Are triathletes cyclists?


How is this even a question? They ride bikes. Aren’t we done?

Okay, bear with me.

Let’s suppose for a moment at least that it is a question that makes sense.

Then here’s one answer: No, silly, they’re triathletes.

And here’s another, everyone who rides a bike is a cyclist! (That’s the answer I favour. See the post in which I pushed for it, Cycling towards a pluralist ethos.)

Okay so why is this even a question? What does the person asking it mean?

You might mean they’re not real cyclists. Who are the real cyclists? Road cyclists, of course. See Road cyclists are to bike riding as analytic philosophers are to philosophy: Discuss.

It occurred to me while chatting with other philosophers of sport that each activity, philosophy and cycling, can be thought of as big tents. There are analytic philosophers, continental philosophers, pragmatists, feminists, historians of philosophy, etc. Likewise, there are road cyclists, track cyclists, urban fixie riders, mountain bikers, commuters, etc.

But in each field there is one group that likes to make rules about who counts and who doesn’t, who belongs in the tent and who must remain outside–not a real philosopher, not a real cyclist. My conversational thesis was that it’s the road cyclists and the analytic philosophers who are the fussiest this way.

This question, well formed or not, came up for me again because some friends and I found ourselves reminiscing. We were sharing fond memories of the golden days of our local cycling club, when most people who were members also raced–by which we mean “road racing”–and there were very few triathletes. Now it’s lousy with triathletes, some people say, and things just aren’t the same.

The claim is that it’s okay to have one or two triathletes in the bunch but too many and things start to fall apart.

What’s the worry? What’s the biggest differences between road cyclists and triathletes? Tracy has written a bit about her beginner’s point of view on riding and the differences between road cycling culture and tri biking culture here.

Well, to start, there’s a whole bunch of riding skills that road cyclists have and triathletes don’t. It’s not they’re bad people. Or unskilled generally. Rather there are skills you need to race road bikes that you don’t need to race triathlons. So it makes sense that triathletes don’t put as much energy into working on their bike handling.

They also ride different bikes, triathlon specific bikes, that aren’t well suited to group rides. Or to turning. Or to climbing. Or to acceleration. But they are excellent at going really fast in one direction.

The happy co-existence of road cyclists and triathletes is really only an issue really when these groups mix, say for long rides on the weekend.

At the heart of the differences is the practise of drafting. At the amateur level there’s no drafting allowed in the bike part of the triathlon.

Here’s an explanation of the rules:

The most complicated and controversial rules in the cycling section have to do with drafting and blocking. Drafting is a cycling technique in which a racer rides very closely behind another competitor to cut down on wind resistance and expend less energy. In long-distance team races like the Tour de France, drafting is a critical strategy for success. Triathlons, on the other hand, are generally viewed as individual races, not team events, so drafting is often illegal.

In a “draft-illegal” event — most non-elite triathlons are draft-illegal — strict rules govern how long you can remain in another rider’s draft zone. Under ITU rules, the draft zone is a large rectangle measuring three meters wide by 10 meters long (10 by 33 feet) that extends backwards from the front tire of the bike [source 1=”ITU” language=”:”][/source]. (The zone measures 12 meters long for long-distance races.)If you want to pass a rider in front of you, you can only ride through their draft zone for a total of 15 seconds [source 1=”ITU” language=”:”][/source]. Failure to do so will result in a time penalty.

Read the rest here.

Drafting in triathlon is a controversial thing. I don’t have a view but the arguments are interesting.

In favour: It’s only not allowed at amateur events and that seems disrespectful of the skills of amateur athletes. It sounds paternalistic when I hear tri coaches say that their riders would be hurt. I’ve watched little children learn to draft safely. Clearly it can be done. Also, in favour, drafting is allowed in running and swimming. Why target the bike course for safety based proximity rules? I’m pretty comfortable with people near me on the bike. It’s in the water that I want a no touching bubble around me!

Against?: Triathlon is all about individual effort, like the time trial in cycling. It changes the sport since allowing drafting also brings in strategy and coordination between competitors. Some people really hate it. This opinion piece compares drafting to doping.

I could go on about triathletes and cornering and hill climbing but I won’t. Different sports. Different skills. I’m happy to scream from the rooftops that cycling is a big tent. There’s room for all of us. Except maybe e bikes and tandems. Joke.

Drafting and skills aside, there’s also an emotional issue here that I think is doing more work than anyone gives it credit for. What’s going on, I suspect, is at much about passion as it is about reason.

Tracy noticed that road cyclists really love cycling. That’s true. And we are evangelical to the point of pushy about sharing that passion.

Triathletes can seem like they’re rejecting this thing that we love when they only ride reluctantly. At this point it can feel personal.

I confess I felt hurt when Tracy wrote that she loves running and swimming but cycling not so much.

Writes Tracy, “And I’m not getting out a lot on the road bike because…well…I really don’t enjoy it all that much.” Read the rest of that post here.

I identify so much as a cyclist that when someone isn’t keen on riding, it feels a bit like they’re not keen about me! It’s like that speed dating cartoon when one of the people says they don’t ride a bike and the other person says, “Next!” Having recognized that feeling, and categorized it as silly, I’ll move on.


