Rowing: Cambridge in cruise mode

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The Independent Online
CAMBRIDGE EXTENDED their winning run in the Boat Race to seven years by once again, for the third year in succession, producing the fastest crew ever. This is not hyperbole or even unexpected. Their finishing time of 16min 41sec broke the pre-1998 record and would have been faster than last year's crew, but for the fact that the tide which pushed them up from Putney to Mortlake was weaker and there was no wind.

The Light Blue coaching team, which seems able to control everything else, has not yet brought the moon or the breeze under its command. In other sports the achievements of the past are eclipsed by three good factors and one bad.

Improvements in equipmentmake it easier for each generation to outstrip the past. Improvements in training and technique which are not the same, but lumped together for this argument, are always important. The third good is the wider selection of the available pool of athletes and their superior physical condition. But the Cambridge secret has been wise use and combination of the strange and various styles and traditions which have turned up for the first day of training each year. The bad is, of course, artificial aids such as banned drugs, which are not part of this sporting tale.

There is a familiar complaint that the Boat Race is no longer between British-born undergraduates. That is because it has always been a private match between the two university clubs. The Boat Race oarsmen now, as then, provide an accurate representation of the two places. There have been lots of Americans, Canadians, Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Serbs and Croats in the past few years because that is a reflection of the student body in those places. As the number of races mounts there is also a greater probability that all the benign elements, tide, wind, a great crew and a tight race, will come together on the same day. When that happened last year the old records went by 30 seconds.

This crew was equally capable but no one, least of all their own camp, was convinced they could pull it off. They had gone truly fast in training, finishing two 1,000m rows at Ely in 2min 43secs while trying out the different gearing of the oar length beyond the fulcrum. Then in Nottingham the week before the race they had skinned a Notts County crew which, although largely composed of lightweights, was hugely experienced. One minute 17 seconds for 500m is respectable speed for a 2,000m Olympic crew and is not expected days before a four-and-a-half mile race.

When Cambridge won the toss they chose the Surrey side of the course because they hoped they could get the best of the stream in the first couple of minutes and because they knew they had the speed to get to the first bend without suffering a disadvantage. Afterwards their coach, Robin Williams, said: "I never thought we could take the Fulham bend as well as we did. I could not allow myself the luxury of a smile but I felt we could win from there." Oxford, meanwhile, had looked so secure and confident in training that you could be convinced they would settle into a solid rhythm and bide their time while Cambridge threw in their early fireworks, before moving to the front. But shortly after the bend had turned in their favour it was difficult to spot the moment when they tried the move. Already they were lacking dash and verve.

It was Tim Wooge - who in training had been slowest to assimilate the Cambridge rhythm and, for some, the surprise choice for the key stroke seat - who looked the sharper and Oxford's Colin von Ettingshausen, the world champion and Olympic silver medallist, who looked like he was pulling a block of lead. At Hammersmith the gap was still negligible for men of this character and discipline but with 40 clinical strokes Cambridge put the knife in, sweeping clear and leaving Oxford to find their way home, wallowing in their wake for the next three miles.

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