On a day more appropriate to Henley, with snoggers and sunbathers filling the towpaths from Putney to Mortlake, a stiff headwind and a full stream caused by the spring rains kept Cambridge's time well outside the record, but this was nevertheless an impressive performance. Rowing with the smooth efficiency imparted by the tutelage of the first-year head coach Robin Williams, the Light Blues looked the thoroughbred unit they are. Four of them are Olympic oarsmen, four were returning from last year's crew, and their experience imparted the serene confidence needed to wait for Oxford's opening attack to spend itself.
And, for six or seven minutes, what an attack it was. Russell Slatford, the Cambridge coxswain, won the toss and selected the Surrey station. That, it seemed, played into the hands of Oxford, who had hoped to grab an initial advantage on the inside of Fulham Reach and establish the sort of lead that would give them enough of an advantage for a change of stations at Hammersmith.
All the traditional pre-race controversies - over bursaries to oarsmen and over the international compositions of the crews - were set aside as Oxford, their boat containing five Americans, a Serb and a Norwegian, went for the burn straight away, pulling ahead by almost a canvas as they put more than 20 strokes into the first half-minute, trying to make the most of their weight advantage of two and a half pounds a man. By the time the crews reached Craven Cottage, Oxford knew that physical strength and aggression would not be enough to win the day. While they punched their short strokes into the water, Cambridge's unruffled power was bringing them level. Slatford held his course, unperturbed by the extreme proximity of the boats and the umpire's warnings, but the Dark Blue boat seemed to lose momentum as Abbie Chapman, the Oxford cox, made several enforced steering adjustments.
Consistently pulling two or three strokes a minute below Oxford's feverish rate, Cambridge had taken a lead of almost half a length at the Mile Post, by which time they were already 20 seconds behind the record time. Here was the heart of the race: in the next three minutes the lead went up to a full length at Harrods Wharf, to a length and a half at Hammersmith Bridge, and to two and a half lengths as they approached Chiswick Eyot, now in line astern. The intensity of this spell of pressure was an enormous tribute to the quality of Cambridge's stroke, 21-year-old Miles Barnett, supported by his No 7 oar, the much more experienced Marko Banovic, the first Croat to participate in the event.
Oxford, their motivation pumped up by the bellows of Topolski's rhetorical skill, showed a great deal of courage as they hung on through Coney Reach, raising their rate to 36 as the two slim, primose-yellow Empacher shells sliced through the water towards Barnes Bridge, the puddles from their blades sparkling in the sunshine. But Cambridge's implacable 32 carried far greater meaning, and over the final stretch there was never the question of a counter-attack.
"It was a sweet experience," said Richard Phelps, the Cambridge president, rowing at No 4 in the Light Blue boat. "Oxford fought a good mental campaign, but we always knew we were the faster crew. They'd shown that they could move the boat fast, but they could only produce that speed for a limited period.''
For Topolski, Oxford's coaching director, who supervised 11 victories in the 12 years between 1976 and 1987 and caused general surprise by agreeing to return six months ago on a three-year contract, realism was the only response. "We knew last September that we had a long, long way to go," he said afterwards. "I'm proud of the way the boys came through it. But I was very impressed with Cambridge." His failure this year only makes the prospect of the next two races more enticing.Reuse content