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Online racing in 2020

experiences, thoughts and ideas

Challenges and Opportunities

Restrictions caused by Covid have brought not only challenges but also opportunities to rowing, at least to indoor rowing.

The challenges are obvious: many rowing clubs and studios had to shut their doors, making indoor rowing a luxury allowed only to those having access to an erg in their own home or garage. Numerous indoor rowing championships had to be cancelled or postponed.

But it didn't take too long before race organizers realized that virtual indoor rowing races are an option, allowing people to attend races from their own homes or from rowing clubs where limited numbers or rowers could race at regulated intervals. This means that at least in theory more people have had the chance to enter international races, e.g. the British Rowing Indoor Championships BRIC being one good example (read more on that below).

Quiske Virtual Rowing Races on water and indoors

In Finland many indoor and outdoor rowing races were cancelled or postponed from March 2020 onwards. But it was not all bleak, e.g. we at Quiske brainstormed new virtual racing methods and in the summer we launched  monthly virtual rowing challenges on-water, and continued in the autumn with new indoor races focusing on technique.

In the on-water races rowers had to complete a circular rowing route over a specific time (e.g. 6 minutes) or distances (e.g. 6km and 10km). The rowing sessions were recorded with the Quiske Rowing App, and the result and the route was posted online for praise, rewards and peer support. Each challenge was running for a full calendar month allowing the competitors to try many times. We were happy to get many international rower entering the rowing challenges too :-)

The Tehnique Challenges for indoor rowers kicked off with the Quiske Rhythm Challenge where rowers competed in how relaxed their rowing is. Next came the Quiske Swing Challenge, which measured the correct swinging of the trunk. The third technique challenge is running until the end of February 2021: in the Quiske Style Challenge rowers compete in the skill of timing the opening of their back correctly (many rowers tend to open their back too early).

It is possible that we would not have come up with the above virtual challenges for on water and indoor rowing hadn't we been forced to think of new ways to interact and compete when we're not able to meet in person.

During the autumn also the some of the postponed traditional indoor rowing races in Finland were arranged remotely online. But we were especially delighted with the online version of the famous BRIC:

Competing in BRIC 2020: online from Crossfit Tuusula in Finland

Experiences from BRIC 2020

Being able to compete with the best of the best from the comfort of your living room without the cost and hassle of travelling to London! Pretty cool.

And if you didn't have access to an erg of your own you could look up a nearby rowing hub and join the competion there together with a handful of others.

Competing against the best at the British Rowning Indoor Championships Onine 2020

The BRIC online race was easy and quick to setup: The PM5 monitor connected via USB-cable to a laptop with online connection to the Dutch Time-Team system. The online races ran smoothly and on schedule. Here's the setup at a local Finnish competion hub at Crossfit Tuusula:

PM5 monitor connected via USB to a laptop connected to the Dutch Time Team system

This year BRIC not only offered the traditional 2K and 500m races on the Concept2 but also the same distances as well as 10K and the full marathon on any rowing machine in their online rowing league. Quiske crew made the most of the new racing format and competed on all distances on either the RP3 or C2 on slides :-). Unfortunately there were not yet that many competitors, but it didn't take too much away from the joy of getting to compete, thank you BRIC!

Going forward

It took a nasty virus to take the digital leap in indoor rowing racing. It's unnecessary to travel long distances and gather up in one place to race on machines physically next to each other. Online international competitions allow more people to enjoy the challenge of racing against the creme de la creme, bringing motivation and giving a boost to the whole rowing community.

The BRIC Online League was especially interesting in that it allowed competitors on any types of ergs to join. This is a really welcome change since previously indoor rowing races have almost exclusively been performed on specifically the static Concept 2 only. Which is quite odd really, since pulling the static Concept2 doesn't really have that much to do with rowing at all. However, by lifting the Concept 2 on top of a pair of slides you get a combo which feels much more like rowing. Also, there are other machines which more closely mimic the motion of rowing, such as the Concept 2 dynamic, the RP3, and the Oartec.

