How junior triathlon fits with youth cycle racing
05 February 2014
Triathlon is a very new sport.
It started in the 1970s as a fitness competition: who was the fittest? The swimmer, the cyclist, or the runner?
It’s come a long way since then and has seen some big changes. In its early days it was about fitness and endurance. The races were long and every triathlete was a training junkie. As it sought to become an Olympic sport the focus shifted to shorter races: something that took two hours rather than ten!
With shorter races the sport became more accessible and the number of people taking part went up and up. Fifteen years ago the man in the street didn’t know what a triathlon was. Today he’s probably done one himself. And, probably, so has his daughter. There are no campaigns within triathlon for sexual equality because there simply is no discrimination, institutional or otherwise. Women and girls do the same events over the same distances at the same time.
As triathlon became less of an endurance test, and more a combination of swimming, cycling and running, races for children started to appear – and they are here to stay.
Triathlon is a fantastic sport for kids. Swimming, cycling and running are all great – and triathlon gives you all three.
Triathlon for Young Cyclists
As a serious and dedicated cyclist you might ask yourself whether adding swimming and running to your programme might be detrimental? The answer: no, it isn’t. At least, not if you learn to do them properly so that they are safe and rewarding. In fact, doing a single sport, especially cycling, is probably more detrimental, because the muscles that you use can become over-adapted and those that you don’t use become weak and injury prone. Many top cyclists swim and run during their off-season.
So if it’s worth doing are you likely to be good at it? Well it certainly helps to be a good cyclist as most triathlons involve more time on the bike than either swimming or running. The bad news is that learning to swim well and run well are much more difficult than learning to cycle fast, so the longer you leave it the more difficult it is to make up any lost ground.
So, you’ve decided to give it a go. What’s a triathlon like? Firstly, no two triathlons are the same. Children’s races normally include a pool swim, the cycle section is often on grass, and the run might be anywhere. The location of the transition area, where the bikes are parked during the swim and run legs, depends on where there is enough space. It’s important, therefore, that you read your instructions carefully and you give yourself enough time to find out about the course!
All that you need to take part are a costume for swimming, shoes for cycling and running, a helmet, and a bike. You may cycle and run in your swimming costume, though you must cover your torso (so if you swim in trunks you must put on a top such as a T-shirt for cycling and running). Most triathletes compete in a trisuit – a one-piece cycling shorts and vest combo – which they wear throughout the race. You may wear the same shoes for cycling and running or you may change them in between.
You may compete on pretty much any bike. Oddly, the only bikes that are not welcome at children’s triathlons are bikes with tri-bars and disc wheels (though you wouldn’t want to use either on most courses). Fixed wheels are a no-no too. Cyclo-cross bikes are ideal.
There are two distinct forms of triathlon: drafting (like the Olympic Games triathlon) and non-drafting. The difference is in the cycling. In drafting triathlons the cycle leg is like a road race, and in non-drafting triathlons it’s like a time trial (i.e. you must ride along without taking pace from another competitor).
There are only a few drafting triathlons for children and they are only to selected competitors only, so there is no chance that you’ll find yourself doing one by accident. In other words, it’s safe to assume that in your first experiences of triathlon you will not be allowed to draft anyone else.
Cycling for Young Triathletes
You might have started cycling as a triathlete, and you’re wondering about doing a bit more. As I wrote a few paragraphs above, triathlons involve more time on the bike than either running or swimming, so good cycling certainly helps.
Or, maybe you’re finding that cycling is just such good fun you’d like to focus on it. In fact, some of the best cyclists started riding as triathletes. (We don’t talk about ex-triathlete Lance Armstrong any more, but we do talk about Kristin Armstrong, Julia Shaw and my favorite cyclist, Emma Pooley)
Why do some triathletes make great cyclists? To understand this you have to ask yourself how children get into sport, and then how they progress. Nearly every child has the opportunity to run and swim at school, to find out whether they enjoy it or have natural ability. Far fewer get the chance to cycle, and that’s usually because they like bikes or because their parents are cyclists. This means that the talent pool is bigger in swimming and running. More triathletes come from those backgrounds than from cycling.
It’s not just the size of the talent pool either. Swimming is an “early development” sport: swimmers win Olympic medals while they’re still at school. Club swimmers who start at six years of age might be training ten or more hours a week as teenagers. They might not have cycled before, but they’re fit, competitive, used to hard work, and good at mastering technical skills.
If you have a swimming background triathlon is the perfect follow-on sport: It rewards the hard work that you’ve done in the pool. And, just as I wrote earlier about how much more rewarding swimming and running are once you’ve learned to do them well, so the same is true of cycling. It might be easy to ride a bike but there is a lot to learn in order to ride it well.
If you are also a good runner you might aspire to follow in the footsteps of the brothers Brownlee, become an elite triathlete, and compete in draft-legal races. I should clarify that by “good” I mean county-representative standard at both swimming and running. In this case you’ll really benefit from getting involved with a good cycling club and learning how to ride and race in a bunch. Draft-legal triathlons typically involve criterium-type cycling: short circuits with tight corners. The idea isn’t necessarily to finish the cycle leg first because there’s still a run to come. But because there is a run to come the racing is very tactical as the winners are not just the best runners, but those who can start the run at the front and still produce their best runs – and to do that they need to be the most savvy cyclists.