How to Legally Draft on the Bike in a Triathlon

To those most intimate with the sport, drafting on the bike in triathlon is language to be feared.

Draft-legal races – meaning the ability to draft behind others on the bike leg without penalty – are few and far between in the triathlon world, especially in the United States.

However, the non-draft triathlon is a bit of a misnomer. Drafting on the bike is still legally available to all, albeit to a much lesser degree. This is due to the nature of USAT and WTC non-drafting rules for age group athletes.

The USAT rulebook upholds that “no participant shall permit his drafting zone to intersect with or remain intersected with the drafting zone of a leading cyclist or that of a motor vehicle” (“Competitive Rules”).

What is the aforementioned “drafting zone”? According to the USAT rulebook, the zone is a “rectangular area seven 7 meters long (23 feet) and two 2 meters wide (6.5 feet) surrounding each bicycle” (“Competitive Rules”).

With that said, let’s get down to brass tacks (and let it be known that this is just this writer’s opinion based on experience). Seven meters is not a lot of distance. Why?

The reason is because the longer section of the draft zone is measured from the front wheel of the lead cyclist to the front wheel of the trailing cyclist. Since a standard bike is already about 1.5 meters (5 feet) by itself, you’re left with less than 5.5 meters (18 feet) of open space between riders. That’s only three bike lengths!

While the benefits of drafting substantially decrease somewhere between 1-2 meters (3-6 feet or about one bike length) behind the rear wheel of a leader, the break in the air carries beyond that distance. At three bike lengths back, you still get a slight benefit from the breakage.

A great way to measure the legal distance from your position to the lead rider is by using the white or yellow separator lines on the road (if available). Each line is about 3 meters long (and the distance between the lines is about 9 meters if you want further reference). Therefore, you only need one white/yellow line and an extra 4-5 feet of space beyond that between your front wheel and the leader’s rear wheel to avoid a drafting penalty.

Seriously! The next time you’re out riding with a friend, sit back at that distance and discover for yourself how close it is in actuality. Perhaps it’s only psychological but I personally have felt my effort level substantially reduce while sitting in this position behind a faster rider.

Even in the professional field of WTC races where the drafting zone distance is a much larger 12 meters, you’ll see that the top pros are in a nice even line all spaced the legal distance from each other.

They aren’t reaping the benefits of a true pace line but the advantages of breaking air for one another still exists. They often switch off between leaders in order to keep the pace strong and shake off the weaker riders, or at the very least put more distance on those who weren’t fortunate enough to join the group.

It should be noted that WTC rules for age group athletes differ from USAT. IRONMAN recently announced a standardized global competition rule in 2015 for their worldwide events with a drafting zone length of 10 meters. Therefore, the benefits of sitting the legal distance behind a faster rider are reduced.

However what remains parallel to both organizations for all age group athletes is the ability to slip stream while passing. This is a luxury not afforded to professionals. The rule clearly states that a “participant may enter the drafting zone without penalty… from the rear, closing the gap, and overtaking all within no more than 15 seconds.”

Depending on the logistics of the race and your strengths, this is a huge drafting opportunity to take advantage of and remain completely legal.

If, for example, you’re within close proximity to a rider of similar ability, the two of you could take turns leading – cycling between falling back to the legal distance and then slipstreaming back up for the pass within the 15-second limit. Think how much faster the two of you could finish the bike leg not to mention the energy you’d be conserving!

Or if you’re a weak swimmer or your wave starts behind a large number of slower athletes, then chances are you’ll be encountering many cyclists (possibly hundreds) to pass on the road. Take advantage whenever possible to slide in behind slower riders and pass them by within the 15 second time limit. Not only will you receive a small slingshot of speed but you’ll also be saving your legs for the run.

A word of warning: Be aware that a conscious effort to legally draft in triathlon is like playing with fire. You need to be confident that if you’re going to sit behind another rider that you don’t enter any part of their draft zone at any time, unless you’re meaning to pass. And if you are entering the draft zone for a pass, make sure you finish overtaking within 15 seconds or less. Otherwise, whether intentional or not, you could face a time penalty.

However, if you’re fully aware of your positioning and your ability to pass, then why not legally draft in a triathlon? Seize the opportunity when it presents itself. Stay alert, be courteous to your fellow competitors, and conserve as much energy as possible.

But most of all … have fun!


Don’t think sitting the legal distance behind another rider doesn’t give an advantage. And be fully aware that age group athletes are allowed to enter draft zones for a limited time when overtaking. Drafting in triathlon exists, and with the right strategy you can take full advantage of these opportunities.


Do you feel the slight draft when sitting three bike lengths behind another competitor? Do you plan on using the strategies mentioned for your next bike leg of a triathlon? How do you plan on handling them?

JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.


“USA Triathlon Competitive Rules.” USA Triathlon. USA Triathlon, Nov 2014. Web. 10 Nov 2015.


“Drafting – The Triathlete’s Rules of the Road.” Triduo. Triduo, 2001. Web. 10 Nov 2015.


“IRONMAN Announces Standardized Global Competition Rules for 2015 Race Season.” IRONMAN. World Triathlon Corporation, 12 Feb 2015. Web. 10 Nov 2015.


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