1 March 2017
Tim Koch writes:
In the recent HTBS post, The 2017 Boat Race Fixtures: The Story So Far, the report on the two races on 29 January between the potential Cambridge University men’s Blue Boat and the Oxford Brookes University First Eight noted that the first piece (Putney to Chiswick Eyot) ended in a draw and that the race over the second part of the Boat Race course saw Brookes two lengths up on the Light Blues at the Mortlake finish post. My rather obvious conclusion was ‘Brookes will take on Oxford on 26 February and, naturally, the result of that race could be very telling.’
Come 26 February and their fixture against the probable Oxford crew, Brookes put out the same crew that raced Cambridge but for a change in the ‘3’ seat. I was unable to attend what was likely to be one of the most interesting of the Boat Race fixtures as I was 180 miles away on coxing duty at the Head of the Trent, so the official Boat Race website tells the story:
OUBC went out hard, taking a couple of seats in the opening 20 strokes. Under the close observation of umpire John Garrett, the two crews exchanged blows as a refined, relaxed style from OUBC met the aggression and tenacity of a Brookes crew stacked with former Henley winners and U23 internationals. Steadily worsening conditions made the going tough, as OUBC stretched out to ¾ of a length. Both crews struggled in the chop, but it was the Dark Blues who looked to be coping better as they broke clear of Brookes passing Harrods Depository. Hammersmith Bridge loomed large as OUBC continued to draw away from their opponents – at St Paul’s School, the lead was nearly two lengths. Despite a late surge from Brookes, OUBC ran out reasonably comfortable winners in the first piece.
The second race began level with Chiswick Eyot in conditions that threatened to dictate the rhythm and dynamic of an absorbing contest. Both crews appeared to cope better than previous incidents though, as OUBC again took an early two-seat lead. However, Brookes rallied and the bows were level after 40 strokes. OUBC, who had the advantage of the Surrey bend, were smoother in their execution, which was paying dividends in choppy water. Approaching Barnes Bridge, the Dark Blues led by ½ length as the two boats slewed across the narrow passage of stream in search of faster water. Despite the best efforts of an increasingly desperate Brookes crew, OUBC managed to extend their lead to ¾ of a length as they edged around the final elbow of the course. Spurred on by persistent encouragement from their coaches, Brookes launched a final assault; the rate went up, the squeeze came on and the pain was evident in the assembled grimaces. Nonetheless, the sprint appeared to be working and, as the crews approached the line, it was Brookes who had the momentum. In testament to the competitiveness of the fixture, the final verdict was a seat to OUBC as all 16 athletes collapsed across the line.
While the natural conclusion to draw from this is that Oxford are faster than Cambridge, the potential variables in the University Boat Race are so great that it is still a brave person who would bet on this two-horse race. Some may even say that comparing two fixtures held on the ever changing Thames Tideway four weeks apart for a race that is still a month away has no great meaning, particularly as the Blue Boats are training to peak on race day, not before.
The contrary view to that above would be that with modern sports science, the likely result of the Boat Race is more predictable and more measurable nowadays than in the past. In what some imagine was the event’s ‘golden age’, less well trained oarsmen battled it out until one crew’s fitness ran out or their technique collapsed under pressure – not something likely to happen to today’s superb athletes.
So, the winner on 2 April will be Oxford. Or Cambridge.