Why Rowers Make Exceptional Cyclists
I’ve always noticed a heavy crossover of rowers who enter the sport of cycling. There are heaps of rowers who often make the transition to become gun bike riders. So just what is it about these rowers that make them such strong cyclists?
Yesterday I had a good chat with Drew Ginn about this topic. Most of you will know Drew from days as a triple Olympic gold medallist and part of Australia’s Oarsome Foursome at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics. He’s now back in the boat training hard for London 2012.
I know Drew better as a cyclist than a rower. He dedicated himself to cycling throughout 2010 and I had the pleasure of riding and racing along side him on many occasions (well, actually strung out behind him). From day one he was an absolute monster on the bike and picked up the intricacies of racing very quickly. He took the work ethic and discipline required to win Olympic Gold medals in rowing and transferred it over to his cycling.
Cameron Wurf’s athletic career began with rowing. In 2004 he competed in the lightweight Double Skull on the Olympic team. Shortly after the Athens Olympics he left rowing due to injuries and took up cycling. Straight away his lab numbers were impressive and he began the transformation to professional bike racing in 2007. He’s been very smart about the people he’s worked with and has ridden with successful teams such Fuji-Servetto, Androni Giocattoli and now Liquigas-Cannondale. Cam finished 5th overall in this year’s Tour of Turkey.
Other notable Australian rowers who have made a successful transition to cycling are Bridie O’Donnell, Amber Halliday, Amy Gillett (who is sadly no longer with us), and apparently even Rupert Guinness! I’m not aware of any other former rowers in the pro peloton besides Cameron Wurf, but there are heaps in amateur scene.
Similarities Between Rowing and Cycling
The physiology required for rowing and cycling are very similar. Many rowers have developed a massive cardiovascular engine through years of very specific training. Once they string together a few months of cycling and adapt to the different muscle movements they begin riding remarkably well.
It might not be obvious at first sight that rowing requires great leg and hip strength. The upper body movement is basically just a completion of the stroke. Everything else is concentric movement originating from the legs and hips. This translates wonderfully towards cycling.
Riding a bike is often not a new activity to the dedicated rower. It’s an important component of their training and the aerobic volume that cycling allows benefits them greatly.
The rower’s approach to their training is often very different that a cyclist’s (I’m talking amateur cyclists here). Rowers tend to train and compete in the boat for as hard as they can for relatively short periods of time (~6 minutes). When they switch over to cycling they often keep training like this which tends to condition them very effectively rather than sitting in a bunch ride sitting on wheels. Because of this many rowers train themselves to operate like a big diesel engine versus having the turn of speed that pure bike racers have.
Both sports create athletes who are very attune to managing their pain threshold and pacing themselves over a specified distance. Both types of athletes need to know how to get the most out of themselves over the distance and not go too hard too early. In cycling you can go hard at an effort for 3 or 4 minutes and fool yourself into thinking you can hold that pace. But if you want sustain the effort for an hour you need to learn the mental game of being on the limit and knowing how to manage yourself properly so that you can keep going until the finish.
Similarly in rowing. A race might be 2km long for 6 minutes. It’s easy to make the mistake of going out hard 5 seconds quicker in the first 500m, but find at the end that you’re 10sec slower. It’s similar to the pacing tactics used in the Individual Pursuit.
Both sports reward and showcase talent through raw physiology. Neither sport relies 100% on physiology, but you certainly can’t do well without it.
In bike racing the strongest rider doesn’t always win. There’s the tactical element that we all know very well. Smart riders are always conserving energy and won’t do a turn on the front unless there’s good reason to do so. A break can get away and any chase attempts may be shut down. No amount of physiology will get you out of that situation to win a race.
Rowing is tactically very different than cycling but possesses similar elements. There are some crafty rowers who know how to position themselves properly (there’s no drafting) which distracts the competition or makes them second guess themselves. There are many rowers who may not possess the greatest physiological capabilities but know how to race very well.
As a sidenote, I found it interesting to talk to Drew Ginn about his weight during his time in cycling and rowing. He got down to 77kg when he was training specifically for cycling in 2010. If you know how large Drew is you’ll know how lean he would have been. Drew tells me that he’s now at his heaviest at 93.5kgs while training for the Olypics (with the same skinfold measurements). He’s regained muscle in his upper body and a little around legs and glutes. His upper body weight-gain hasn’t been deliberate through gym work. It’s simply from re-engaging with sport of rowing and doing the hand to foot coordination exercises which has made his body fill-out. Now he looks like a real person and not a walking skeleton like he did when he was a cyclist!
A special thank you to Drew Ginn for answering all my questions and helping me write this post and wish him all the best for the 2012 London Olympics! I highly recommend you follow his progress and insights on his blog.