I’m not alone, it turns out. I laughed out loud when I read this from the Bike Snob. It’s part of his guide to the tribes of the cycling world.

Many people even argue that it is inappropriate to consider a Triathlete a cyclist, since in some cases they are merely incidental cyclists who only ride because cycling happens to be part of a triathlon. If they changed the cycling leg to something else, like 10-pin bowling, they’d probably all be buying bowling balls instead of bicycles.

Many cyclists also believe that Triathletes are bad bike handlers and criticise them for being middling at three disciplines instead of exceptional at one. (If triathlons involved bowling instead of cycling, Triathletes would probably roll their balls in the wrong direction and take out half the snack bar.) 

I’m sticking with my view. Anyone who rides a bike is a cyclist.

9 thoughts on “Are triathletes cyclists?

  1. That was always the joke at work and several funny books I read for leisure. They aren’t cyclists, they are people obsessed with goals, milestones and fictitious from of achievements. They need to conquer things and don’t necessarily see a point in socialising or engaging the community. I am happy for them, I really am. There are exclusion to the norm and I thankfully know some chill triathletes who are laid back.

    If we changed the format of the race, and it’s swim, bowl and run. These guys will strap the roundest and heaviest ball they can buy on the roof of their car and drive to events.

  2. Aw. Sorry you felt hurt that I not in love with cycling.

    I feel the same way when people complain about the swim and have no illusions that many people would give up the swim for bowling if given a choice. Swimming is so amazing I just don’t get why everyone doesn’t love it!

    I likely wouldn’t own a road bike if I didn’t do triathlon. But I love triathlon even though I don’t love the bike, so another way to look at it is that it gets more people out on the bike than would otherwise be out there. And at least some of them see the virtue of learning to ride with the roadies even if those aren’t the skills needed for racing. And maybe some will come to love it for its own sake.

    I also heard a rumour that by 2015 Triathlon Ontario rules will change to allow drafting in sprint distance and higher.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. You know, as a triathlete who is riding a bike mainly because of triathlon, I have to say I can totally understand where cyclists who don’t think of us as real cyclists are coming from. I mean, while I am riding a bike and using a lot of the same skills used by cyclists, there’s a whole cycling culture (group rides, etc.) that I’m not part of at all. Plus, the whole bike-handling issue is definitely a legitimate concern. Being in aero is not conducive to group-riding safety, and a lot of triathletes LOVE being in aero.

    That said, I’m actually really starting to like riding the bike, which is due in large part to my increased confidence and bike fitness. I’ve actually talked to Brian about looking at doing longer bike rides that aren’t part of a triathlon, because it seems like they would be fun. It has taken me a while to get to this point though. When I first started riding, I’d have nightmares about crashing the night before a training ride. So glad that doesn’t happen anymore.

    Lastly, I laughed a little at the part about triathletes who only ride bikes because they have to so they can run and swim. It’s been my experience that most triathletes I know really like the bike way more than anything else, and they either loathe the swim or hate the run. I’m kind of an outlier as someone who enjoys the swim and the run more than the bike (although like I said above, that’s really changing in a dramatic way).

    1. 🙂 Yeah, I’ve met swim hating triathletes and bike hating triathletes, both often fear related. Seems like no one is scared of running. Worst case? You just walk.

  4. I am probably the worst cyclist of the lot as I am a runner who dabbles in sprint distance triathlons over the summer. I make sure that no one can mistake me for a serious rider when I am on my bike (no clip shoes, no fancy gear) so fellow riders don’t have any expectations about my bike handling and speed – it gives them the signal to take a wide berth (lol). But I can completely relate to that feeling of taking things a little personal when people say they don’t like riding. I feel exactly the same about running. How can you not like it? Give me time for a long run over 30k and I am one happy girl. Your blog has inspired me to perhaps try a little harder with my cycling and work to find the same joy.

  5. Thank you for your positive opinion! I grew up in a family of cyclists first and then we became triathletes. We put as much emphasis on the cycling part as anything and enjoyed doing the cycling on its own. We were leisure bike riders as a family too, taking weekend biking trips or going out for rides after dinner. I think it’s a big tent too, no matter where you start from.

  6. Hmm, I don’t hang out with any triathletes. In my view, anyone who likes cycling several times week AND doesn’t need the excuse of training for any event, is a cyclist. So that covers the great-grandmother who cycles 6 kms. round trip for her own groceries every wk. Note: Some of us are grandmother-age…like me. But I don’t have grandchildren, just adult nieces and nephew. My partner has 2 grandchildren already..and yes, he’s a long time cyclist.

    But sure, even those who dislike cycling, they’re cyclists if they are doing several times per wk.

    I actually wonder for some triathletes if they just loosened up and just biked on a completely different type of bike, they may begin to like it. ie. bike with no specific goal or pre-set distance in mind. To me cycling is like oil painting: very spontaneous, can be short or long and lead you into unexpected areas. And you can cycle for a number of hrs. without hurting yourself as long as you have enough water and some food (and money). ‘Cause you can slow down but still keep on moving without endangering yourself. With running and swimming, it would be a serious effort and a lot more serious planning to do it for many hours in 1 day.

    Thank you for my soapbox speech for cycling. 😀

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