Deposed Port of Tauranga Half Ironman champion Cameron Brown has lashed out, claiming his title defence was wrecked by "blatant drafting" by rivals during most of the 90km cycle leg in Saturday's race.
Brown, 32, was gunning for a remarkable eighth win in a row in the 16th annual half ironman but had to settle for fourth after Australian Craig Alexander stormed through the field to win, ending Brown's seven-year reign.
Alexander and Brown came off their bikes seven minutes behind the leaders after missing a six-strong breakaway bunch.
Brown produced the second-best run split behind Alexander to force his way up the field, but was left seething at what he said was obvious cheating.
Stephen Sheldrake, Kieran Doe, Nathan Richmond, Terenzo Bozzone, Graham O'Grady and Australian Levi Maxwell worked together on the first three laps of the bike before the bunch splintered, leaving Doe and Sheldrake in front on their own.
"It was pretty disappointing - I'd like to see how close that group were on the bike because every time I saw them coming past they were just full-on drafting," Brown said.
"It was really annoying because I was riding strong yet that group just put minute after minute on me every lap. Something was definitely wrong, yet no one seemed to be doing anything about a big pack of guys working together."
Brown was so incensed he made an obscene gesture to the group as they sped by.
But Richmond, who faded to seventh after grabbing the lead midway through the run, poured cold water on Brown's accusations.
"It was a good ride, very controlled, but we were all pushing it because we knew we had a bit of time on Cameron and didn't want to let him back on if we could change the race.
"It was nice for us to see that lead increasing every time we saw him but I can imagine it was pretty frustrating for Brownie - he was in no-man's land, riding on his own, which isn't a nice place to be.
"He rode an honest 90km whereas we had the benefit of others to share the load, but that doesn't mean we were out there cheating to get where we were."
The race rules state there must be a 5m clear gap between cyclists, but the tight nature of the Tauranga circuit made it tricky to police.
But Maxwell, who eventually finished third, believed if anything untoward had happened, they would have been penalised.
"I was in that group and we had a draft-buster with us the whole 90km," Maxwell said.
"New Zealand has some of the most lenient drafting distances in the world and it was a tight course, but if we'd drafted, we would have been pulled up."
Alexander had nothing but praise for the way the leading bunch worked together.
"I only really saw them at the turnaround and at the turnaround was a draft-legal area anyway. Often what happens when you get a lot of guys of similar ability on a one-lane road is it's hard to break out. I don't think they were getting any unfair advantage."
Triathlon New Zealand rules official Bruce Chambers was also adamant nothing dodgy went on in the leading bunch.
"The elite always say there's a lot of drafting, but they're not sitting back watching for it like we are," said Chambers, who tailed the top six riders for most of the race. "We were trying to be fair out there - our main aim is to break the big groups rather than ruin their day."
Brown was disappointed with the lack of help on the bike from Alexander, although the Australian admitted he felt awful for two-thirds of the race and struggled to stay with Brown.
The irony of the situation was that Brown was hit with a four-minute penalty at November's Ironman world championship in Hawaii for drafting. Saturday's race was his first since Hawaii.
"That was a huge disappointment at the time, particularly when I wasn't doing anything, but to visibly see guys out there in front of me drafting was annoying."
Despite the disappointment, Brown will be back next year, having used the half ironman to build towards Ironman New Zealand in March.
"I'm just going to need a better swim next year to make sure I get in a (bike) pack. I had to be beaten at some stage, but it's just disappointing the way it happened."