What is the order of events in a Triathlon and why? These are common questions amongst new triathletes and tri-curious. This article will clear your mind about the "what" and give you a few reasons for the "why".
What is the order of events in Triathlon?
There are many triathlon distances but the order is always the same: Swim > Bike > Run.
You start with a swim, go into the first transition area (T1), then cycle, then into transition two (T2) and finish with a run.
Why is the order of events in Triathlon "Swim-Bike-Run"?
There is no official reason for the order of events in a Triathlon but we can start by looking at its history. Even though Triathlon was made popular by the Ironman race in the 1980s, the first triathlons were held in the 1920s in France and consisted of running, cycling and canoeing. The first modern triathlon was held in San Diego, California in 1974 and consisted in a "run-cycle-swim" race while the first Ironman Triathlon took place in Hawaii in 1978 in the now popular "swim-cycle-run".
It's quite clear then that the order of sports in a triathlon is not a necessity. So why is it this way? Well, the truth is that if you consider all the consequences of a particular order, the current format becomes the obvious one. Here are the main ones.
Swimming is the most hazardous of the three sports from a safety perspective. Most casualties in Triathlons are during this leg for quite obvious reasons: if you stop swimming, you drown. Triathlon is a mass sport with thousands of athletes competing in a single event and with a wide variety of skills. It's, therefore, best to avoid a risk of drowning from exhaustion and it makes a lot of sense putting the swim leg first.
If you have ever seen the Tour de France, you know that accidents do happen. One of the highest risks is the final sprint. As athletes are exhausted and push one final sprint to the finish line, it's not unusual to see crashes happen in the final kilometers of the race. This makes one good reason to avoid ending with cycling.
Open water swims are usually done in a wetsuit and it's much easier to take a wetsuit off than taking it on. The whole idea of Triathlon is completing the three legs in the shortest amount of time. It makes sense then to avoid having to wear a wetsuit after an intense cycle or run.
If Triathlon started with the bike it would be nearly impossible to prevent drafting. A bike start would make no sense for all non-drafting triathlons (such as Ironman) and would take out any spectacle from drafting races (such as ITU).
A triathlon is a sportive event that requires an immense amount of logistics because of the number of athletes and equipment involved. An event starting with a bike race would require a starting area capable of holding thousands of athletes on their bicycle. Likewise, an event ending with the cycle would require a finish line with a wide road and a deceleration area to accommodate cyclists sprinting to the finish line. It would also require additional parking areas and various logistic challenges to deliver post-race nutrition.
Triathlons require at very least some traffic control which can at times imply roads fully closed to car traffic to prevent accidents between cars and bikes. Most triathlons are held on festive days in the early morning. Keeping the bicycle towards the beginning often allows for triathlons to be held with the least amount of traffic with open roads or the least amount of disruption to drivers with closed roads.
Of the three sports, the largest gaps between athletes are created on the bike and on the run. While the difference between professional athletes on the swim can be minutes, the bike and run legs are able to highlight massive differences between athletes. In particular, many argue that triathlons favor strong runners. In the World Ironman Championships, it's quite common for the winner to also conclude the run with the fastest time. It, therefore, makes a more dramatic race to have the strong runners try to compensate any gap created by the "uber cyclists". This effect is even stronger on draft legal triathlons where triathletes manage to stay in the same group during the bike leg with distances created only with the running stage of the race.
I hope we've given you enough reason as to why Triathlons are "swim-cycle-run" events. There surely are others and you are welcome to tell us if you know of any more reasons. Also, let us know if you find any reasons why it shouldn't be this way.