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Why Bradley Wiggins will struggle to row at the 2020 Olympics

Bradley Wiggins Hour Attempt SiS
Peter Stuart
12 Nov 2017

Wiggins is capable of many things, but it is this writer’s opinion that he will not be rowing at the Olympic Games

Bradley Wiggins isn’t averse to making big claims that capture the media's attention, and so it was no wonder that he announced his plan to target the Olympic Games once again. It was some surprise, though, that he claimed that it was rowing which would be the vessel for his final Olympic success.

While it would be a fantastic to see Britain’s most decorated Olympian return to the forefront of sport, we believe there is little to no chance that we’ll be seeing Sir Bradley Wiggins row at the 2020 Olympic Games.

The Olympian cycling champion might seem capable of anything, but there are a few reasons why a transition to the sport of rowing is near impossible.

Which boat class

First off, there are two classes of rowing, lightweight and heavyweight. With a maximum average limit of 70kg, Wiggins’s Tour de France race weight of 69kg would make him the perfect candidate for lightweight.

Olympic lightweight rower Mark Aldred, who finished 7th in the men’s lightweight coxless four at the 2016 Games, is a little sceptical of Wiggins’s lightweight potential.

‘The first thing I’d say is that it would be fantastic to see Wiggins get involved in the sport, whether indoor or on the water.

'If he is going for a lightweight rowing sport at the Olympics, though, I would say no there’s no chance as now the only Olympic lightweight class is the double scull – meaning only two seats are available,’ says Aldred. 

The IOC cut the men’s four from the Olympic programme for 2020, meaning that not only are there only two spots for dozens of hopefuls but all lightweight rowers must be scullers rather than sweep oarsmen.

‘They’re in a double scull, which is probably the most technical boat - in a single you can get away with doing your own style and it still works.

'In a quad it’s a bigger boat so you can get away with more. In a double you have to be perfectly in sync and scull well.’

Two spots competed for by every British lightweight is not only a tough set of odds, but the time taken for a double to ‘gel’ means that the crews are better left unchanged year after year.

Hamish Bond is making the opposite transition - from Olympic rower to cyclist

So that means Wiggins is probably best placed to row as a heavyweight, the preserve of the Pinsent and Redgrave-like walls of muscle. By the looks of his latest tweets on his training, that certainly seems to be the approach he's taking – bulking up considerably. 

‘If he is going for heavyweights he’d have to be pulling some serious scores,’ Aldred argues.

‘At 6’3’’ he would be one of the smallest people, but theoretically he’s probably just about tall enough.’

Aldred argues that he stands some chance as a heavyweight if he can develop the power.

‘If he’s serious and going for heavyweights then there are a lot of seats around and a lot of people have retired.’

An athlete who weighed around 70kgs at his prime may find trouble generating the same power as rowers who have trained for years at around 90-100kgs.

But Wiggins is awfully powerful...

The Hour of Power

For those not inclined toward extremely nerdy power data, you may want to skip this section. Beginning with the indoor rower (or erg), which is all we’ve seen of Wiggins so far, it looks as though he should have considerable power to be competitive at Olympic level.

On Instagram, Wiggins hinted at a 1 minute 49 second average split for an hour training session on the rowing machine (hereafter known as erg).

That is very impressive to an average bystander, but a way off the best heavyweights.

‘The top guys can sit at 1:40 dead for an hour, probably a little above rate 20,’ says Aldred. ‘A split of 1:49 would be a solid UT2 [zone 3 or 4] session for a lightweight.’

That would make it seem that Wiggins has some way to go, but if we look at the wattage he’s capable of on a bike, it seems he’s capable of far more impressive numbers.

If he is going for heavyweights he’d have to be pulling some serious scores

Wiggins is said to have averaged 456 watts at the 2011 World championships time trial for 55 minutes. That equivalent power would be a blazing 1 minute 32 second 500m split on an erg, for nearly an hour.

At a weight of around 70kgs, that would be far and away more powerful than any competitive rower could manage, and place Wiggins as one of the very best physiologically.

But despite using only the legs, cycling does appear to be more generous on watts. Comparing the highest wattbike scores from rowers, of which Olympic Champion Hamish Bond and indoor rowing specialist Graham Benton are near the top, there seems to be an output between 20 to 50 watts lower on a rowing machine versus on a bike – meaning Wiggins would be comparatively less powerful in a boat. 

That said, at even 400 watts for 55 minutes, (a 1.35.6 500m split) he would still be amongst the most powerful heavyweights in endurance terms.

To be competitive at a lightweight level he would only need to output around 430 watts for a 2km test - coming in around 6 minutes 15 seconds.

To be topping the heavyweight erg pile, though, he’ll need to be pulling around 5 minutes 50 seconds for 2km, which would need an output of 530 watts – equivalent to anything up to 580 watts on a bike.

