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Olympic rower says Wiggins faces headwinds in switch to rowing

The retired Tour de France champion is undertaking the sport of rowing, so we chatted with a former Olympian about his chances.

Lost in the headlines last week was confirmation that Bradley Wiggins is getting serious about his bid for another Olympic medal, this time in rowing.

Last week’s decision by UK Anti-Doping to close the investigation into Team Sky’s infamous “Jiffy Bag” without charges drove the news cycle. The 2012 Tour de France winner might have seen his reputation in tatters over his use of corticoids via TUEs, but the 37-year-old and eight-time Olympic medalist Wiggins is now taking more serious steps for another Olympic bid.

Wiggins has posted recent photos on Instagram of himself looking buff after training sessions on a rowing machine. Any doubt about Wiggins’ seriousness in the endeavor was erased when he confirmed he will race in the British indoor national rowing championships on December 9. A strong performance — Wiggins is confirmed to compete in a 2,000-meter race — would bolster his chances for a spot for the 2020 Olympics.

How realistic are Wiggins’ chances of making the switch from one endurance sport to another? Many cyclists transition into triathlon or marathon, two events that share much with cycling. In contrast, rowing is a radically different sport with a very specific skillset.

VeloNews asked Gearoid Towey, a three-time Olympic rower and former world champion, about Wiggins’ chances of making the grade. Towey represented Ireland in three Olympics (2000, 2004, and 2008), and was once rescued with a rowing partner in the high seas after his 23-foot rowboat was capsized by a 35-foot wave 40 days into an attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean.

Towey also has experience with cyclists, and has worked with many as part of his organization Crossing the Line, which helps professional and Olympic athletes transition into their post-athletic careers.

VeloNews: What do you make of Wiggins’ attempt to go back to the Olympics with rowing?
Gearoid Towey: I’ve never spoken to him, but there are a couple of factors that would make it very difficult for him. First off is the skill acquisition. Rowing is a very skilled sport, and rowing is like a combo of ice-skating and cycling. It’s part brute force and pain, but you also have to be agile and dainty. That skill is hard to pick up in just three or four years.

VN: And the other?
GT: The other aspect is power. I gather he’s doing decent times on a rowing machine, but from what I’ve heard, he’s about 30 seconds off the heavyweight group. That’s a big chunk of time. You can make big gains when you start off, but it’s that last 15 to 30 seconds that’s the hardest.

VN: Britain has a long tradition of rowing, so I imagine he can’t expect to just stroll onto the team?
GT: The British team is a power-based team, and if he doesn’t come under a certain score, that would be his biggest barrier. I’ve seen some scores he’s put out; scores that would decent for a good lightweight rower, at 70kg or under, but he’s still short of the top heavyweight rowers. I could see him getting within reach of it. If he was inside a different system than the British system, in a country like Sweden or Spain, he probably could get on with a national team. It’s not as easy in the UK. These guys are giants, 6-foot-5 and 100kg. They’re like cattle. They’re not going to put someone on their program just to raise their profile or to bring publicity to the team. They’ve won medals in every Olympic cycle for years.

VN: Rowing has a very unique skillset; do you think it’s realistic he could become adept enough in time for 2020?
GT: If you’re on the crew, you have to move in unison, everyone’s movements in exactly the same time, with three or seven other guys. It’s very precise. It’s like swimming, and it’s hours and hours of doing the same thing over and over. With his track background, he’d be used to that. Rowing is a bit like doing team pursuit. You’ve got to be sprinter at the beginning and then at the end, and give that max power at the start and finish. He’ll have the engine.

VN: So if you were a betting man, do you think he could do it?
GT: It would be kind of cool if he did it. I would like him to surprise me in that regard. It’s a pain sport, just like cycling is. It’s not as exciting as cycling. It doesn’t have the crowds, and it’s a fairly outlying sport. It’s interesting he chose that. I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s a very talented person.