Do trikes belong in triathlon?

After you read this post please read the followup post: USAT Rules: Recumbent Style Tricycles Are Allowed!

I started training for Tri Rock Philadelphia in February. I have never done a triathlon so I started working with a coach, I went to the Mid Atlantic ParaTri Clinic in Baltimore where I met some great people, and I really started enjoying the sport and the fast improvements of a steep learning curve. I knew a triathlon was going to be a huge challenge; I had to relearn how to swim because I had not really done it since I was small before any major progression of Friedreich's ataxia (FA), and I had to learn a new sport: pushrim. However I did not know that the hardest part was going to be getting to the starting line.

TriRock Philadelphia is governed by the rules of USA Triathlon and I found out - through a series of emails with the Race Director, local Head Official, USAT National Paratriathlon Program Manager, and the USAT Commissioner of Officials - that USAT banned the use of recumbent bicycles when the first set of rules was written in 1985 and, at this point, they are unable to make an exception for disabled athletes who use trikes out of necessity rather than choice.

There are several pieces of equipment involved in this issue - which, in my experience, are easily confused - so for better understanding of the issue I would like to briefly describe each piece of equipment for the benefit of anyone who is reading this.

Racing Chair aka Pushrim
This is what is used for the run portion for someone who cannot run or walk. This piece of equipment is approved and in use at USAT events. It is a wheelchair with one front wheel way out in front; propelled by pushing the rims like an every day wheelchair.
This is what is used for the bike portion for someone who does not have use of their legs. It is approved for use in USAT events. It is a tricycle with one wheel in front powered by the arms and the highest point off the ground is the top of the wheels which are cambered 650's.
This is what I use for cycling. It is a tricycle with one wheel in the back powered by the legs and the highest point off the ground is my head which extends higher than the 700 wheel in the back. I still have power left in my legs but I have no balance or trunk stability so I am unable to even sit on an upright bike or tandem, I need the support of a seatback such as in my wheelchair or trike.
Recumbent Bicycle
This is what has been outlawed in USAT since 1985. Two wheels with the rider in the sitting or reclined position. There are many different configurations of rider positions and wheel sizes.
Recumbent Bicycle

As I understand it there are a few thoughts behind the recumbent ban. This is from an email with USAT:

  1. "The lowered position may decrease its visibility to other cyclists in close riding increasing the chances that another cyclist might collide with the recumbent."
  2. "The safety issue is based upon the more limited lateral movement ability than standard frame bikes so that in close pack riding a recumbent might not be able to avoid accidents or obstacles as readily as a standard frame bike."
  3. "Recumbent bicycles are more efficient in energy use because of the position of the rider and the lower, more aerodynamically, position to the wind. As you probably know, recumbent bicycles, also known as HPVs (Human Powered Vehicles) have set land speed records for human power. Thus, the competitive difference between those bikes and standard designed bicycles."
  4. One option is to use a handcycle. (Not an exact quote but a suggestion that came up)

My thoughts on these items:

  1. The highest point on a trike is much higher than that of a handcycle which are not banned.
  2. I am not clear on this one. The explanation says "limited" which to me sounds like decreased or slower. However I have also heard that the concern is that recumbents are more nimble and able to make quicker movements making them more unpredictable. Either of these arguments may or may not be valid but the fact is that there are many people who have not been on a bicycle in years and do not have any bike handling skills but will still be allowed to participate.
  3. Many people do not necessarily want to compete against others and in that case the aerodynamic advantage does not apply.
  4. Friedreich's ataxia (FA) is a "use it or lose it" condition just like many other degenerative disorders. Muscles succumb to atrophy due to lack of use. The more I use my legs, the longer they will work. I would like to retain the use of my legs as long as possible even if they don't work for walking. Training on a handcycle would take time away from the time I put in prolonging the use of my legs.

It seems like it may be reasonable to make an exception for disabled athletes who are using an adaptive trike out of necessity rather than choice.

Before I signed up for TriRock Philly I saw the note prominently displayed on their website (when it was still branded like the 2012 event) that said something like "Recumbent bikes will not be allowed." So before I registered in February I submitted an inquiry to their website to clarify whether the regulation would apply to a para-triathlete on a trike. I never heard back. However, a week and a half later I went to the Oaks Endurance Sports Expo and the organizing team for TriRock Philadelphia and the Race Director were there so we (my coach and I) got to talk with them. I had to leave before talking to the Race Director but my coach was able to stay and the RD assured her that they had accommodated Physically Challenged athletes before and it would be no problem. I followed up with an email a few days later and the Race Director said she thought everything would be cool but she would have to confirm with her official. So I decided to look into it a little further and sent an email to USAT to get some clarification on the rule. They quickly responded saying that I was correct, recumbent trikes are not allowed in competition due to safety concerns. They recommended that I try an upright tricycle and pasted this example photo: Upright Trike

I wrote back that I would consider it. However when I thought about it a bit I considered my attempts to use an upright stationary bike at the gym and I knew my compromised trunk stability would not allow me to ride this machine. Additionally it seems to me it is likely very unstable due to its high center of gravity compared to its wheel base.

At this point I did not even know what the safety concerns were so I asked and they gave the reasons as stated above: decreased visibility, limited lateral movement, and competitive advantage due to decreased wind resistance.

