The Most Important Bike Rules In Triathlon

There are rules out there on the bike course to respect – for your safety and the one of the other athletes. Even if you are an experienced triathlete, I bet you don’t know some of the following rules.

I have checked the latest official rules from the ITU (International Triathlon Union) as well as the ones from the 3 biggest national federations: the USA (USAT), France (FFTRI), and Great Britain (British Triathlon). Not all triathlon races are governed by those federations, but most of them follow those rules anyway. Always check your particular race.


Apart from obvious rules that you would also follow in your training: riding on the right side of the street and not ridding dangerously, here are some specific to the triathlon races:

  • you should not block other athletes
  • you should not cycle with a bare torso
  • you can’t make forward progress without being in possession of your bike
  • you can’t use a different bike during the competition than the one checked-in
  • your helmet must be approved by a nationally accredited testing authority recognized by a National Federation affiliated with ITU

In all races I have participated in, the race organizers checked my helmet and bike before entering the transition area. Just make sure your bike is in good condition, that your two brakes are working properly and that you can tie your helmet correctly.

There are a lot of other rules, particularly on equipment. Most of those are for elite athletes. Make sure to check them out if it concerns you.


The best example to explain drafting is probably with a cycling race like the Tour de France. Riders in the Peloton are staying close to each other to save energy. The rider in front is always the one doing the work to benefit the riders behind him. Those have less air drag so that they can maintain the same speed with a lower effort.

In the video animation below, you will see how much of a difference it makes between the first rider and the riders behind him (you will also learn more about team time trial as an added benefit):

Cycling Team Time Trial Explainer from Thibault MILLIENNE on Vimeo.

Going back to triathlon, there are races where drafting is allowed (mainly short distance events and for elite athletes) and others where it is illegal. Let’s check the rules for both of them.


According to the ITU:

  • It is forbidden to draft off a different gender athlete;
  • It is forbidden to draft off an athlete being in a different lap;
  • It is forbidden to draft off a motorbike or vehicle.


The vast majority of triathlons for amateurs are draft-illegal. There are three things you should consider:

  1. The distance of the draft zone: measured between the leading edge of your front wheel and the front wheel of the rider in front of you.
  2. The time you have to overtake the rider in front of you starts when you enter the draft zone and stops when your front wheel is ahead of the one from the rider you overtook.
  3. What happens once you overtook: the overtaken triathlete must drop out of the drafting zone. He can’t repass the person until he is first out of the drafting zone. 

Unfortunately, the distance and time to overtake vary by the federation, races, and between amateurs and elite triathletes. Make sure to check the specifics of your race.

Below are some guidelines for the amateurs:

The ITU and the British federation are making a distinction on the distance:

20 seconds are allowed to overtake in short distance events and 25 seconds for the long-distance ones.

The French federation is also making a distinction based on the distance but is allowing 25 seconds to overtake for both:

The USA federation defines the drafting zone as “a rectangular area seven (7) meters long and two (2) meters wide surrounding each bicycle. The longer sides of the zone begin at the leading edge of the front wheel and run backward parallel to the bicycle; the front wheel divides the short side of the zone into two equal parts.”

15 seconds are allowed for overtaking.

The ITU is also explicitly mentioning that drafting is forbidden behind a motorcycle (15m distance minimum) and behind a vehicle (35 meters).


You will be happy to read that you can get some assistance if it is within the limit described by the ITU:

  1. The assistance provided by event personnel or Technical Officials is allowed but is limited to providing drinks, nutrition, mechanical and medical assistance, upon the approval of the Technical Delegate or Head Referee. Athletes competing in the same competition may assist each other with incidental items such as, but not restricted to, nutrition and drinks after an aid station, pumps, tubular tires, inner tubes, and puncture repair kits;
  2. Athletes may not provide any item of equipment to an athlete competing in the same competition, which results in the donor athlete being unable to continue with their own competition. This includes but is not restricted to the complete bicycle, frame, wheels, and helmet. The penalty for this will be the disqualification of both athletes.
  3. An athlete cannot physically assist the forward progress of another athlete on any part of the course. This will result in both athletes being disqualified.


You can’t use headphones in triathlon, and the same goes for the following items: (illegal equipment from the ITU):

  • Headphones
  • Headset
  • Technical earplug
  • Smart Helmet which is inserted or covering the ears
  • Glass container (basically avoid bringing anything made out of glass)
  • Mirror

This list is mainly common for all three triathlon federations.

Use those rules as general guidance. Make sure always to check the rules of your specific races.
Apart from the draft distance and overtaking time (why can’t amateurs have a single draft distance and time for all races in the world??), the rules are there not to confuse or annoy triathletes. They exist for your safety.

If you realize (before I do) that any of those rules changed, please email me at