Triathlon History
Looney Tunes inTransition
Transition areas in the 1980s were a chaotic, everyone-for-themselves proposition
By Mike Plant

The transition area is one of the things that sets triathlon apart from other sports. In no other competitive arena does the scene shift so quickly, with such frantic intensity.

But if the modern transition area is exciting, back in the 1980s it was wide-eyed crazy. “Area” was a term loosely interpreted to mean a region in the dirt or grass in rough proximity to where the bike ride began or ended. Bike racks came onto the scene only gradually — and often fell over once they did, depositing 25 or more machines in a heap, attracting a swarm of volunteers and spectators to right the mess before the next swimmer came out of the water. The bikes suffered little damage; most of them had been dragged the week before out of the dark, dusty recesses of a garage and were well used to that kind of abuse. Finding and racing in the correct pair of shoes was a matter left to the competitors themselves to sort out.

Early transitions, even for the emerging corps of elite athletes, were not fast. They were just nuts. In most cases, transition times or T-times were measured in minutes, not seconds. By the mid-80s the pros were racing short-distance events start to finish in Speedos, but age-groupers were still lugging grocery bags full of crude equipment to the bike racks. Changing tents even for short races were an operational expectation. Into the tents the swimmers went, and out the cyclists came (finally), wearing socks, black cycling shorts, wool jerseys, cycling gloves, headbands, wristbands, lace-up cycling shoes with cleats along with water bottles and assorted snacks for the 25-mile trek ahead — perhaps even a helmet if the race director was being a stickler.

This came after triathlon had evolved as an individual sport. In the really early days, triathlons were commonly three-person relays. Back in 1980 at the historic Chuck’s Triathlon on San Diego’s Fiesta Island, future mountain bike great Ned Overend finished his run (the first event) and leaped onto his bike to a chorus of “Ooos” from a small crowd of spectators, who were collectively impressed that someone was actually doing the entire race by himself. Behind Overend came the rest of the horde, equipment flying in all directions as family members shouted and waved frantically and fought for space to hand off bicycles and chase down hastily discarded gear. “Jack, over here!” “Sue, this way!” “Oh, crap, sorry, are you all right?” Babies changed hands from dads to moms; gentle collisions at slow speeds tangled arms and legs, dislodged chains and clogged the road. Participants seemed to take this in stride; for all anyone knew at the time it was par for the course.

The sport of triathlon was literally being invented on the fly, and transitions were a true innovation, a new wrinkle. People had been swimming, riding bikes and running forever, but they had never previously attempted all three, in continuous sequence, in organized competition. Everyone in the business, from athletes to governing bodies to race directors, adapted quickly, learning ludicrously comical lessons along the way.

At the 1982 Bud Light U.S. Triathlon Series in Long Beach, the press area was set up on a platform directly over the public bathrooms. It was thought that an elevated position would help the reporters understand a new, emerging sport. The wafting odor of raw human waste had not been anticipated, and might well have reduced the attending media’s enthusiasm — were it not for the fact that the platform also afforded a bird’s-eye view into the men’s and women’s changing areas.

When the first guy out of the water at the Del Mar Day Triathlon in 1980 plopped down on the sand and put on his running shoes, he called out the crowd, “Can I get a gin & tonic?” Everyone laughed. But wait. Was the guy maybe serious?

This was all way before mount and dismount lines, of course, and as the athletes got better and faster and more sophisticated, bike-to-run transition areas were not only chaotic, but borderline dangerous, with guys like Scott Molina, Scott Tinley and Mike Pigg blasting off the course into the bike racks like heat-seeking missiles, scattering volunteers and photographers like ants, with packs of riders close on their heels, peeling off right and left, still mounted and moving fast, eyes locked on their positions in the racks. “This way Scott!” That way, Mike!” No! Here! That way!

Things are calmer now in transition. They are still fast and furious, but in a professional, more practiced manner. No one who experienced the transition areas of the 1980s would prefer the old over the well-ordered new. But they sure were fun — right on the edge of being utterly insane. Which was a long way to the point back then, after all. Triathlon? What, are you crazy? Thirty-five years ago the answer to that question was pretty much yes.


MIKE PLANT is the founder and president of MPA Event Graphics, the signage supplier to USA Triathlon. You can read more triathlon history at the website he co-publishes with Scott Tinley:

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