate the need for everyone and their mother to complain about how much drafting was going on and how little control over their race they had as a result of trying to stay out of the draft zone of other riders.  While you can try to stay out of trouble by avoiding packs, I find it nearly impossible to do so in the current design.  With 5000+ participants, I find it highly unlikely that this race can create a method where participants are not forced into draft packs out on the course.  Despite most people's best efforts, unless you are in an early wave, you will be on the course surrounded by others.  And once you get to those single lane roads, there is nowhere no go, which forces participants into a situation where they are drafting, but in most cases unintentionally. Making the race draft legal provides an opportunity for people to ride however they wish.  If they choose to ride solo, they can do it.  If they want to jump on the train of riders coming by (which I observed many people doing anyways), then have at it.  Making it draft legal gives people the option to ride within their means of comfort, whatever that may be.
  • Change the bike course route:  While I am not a fan of looped courses, I feel like changing the course to remain almost exclusively on Independence and Constitution Ave would result in wider roads to minimize some of the crowding, create an enhanced spectator experience, and offer a true tour of DC monuments and sights.  I know they tried to get a permit for use of the GW Parkway this year, which was ultimately denied, but I still feel like this option would provide a better race experience.  The current course barely covers much of what I consider "recognizable" parts of DC. You do a quick loop out and back on Independence and then head out to Clara Barton Parkway, which is a nice tree lined road, but not (in my opinion) something that would draw people from all over the world to come experience.  And neither would riding on GW Parkway, although it could potentially provide wider roads.  If I were traveling to DC, I'd want to be on a course that showcases the best of DC and to me, that is the notable monuments and sights.  Rather, I'd propose a 3 looped course, such as the one shown, that covers the entire Mall, passing by every notable monument and Government structure, while on much wider roads.  And since we've now made the race draft legal (see point above), there are fewer issues due to the likely crowding that would occur as a result of a lopped course.  However, there are also a number of hills to keep the race honest and not just turn into a super flat cycling crit.  3 loops is sure to cause a number of its own issues with crowding from earlier/later waves as more people are out on the course, but having much wider roads would negate that somewhat in my opinion. With the wider roads, slower riders can remain to the right, while faster riders continue to pass on the left as they normally would.
I think these are the only major changes that I would  make, but I believe they would drastically improve the race.  Would this create other issues?  Probably.  But I truly believe that the safety and enjoyment of those that participate in these events is what keeps people coming back.  While I realize 3 loops of a bike course is not not appealing at first glance, I think it is pretty darn cool to be able to bike that route on a closed road.  And for someone who comes from out of town to do that, I can only imagine it is even cooler.

It is one thing to travel to a location and race in that city to see its unique characteristics (and sometimes, there aren't even any unique characteristics!).  DC offers a unique experience no other city anywhere can offer - to race among the historic landmarks representing those that that helped found this country and continue to influence it today.  Placing a race smack in the center of it all would be the epitome of a race worthy of the title as one of the premier triathlons in the world.  And adopting these principles to achieve that would, in my opinion, put it well on its way to achieving that.

1 comment:

Sean in NY said...

Hey Adam, I think you've realized that the main problem of the DC TRI is too many people. Assuming that wouldn't change, and looking at your proposed improvements, I think I have to disagree with you on both of them. First though, I think we could both agree that way fewer participants could solve many of the overcrowding + drafting problems.

>>> Drafting <<<
Simply put, the majority of triathletes have NO idea how to ride safely as a group. Nobody would want a first-time racer sucking their wheel as they went down a steep hill and into a turn. Making it draft legal, if anything, takes away the option of many racers to ride within their means of comfort. You would now be faced with some racers bearing down on others who are not comfortable with drafting, yet they would have no other choice but to slow down and sacrifice their own performance in order to discourage someone behind them from racing so closely. This would also wreak havoc on road organization since large packs would form that could essentially block the road for other racers. On any course, except for one that's at least, if not more than 3-lanes of road in each direction, this would be a major issue. It would be one thing if referees were instructed to turn a blind eye in situations where they deem it unavoidable, but you would be crossing an entirely new threshold if you created a scenario where it was openly encouraged.

>>> The Course <<<
You're right about the course doing next-to-nothing to really showcase the city. It is truly a shame that such a popular race barely touches any of the major monuments or attractions. While I like your idea of the looped course, I think this race has become too large (# of participants) for this to be an adequate solution. You said it yourself - there are currently around 6,000 participants operating on a very narrow bike-course. By shortening the course to 1/3 of its original size and putting in on wider roads, you're essentially just repackaging the problem. It will still be ridiculously crowded, with faster riders overtaking slower riders with much greater frequency.

>>> Conclusion <<<
Of course, it's much easier to criticize proposed solutions rather than dream up a better one myself, so I applaud your concerns and efforts to make this a much more enjoyable, SAFER race. In the end, there are simply too many participants for the course they have laid out, which we both know leads to many other problems (drafting, blocking and general over-crowdedness). A better course could help diminish these problems, but at the end of the day they would still be frequent enough to be an issue.

My only thought would be to switch over to a system like that of the NYC Tri: Come up with a number for the max race capacity that would largely mitigate the aforementioned problems, and then use a lottery system to fill those slots. This would give race organizers much more control over striving towards the best possible racing experience for all racers. And hell, I'd even pay a little more if that's what it takes.

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