University boat race with a difference: Oxford and Cambridge prepare for battle in Ely

Oxford University Boat Club train on the Great Ouse near Ely in Cambridgeshire
Oxford University Boat Club train on the Great Ouse near Ely in Cambridgeshire (PA Wire)
10:27am, Sat 03 Apr 2021
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Oxford men’s chief coach Sean Bowden will breathe a huge sigh of relief when the 2021 University Boat Race crews finally go head to head again over the Great Ouse on Sunday.

The 2020 event would have staged the 166th men’s race and the 75th women’s contest along the Thames, but those best-laid plans were cancelled in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The continuing challenges posed by current coronavirus restrictions as well as uncertainty over the safety of Hammersmith Bridge resulted in this year’s race being moved to Ely.

Key for the organisers was the remote Fenland location, which will host a ‘closed event’ on Easter Sunday.

Surrounding public footpaths will be closed, while squads entered bubbles as part of their final preparations.

Oxford have given up ‘home water’ advantage to the Light Blues, with Ely the location of the Cambridge University boathouse.

Bowden, though, is just grateful for the 2021 race to have been given the green light, which came after plenty of cause for concern from both coaches and rowers alike.

“The thing which has been the hardest has been worrying for the rowers, worrying for the event,” said Bowden, who took up his role in 1997 and has helped guide Oxford to 12 victories, including three successive triumphs up to 2015.

Oxford University Boat Club train on the River Great Ouse near Ely in Cambridgeshire (PA Wire)

“These are young men and women who have put their lives on hold and made a lot of sacrifices along the way.

“They missed out last year, and (there was) the chance of missing out again.

“I think that certainly is what I found really hard, being at the sharp end of responsibility for trying to get people a good shot at something they have worked really hard for.

“The thought of that that not working, the risk (of there being no 2021 race) was definitely quite stressful at times.

“So we are extremely grateful to British Rowing DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) and everyone else who has given us this great opportunity.”

Cambridge would appear to be favourites, having completed a second successive whitewash in 2019 for the men’s and women’s crews, as well as claiming both reserve races.

The 4.89 kilometres is almost a straight run from just north of the Prickwillow Road bridge to the finish at Littleport ahead of the Victoria Street bridge.

But Cambridge bow Theo Weinberger insists there can be no room for complacency.

Cambridge University Boat Club rower Theo Weinberger (PA Wire)

“The Thames course is very tactical, weather dependent as well,” said the 22-year-old, who is studying the MPhil programme in Scientific Computing at St John’s College.

“You probably lose a bit of that in Ely, there are no twists and turns, no bends for tactical pushes.

“I am really confident with the crew, the boat and how we are going.”

Weinberger told the PA news agency: “But we don’t want to let our confidence lapse into over confidence, to think that we will walk away with it because we are on home water – definitely not because fundamentally it is a straight-lane course and the fastest crew wins.”

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