Rower to Roadie

When pictures appeared up recently of a beefed up Sir Brad banging away on a rowing machine it got me thinking....

You see, I was once a rower. I loved it with a passion. Over the years I spent hundreds of hours on this instrument of torture (the ergo) grinding out the kilometres while staring at a blank wall.  Occasionally you might get a mirror to watch yourself. Certainly no Watopia to zip around. Nowadays cycling is my sport, the Kickr replacing my well worn Concept 2. And like a second child, I love it just as much, but in a different way. Wiggo’s conversion from wheels to water made me ponder - what can these two sports I love learn from each other? 

My brother (a long-time cyclist) always used to tell me pro-cyclists were the fittest athletes in the world. I’d argue with him, point out the fact rowing involves not just endurance, but total body strength too. We’d argue back and forth, only to end up agreeing to disagree. Now, having immersed myself in both, I have slightly more sympathy with his view.

But I still believe rowing has a lot to teach cyclists. 


First of all there’s training. I understand the need for specificity, but I’m always amazed at the number of cyclists who do nothing else but ride. Strava doesn’t help. We all (me included) chase the mileage at the expense of a more rounded palette of exercise. Rowers don’t generally post their outings like that. And they don’t just row either. 

Visit any boat club on any night of the week and you’ll find guys and girls banging weights (usually heavy ones), running and cycling, We did murderous circuit training sessions. And we ate. Lots. We also rowed at night, on the Thames, with tiny lights on either end of the boat and no life jackets. Pretty nuts looking back. But it worked.

That shock and awe of exercise built strong bodies and a far more rounded type of fitness. “I married a chunky rower and now I wake up next to Bradley Wiggins,” my wife now complains. She has a point. That emaciated look really isn’t good. 

Rowing also has a much greater focus on testing. Yes, we amateur cyclists do FTP tests but not that often, and it doesn’t shape our place in the sport.

For club rowers it’s the dreaded 2K and 5K tests. Pure numbers. Fail to make the grade, and you’re demoted backwards down the crew, or even moved to the ‘B’ boat. On the water too there’s constant testing - ’seat racing’ - to see who’s put the work in and how they compare to others. You jump in the boat row a piece and then hop out to be replaced by someone else. If the boat goes faster, you know it’s not good news. 

Pro cyclists test a lot of course, and you could argue Strava segments (yes, that again) are a testbed in themselves, but I’m not sure it’s quite the same for your average weekend warrior. Many simply don’t know how fit or otherwise they really are, it’s all a bit…meh. 

For me the other thing cyclists could take from rowing is its focus on technique. We would spend hours on our bladework, (sorry, yeah rowers call oars blades) perfecting a fast catch (the oar entering the water), correct posture, and timing. You can be the fittest guy on the planet but if your technique isn’t good you won’t move a boat efficiently. Again, how much time does the average rider spend smoothing out his pedal stroke? Sitting on a Wattbike trying to flatten that peanut thing? Not nearly enough, even though it would have real benefits to their power delivery. 

Of course cycling does have its pluses. Firstly - to an extent - you can buy a technical advantage. A better groupset, a lighter frame, deeper wheels, they’ll all make you average ride go that little bit faster. In rowing there are top end boats - made by a German company called Empacher - but the advantage over an average shell (that’s the boat) is marginal. Club rowers don’t sit in coffee shops comparing the weight of their blades, or how stiff their hull is. It’s all about fitness, finesse and boat speed. 

Winning Oxford regatta 2003

Winning Oxford regatta 2003

For me though the biggest attraction of cycling is the fact you have a destination. You are heading somewhere. It’s a journey. Climb Alpe d’huez and you’re also following in the tyre tracks of Coppi, Pantani, and Froome. You can row on the Thames where Steve Redgrave trained, but somehow it’s not the same. It doesn’t have that tangible, spine tingling attraction that a Ventoux or Galibier has. 

As for Wiggo, well he took part in the National Indoor Rowing Championships. I did it once, it’s brutal. You and 50 other guys going hell for leather, your split times beamed on to a big screen for all to see.

After all the hype, Sir Brad messed up his start, posting a time (6:22) well below what’s needed for Olympic selection. Some have made the transition successfully - Olympic rower Rebecca Romero swapped sports winning a gold in each. Sir Bradley though is swapping sports the other way around, a much harder way to do it.. And don’t forget…he’s not even been on the water yet. 

Simon NewtonComment