I’ve mixed feelings this morning. I live in Ely, which hosts the boat race today. But those who live here are excluded from much of our small city today so that an elite can play their games. It’s almost as if a small style enclosure is taking place. It feels very wrong
“The more things change, the more they stay the same” is the story of this year’s Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Races. The 192-year-old event gets its biggest makeover in a century and a half today, moving off the changeable tidal Thames to the calmer waters of the Great Ouse at Ely, but the pain, sweat, tears and ecstasy of those taking part this afternoon will feel the same as in every previous year, regardless of surroundings.
Visually it’s a complete switch, from a 6779-metre curving course hemmed in by west London’s buildings on an unpredictable tidal river to an arrow-straight virtually featureless 4890-metre waterway which has more in common with a docile canal. The only observers will be the local wildlife: under COVID restrictions Ely’s 2021 Boat Race course is a resolutely spectator-free zone. The quarter of a million who usually flock to the banks of the Thames have been encouraged to “stay safe, stay away” and watch on TV.
The part which won’t change is the rowing. Famously a power-endurance sport, rowing is much the same for any race longer than a minute or so: it involves explosive muscle use thirty-plus times a minute for long periods. That uses the body’s aerobic energy system, so whether the race is 5, 15 or 20 minutes long makes very little difference. The race plans will be the same as they would have been on the Tideway, stroke rates will as ever depend mostly on the wind direction, the same calls will be made by coxes and the same skill, speed, power, tenacity and luck will be needed by the winning men’s and women’s crews.
Unlike the Tideway with its narrow and invisible fastest-stream line, the coxes should be able to focus on technical calls rather than cat-fighting over inches of water. “This is a Henley-type course, you’re going to get less of a golden escalator in the middle of the stream of the river”, says men’s race umpire Sarah Winckless. “The stream is very light, and it spreads over the river pretty evenly”, explains Cambridge men’s coach Rob Baker. “You wouldn’t want to be tucked in the bank out of the stream, but there really isn’t anything to be gained from pushing [others] around. We want a clean race, it’s got to be about the rowing not the steering here.”
Despite this Winckless suspects she and fellow umpire Judith Packer may still be busy. “Whilst my cold-headed logical view says we should be seeing a race where the coxes give the other crew ample room, not fight for mythical best water, we could be watching a race where the habit kicks in and they still try to find the centre line.” Standard Boat Race rules are still in force so coxes of quick crews can effectively end the race early by moving in front, as long as they don’t risk a foul. Those on the western “Rail” station will have slightly more shelter in today’s predicted westerly tail-crosswind than those on the eastern “Road” side.
The biggest effect on 2021 has been not the location but the pandemic. During all three UK-wide lockdowns the student athletes had to train and test themselves individually on land, mostly on unforgiving rowing machines wedged into shared houses or college bathrooms. The universities were granted special permission to return to water training from 7 March, a group of 12 rowers and 2 coxes from each squad squeezing a winter’s worth of water skills and selection into a bare month.
“In four weeks you have to cover the performance as best you can with the different elements”, says Oxford men’s coach Sean Bowden. “Just making sure we’ve got a really simple message about what we want the crew to do.” Most of the coaches gave their athletes’ minds and uncalloused hands a week to get used to water rowing again before running curtailed seat-racing trials. “I’m very glad we did it, there were some conclusive results”, says Baker.
“Did we really want to be trying to teach people to row?” says Bowden. “So we had in our pocket a combination that would click along together quite easily.'” Both Bowden and Baker were prescient, the Oxford coach getting some selection done early last autumn, and Baker anticipating further lockdowns so arranging for his new recruits to house-share with experienced Cambridge rowers in bubbles together.
Fixtures have been impossible to run so form is completely unknown. “It will make it a much more interesting one for the bookies for sure,” says Oxford women’s coach Andy Nelder. Although all four crews have experience and power, his and Bowden’s squads have been caught up in a news storm during the last few days which must favour Cambridge.
Meanwhile Cambridge’s crews are also defending champions and have a potential home advantage, though Light Blue women’s coach Robert Weber isn’t sure how much. “It’s obviously very familiar, and not having to travel is good for preparation and rest. I don’t know if beyond that it gives us any advantage of any sort. There’s not a whole lot to learn about the course.”
“Earlier in the year I was a bit sceptical”, says Baker of the new location. “But as the year’s gone on we know this is the safest way to race and it feels like Boat Race right now to me, incredibly so.”
Weber points out that seven of his crew, who were selected for the cancelled 2020 race, have effectively been training for two years to reach this point. “Just getting to the start line will be a big deal”.
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