Why, then, haven't rowers been able to join indoor rowing races on machines that most correspond to real rowing?

The reason, most likely, is that there is no way to make results measured with different types of machines comparable?:

Split comparability between different ergs

In order to be able to compete with different types of machines in the same race you need to know how to compare their split times.

We did some tests and, to put it shortly: Dynamic is faster.

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According to tests by our team (we’ve rowed some 70.000km on C2, 12.000km on C2 on slides, and another 12.000km on the RP3) C2 on slides and RP3S have very comparable splits at least on medium distances and are about 1% faster than static C2, i.e. they have 2% higher power (watts).

It seems lightweight rowers have a slightly larger advantage in splits whereas those who are new to rowing might in fact be slower on dynamic than on static. What is your experience: Do you go faster on static or dynamic?

Here's the result of interval testing (6x4min with 2min rest) on three types of ergs:

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The difference in split is about 1.5% for small distance (e.g. 2K and anything that takes less than 30minutes) and about 1% for longer distances.

Our testing is empirical but we've heard many rowers have drawn similar conclusions on their own.

Standard interface?

For absolute trustworthy results a standard interface is needed to allow comparing machines in racing situations. Such an interface could easily be created for any machines that share the same basic resistance mechanicsm (such as e.g. the most common air-resistance).

In most of the most common ergs based on air-drag resistance, the split measurement is done in a very simple way: there are 3 or 4 magnets on the flywheel which send signals to an interface unit, which is connected to a proprietary monitor, such as the C2 PM5 or the RP3 tablet.

If the chain of the erg is in direct contact with the flywheel shaft, as in the C2, Oartec or RP3S, the resulting splits are therefore very similar.

However, if there are some additional elements built in (such as e.g. a belt between the chain and the flywheel, causing some energy loss as in e.g. the RP3T) then a compensation factor is needed in the interface or in the monitor.

In any case it would be good to have some official calibration to make splits measured on different machines absolutely comparable. This calibration would enable different types of machines to join indoor rowing races on the same line.

A calibration as suggested above has already been done for bikes in the world’s most famous virtual cycling system Zwift. It could serve as a baseline for any efforts to reach a similar goal for indoor rowing.

Note that the indoor rowing online racing system does not currently know the number of magnets or anything else related to e.g. where the monitor has been connected, but has to trust the input of the user. This means that there is the possiblity of cheating in remote racing (the user can mistakenly or on purpose input the wrong number of magnets in the PM5 monitor settings by choosing the wrong type of C2 model). Also, the online racing system is not able to know whether the Concept 2 is on slides or not.

Virtual indoor rowing races are here to stay

When it comes to indoor rowing, virtual online competitions don't really differ so much from traditional racing on site: in any case the rowers do their own races from their own stationary spots and follow the progress from their own screens. Indeed the rower has access to the same real time information during both online and on site racing.

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During remote online racing the competitors can have their own local support teams cheer them on during the race, allowing all competitors to gather a bigger local audience than would be possible if they had to travel far to attend a competition at a specific international location.

We hope virtual racing will continue to evolve and that there will be races where different types of ergs, including dynamic, are welcome to join. Today the Concept2 is the golden standard for indoor rowing and practically all official indoor rowing championships are arranged using the machine. The Concept2 was initially created to support on-water rowing to allow for sport-specific training on land. From there it grew in popularity and today it is one of the most used fitness device in gyms worldwide.

However, unfortunately, the fact that the Concept2 in its static form has become the one and only standard for indoor rowing racing has stopped e.g. dynamic rowers from becoming more common. People want to be able to benchmark their achievements and therefore buy into the Concept2 community although there nowadays would be dynamic machines available, which support training for on water rowing much better and are more healthy for your back, knees, and joints too.

Comparing the results from different types of ergs is certainly possible, but the standard interface needs to be built: Who is up for the task? ;-)

Comparing dynamic and static indoor rowing machines

Happy rowing into the new year,

Quiske team