As I thought about the reasons for the rule and considered the fact that I might not be allowed to participate in the event that I had been preparing for, my coach pointed out a section on the USAT website that said: "While the USA Triathlon Competitive Rules is a comprehensive document, sometimes event organizers would like to add or amend one of the rules to have a better fit for their event. In that case, the race director applies to USA Triathlon to have an amendment to the current rules. If that 'new' or 'local' rule is approved by USA Triathlon, the race director must publish it on the race website and make sure all participants are aware of the rule." (full text here: No way! Awesome! This might be my chance! So I emailed the Race Director and she forwarded to her head official who responded that "USA Triathlon does not grant exceptions (under 1.4) for recumbent bicycles." This one had me a little confused. It seems unfair to choose which rules will be considered for amendments/exceptions before the case is made.

I realize rules need to be strictly enforced for safety and to level the competitive playing field especially for competition in a sport where people can qualify for the Olympics. The 2016 Olympics in Rio will have triathlon events in the Paralympics for the first time. I am very excited to see the opportunity for so many elite para-athletes compete at such a high level. However there are many people who would like to see the sport open for participation at all levels. There are a few people out there advocating for a more open division for Physically Challenged (PC) athletes. Ideally the "PC Open" category would be a catch all for all those PC athletes who do not necessarily fit into one of the designated competitive categories. However in some cases it seems like this issue seems to get caught up with the stigma associated with words like "recumbent".I have tried to stay away from that word because, as I have come to find out, it seems to be associated with trying to gain an unfair advantage through improved aerodynamics. Any competitive advantage is taken away by the effects of Friedreich's ataxia (FA) and in triathlon I prefer to call my machine an adaptive trike.

I am new to this sport, an outsider looking in, and I admit that I do not know the background behind all these rules and the history and complexity of the issues. However, I spoke to a couple different people who have been in a similar scenario to mine, or who had seen the situation play out. In one case an athlete used a trike due to a traumatic brain injury which compromised his stability. This athlete trained for months to be able to complete his first triathlon. One week before the race, the Race Director was forced to inform the athlete that he would not be allowed to participate. My understanding is that the Race Director did not agree with the rule but his hands were tied. The RD felt so bad that he personally bought the athlete a brand new trike (~$3,000).

USAT is the largest triathlon promoting organization in the country. It seems like 90% of triathlons are USAT sanctioned events. However they are not the only ones out there. There are many locally organized tri's that are not governed by USAT rules and are focused more on physical activity and positive participation rather than competition. Therefore, my objective as of now is to find an ideal event and complete my first triathlon.

Please read the followup post: USAT Rules: Recumbent Style Tricycles Are Allowed!

About KyleABryant

I was diagnosed with a debilitating, life-shortening disease called Friedreich's ataxia at the age of 17 and now I have dedicated my life to helping find a cure. Follow me on Twitter:
This entry was posted in Awareness, Cycling, Fitness, Sports, Triathlon and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Do trikes belong in triathlon?

  1. David says:

    Never give up!

  2. Hi Kyle,
    With this posting it is clear that positive progress with USAT has not been made or perhaps needs a major kick in the rear to deal with this unacceptable situation. I and many of my athletes and business colleagues will spread the word and bring this matter to the highest level of attention.
    As David said, “Never give up!”. We’ll win this fight. Count on it!

    • KyleABryant says:

      Hey Jay, I think they may be considering a revision to their list of approved equipment. That is good news but I don’t think it hurts to spread the word and keep this issue near the top of the agenda. Thank you for your support!

  3. Ken Gallardo says:

    Interesting that they comment about safety in a pack. Drafting isn’t allowed in most triathlons, so riding in a pack isn’t an issue. On top of that, a trike is essentially the same as a handcycle, so by their own argument, a handcycle isn’t safe in a pack situation. Typical bureaucracy at work.

    If they won’t allow you to compete on a trike but you still want to race, I’d ask the RD if he’d allow you to do the event but not be eligible for prizes. You’d still get an unofficial finish time and be able to compete and show them that their so-called rules are truly ridiculous.

    • KyleABryant says:

      USAT does not allow recumbent trikes period, even for those who don’t want to compete, not allowed on the course at all. I spoke with the RD but her hands were tied. It’s a rules thing. I have faith that it will get worked out. I would love to participate in Tri Rock Philly 2014.

  4. John Siemiarowski says:

    Lets keep in mind that many triathletes are not really cyclists and their bike handling skills are suspect so it may be as much for your protection as theirs. In addition the bikes that most triathletes ride are not designed for turning. They are designed to go fast in straight line and turning is an afterthought. They are also often not able to get to their brake levers quickly so stopping is another thing that is not a primary design imperative. All things considered I never want to ride near a person on a tri bike. As to the ability to avoid problems, a hand cycle is far less maneuverable than any trike so that argument does not hold water. Your being visible is a bit less but then when riding on the aero bars they are mostly looking down, right where you are! Keep up the good fight and let them know that including a wider range of participants will improve the visibility of the sport and may attract more people. It took quite a bit of work to get hand cycles included in the Philadelphia triathlon but we are in there now so never give up trying. Good luck and keep riding. As a fellow cyclist you are always welcome to ride with me, whatever you ride.

    • KyleABryant says:

      Good call, I like the perspective of thinking about the handling of tri bikes. It is clear that there are many angles to this discussion, I wanted to share mine. Thank you for the offer I would love to have the opportunity to ride with you sometime. See you on the road!

  5. ANNA says:

    Recumbent Style is so enjoyable and funny ridding. I also like Recumbent Bike for exercise. I am thinking that i will buy recumbent bike with with my friends for exercise. Recumbent bicycle also enjoyable. I have read your page about bicycle its so informative. Thanks for shearing this page.

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