May 29 2012
This year the CapTex Triathlon was another bundle of joy. I was 3rd after being given another poorly delivered penalty – this time for a rule that does not appear in the official rules. On the bright side, the organizers of the race stepped it up from last year, and did a really great job with the setup and execution. The officials, on the other hand, did better than 2011 (when they allowed a police boat to misdirect the entire pro field), but not by much.
Prior to the race I was having trouble with tuning my rear derailleur, and by the time the volunteer from Mellow Jonny’s got it working I had just 3 minutes to set up my space in transition. The rack was set up so that all the bikes were alternating, but my number was set up so that I didn’t alternate and was instead on the same side of the rack as the two people next to me. It didn’t make sense for me to move their stuff to the side (without me there both people had used my space for their setup), so I racked my bike to the opposite side where there was plenty of space. This didn’t affect anyone else’s bike (though it did allow the two people next to me to have more space) and it didn’t give me any advantage other than that by racking opposite from my number I was able to have the same amount of space as the people next to me.
As I was leaving transition an official was walking through transition and I heard her mention that there were several people racked the wrong way and that they would need to move those bikes. Now, I’ve never heard of officials moving people’s stuff in transition, but it sounds like a really bad idea. I had also moved my number to face the same direction as my bike so that I would be able to find my transition space in T2, but I figured I should say something. (Big mistake). I explained why I had racked my bike that way and why it made sense, the official told me we needed to speak to someone higher up, I told her to please find that person and explain my reasoning, and then I went to look for the head USAT official (who I had just finished speaking with regarding my disappointment in receiving a 30 second penalty the previous week, that took 45 seconds because the official didn’t know what he was doing.) I couldn’t find him, and it was now time to focus on racing. I talked to a race organizer and explained the situation, asking to please speak to someone because I did not think it would be fare for our bikes to be moved without letting us know. My feeling was that if the bikes were racked wrong that needed to be addressed while all the athletes were still in transition with time to change things. Not two minutes after transition had officially closed when I was the only athlete left in transition and was being told to leave.
The race started on time and I forgot about my transition situation. The swim was fast, thanks to Dustin McClarty, but I came out with the leaders and was in great position heading into T1. At my bike, however, I was met by an official who told me I had a 60 second stand-down penalty. I immediately stood still with my feet on the ground, but he didn’t start the timer. A video taken by a spectator shows that the it took the official 15 seconds to tell me that I needed to stand over by the fence and a few more seconds for him to follow me over there and actually start the timer. Watching that video, I’m impressed that I stayed relatively cool headed despite the frustration of the situation. The entire “60-second” penalty took over 75 seconds, which is disappointing considering the conversations that had just taken place between myself and the head USAT official the during the week leading up to this race.
Once I got onto my bike my anger showed. I rode hard and never backed down. By the end of the 3rd lap I had caught and passed everyone except Cameron Dye, and I managed to close my deficit to him to about 40 seconds. Andy Potts and Hunter Kemper started the run about 35 seconds behind me, but by 5km into the run Hunter had passed me and Andy was right with me. I passed Cam and put distance into him quickly, but I couldn’t stay with Potts. I finished in 3rd, 58 seconds behind the winner, Hunter Kemper.
Now, here’s what’s wrong with this system. I was not the only person to flip my bike around in T1, and like me the other people did it because the racks had a few places where the numbers had clearly been placed the wrong direction. I was the only one,however, to receive a penalty, and it is because I tried to do something to make sure that the situation was treated fairly (flipping my bike after talking to the official would have meant moving another athlete’s equipment without their permission, which feels wrong). Had I not been in T1 at the last minute when the officials were scheming I wouldn’t have been penalized for raising my concerns. Further, there’s no rule written for racking your bike the opposite direction from the number, and nowhere is a 60-second penalty described as the punishment for violating that unwritten rule. I was sighted for “moving my transition” or something to that affect and was told that what I did was the same as if I had set up my bike against a tree outside of the transition area. I disagree, but unfortunately USAT has set up their system so that the official who observes a rule violation also judges, sentences and executes that athlete. They do it immediately and they do it without any debate. Since penalties are given at the moment of violation (or as soon as they can reasonably give a penalty) there is no recourse for athletes. USAT doesn’t allow for athletes to protest a penalty, which is unfortunate because the officials on the course are often poorly trained, less knowledgeable than the athlete about the rules, and there is a great deal of inconsistency in how and when penalties are given.
An example from NYC Triathlon this year: A Puerto Rican athlete was given a littering penalty when his sunglasses fell off his bike. After standing down for 60 seconds he continued to ride. The official came up to him again shortly after that and told him he needed to go back for his sunglasses. Now, it is against the rules to make backward progress on the course (reasonably so, with athletes going 30mph on their bikes you don’t want any of them trying to ride against the flow, it’s dangerous!), so he told her he couldn’t do that. The official then gave him a penalty for abandoning equipment and with his second penalty he was disqualified. With no ability to protest, and no recourse at all, this athlete is destined to return to Puerto Rico having been wronged, dealt two penalties for one misfortune (like he really meant to lose his sunglasses!), and having lost all the money he invested in coming to NYC for a race. The professionals are trying to act professionally, so why are some of our officials not living up to that standard? Shouldn’t penalties be given for violations that affect the outcome of a race (i.e. drafting, intentional littering, cutting buoys) rather than for non-staggered position from 200 meters back on an uphill, losing a water bottle on a pothole, or placing a bike in a way that makes transition safer and less cluttered for everyone?