That’s a little higher than we might expect an Olympic individual pursuit champion to put out for 4 minutes (estimated at around 520 watts in certain studies). So he may need to bulk up for the enormous top-end power of world class heavyweights.

While some have criticised Wiggins’s age and the effect of this on his physiology, that’s one area where he would prove less of an oddity.

Greg Searle won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games aged 40, the same age as Wiggins will be in 2020.

That’s a couple of years senior to Redgrave when he won his final Olympic gold, but equally Wiggins is in considerably better health than Redgrave - who suffered from colitis and diabetes which seriously impeded his final years of training.

The Technical Question

Rowing is a technical sport. While physiology will generally determine who sits atop the medal podium, every athlete at the Olympic games will be a master of the technical discipline.

'I’ve heard rumours that the power numbers are looking good,' says Matt Rossiter, 2017 World Championship bronze medallist in Great Britain's flagship boat, the men's heavyweight coxless four.

'But with rowing there is a large technique element that has to run alongside the correct physiology. I think that’s the area he’ll have to work on the hardest,' he adds.

Power can only get you so far. For instance, the most powerful lightweight rower ever on a rowing machine, Henrik Stephansen, has never managed to dominate the sport.

The lwt 2x is the most technical boat at the Olympics, meaning Wiggins should target heavyweight (Photo: Jimmy Harris) 

Despite rowing since a teenager, the Dane who has a startling 5 minute 56 second 2k ergo time has only finished as high as 13th at the Olympic Games.

The main reason for that is that the technical demands of the sport can be very difficult to perfect.

For those who’ve never sat in a boat, the demands technically include keeping the boat level, timing the stroke with the rest of the crew, perfecting the sequence in which muscles apply power and maximising the functional length of the ‘drive’ - the time when the oar (or ‘blade’) is in the water.

Even a small bad habit in any part of that technique cocktail can cost 20-30 seconds over a race, far eclipsing the advantage of an exceptional physiology.

‘It probably takes most people around 10 years to properly master it,’ Aldred tells me.

‘Like most things it’s easier to pick it up at a young age, but that said there are plenty of exceptions.’

Helen Glover for instance, started rowing in 2008 and became Olympic champion in 2012 with her pairs partner Heather Stanning.

‘The time scale isn’t out of the question, but she was a phenomenal athlete,’ Aldred adds.

‘You need to be known within the rowing world at least the year before the Olympics, meaning he’d have to be knocking on the door next year,’ says Aldred.

‘You’d have to have shown form by the end of 2018.’

Therein lies another problem for Wiggins, being a crew sport, and one where crews must qualify together, there is a schedule of racing that extends for years before the Olympics.

While the Olympics isn’t until 2020, Wiggins will have to get very good very quickly.

The Long Game

‘The thing he has on his side is that he’s well known as a fantastic athlete – the most decorated Olympian, so he will find it easier than most people coming into the sport.

‘In 2019 the boats won’t be locked down by any means, it will be an open trialling system each year.

'Obviously if they have a ridiculously good boat they won’t change it, but the main thing in 2019 is they need to qualify the boats for the Olympics at the World Championships,’ says Aldred.

‘So they’re not going to give someone a chance at those World Championships – you have to get the boat qualified. If you mess it up that boat won’t go to the Olympics.’

‘There are development boats which Wiggins could sit in, for lightweights for instance there’s a pair and a quad at the world championships, and for heavyweights there are crews that race at the European Championships,’ Aldred adds.

Wiggins would probably need to be in one of these by 2018, as before they qualify the boats they will want them to be proven on the world stage – much like a WorldTour team wouldn’t allow a cyclist who has never raced a WorldTour event to be in a Tour de France line-up.

Wiggins has hinted at a seven-day training programme toward the British Indoor Champs, for which his entry is now comfirmed, and we've seen several posts to social media suggesting he's taken to the water to develop some technical skill too.

At the Indoor Champs, many will be looking for an early show of form, with the six-minute mark for 2,000m traditionally being a target for competitive internatinal heavyweights.

'Getting close to or under 6 minutes, on a year's worth of rowing training, would be a phenomenal effort,' says Rossiter. 'That said, he probably has one of the best engines ever seen in the world of sport, so I wouldn’t be all that surprised!'

So while many commentators previously suggested his punt for a 2020 rowing spot was a little light-hearted, all signs suggest that is completely serious about his aspiration to top a new sport. Whether he has the time or skills to do so is a different matter.

The consensus is united in one thing: the rowing community would love Wiggins to become involved.

‘It would be so awesome for the sport,’ Aldred says. Olympic champion Andy Triggs-Hodge agreed full heartedly in an interview with the BBC.

Indeed, should Wiggins find himself on the embankment of the River Thames, he will find more than a few rowers willing to lend him a boat, set of blades and a change of clothing for that inevitable first capsize.

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