For 10 hectic days last month I was down on the River Lot, 50 km south of Bergerac. This is the famously smooth, slow-flowing water on which so many of the world’s top rowers have honed their skills. First stop was the La Base camp at Temple-sur-Lot, where crews from the French national squads and OUBC do much of their training, and where I was one of three coaches looking after a 40-strong mixed-ability group from my own London club, Putney Town RC. It was great to meet some of the new members and help them build up their confidence, skills and speed.
After several action-packed days at La Base, I got back on my bike and headed upstream to Penne Sculling, to help Allan Whitwell with a class of 5 older scullers: two competent men from Thames Tradesmen RC – the club which hosts LOSBC – and three women, two comparative beginners, and a third who was their coach. This trio were from a group I had not heard of called the “Rowing Vagabonds”. One of them arrived on an alarmingly enormous motorcycle.
Water conditions were perfect, as so often in this part of France – and good progress was made , with a variety of technical problems identified and solved, and performance improved as a result. Allan’s unique brand of intensive training seldom fails to pay dividends.
This interlude on another river, working with rowers of widely differing ages and abilities, was an opportunity to step back and think broadly about what it is that people who sign up for sports training want, and what they actually need. With the first phase of the QBR Bergerac project nearing completion, these questions are becoming more and more relevant.
My own approach to training revolves around 4 recurring ideas:
- Technique is at least as important as strength
- How equipment is set up is at least as important as how well it is made
- Rowing improves faster when it’s combined with cycling – and vice-versa
- Yoga exercises are the key to the maintenance and repair of the body.
I’d like to make QBR Bergerac a place where this particular combination of ideas can not only be put into practice, but can also be measured and assessed. The resulting data could, I like to think, nudge what is currently just a hypothesis a little closer to being scientific fact. But before attempting anything so ambitious, I must deal with the basic practicalities of bringing in visitors – feeding, housing and providing them with the kind of multi-disciplinary coaching I have in mind.
Even more urgently, I must take some fundamental decisions about equipment. What sort of boats, bikes and rowing machines are we going to need?
A captive audience
At Temple-sur-Lot I had a captive audience of Putney Townees, who in the absence of anything better to do in the evening were happy to form instant focus-groups to discuss these issues. And their response to my call for volunteer guinea-pigs was fantastic. A dozen or so have already put their names forward, and the first of these brave South Londoners to show up at Bergerac – Richard Benton – has just left. He’s seen here trying out the new RP3 , with one of my Rowperfect Classics alongside. The trusty old Concept 2 is downstairs awaiting its turn.
RP3 or C2? A tough decision.
There was a lively debate on the relative merits of these machines. Which would be more suitable as the default ergometer for use at QBR Bergerac?
As an obsessive type, I had become so absorbed in this question that on my last drive to Bergerac from England I decided to add 450 miles to my journey, and to go via Haaksbergen, on the eastern edge of Holland near the German border. I wanted to meet Jan Lammers, who runs the European RP3 production facility, and see for myself what they’re doing there. (The corporate situation at RP is complicated, but suffice it so say that Jan is the ultimate authority on RP3 matters in Europe.)
I arrived in Rotterdam early in the morning and set out eastwards, alongside a steady stream of cyclists of all types and ages, on their own dedicated cycle paths running parallel to the main road. Water everywhere – canals, rivers and lagoons, and several rowing venues. Lots of big German cars hustling each other along, plus a surprising number of Californian Teslas (at one point I had three in a row overtake me). The overall impression was of a rich, enterprising, energetic society – just the place for producing a super-high-specification rowing machine. If people are happy to import a top end Tesla they’ll be willing to pay extra for a rowing machine if it’s demonstrably better. But is such perfectionism sensible? Or is it an example of consumerist self-indulgence?
Where the RP3 is made
As I arrived in Haaksbergen, the RP building was easy to find, with its logo visible from the road. Jan met me at the door and after a cup of coffee (Douwe Egberts, naturally) we got down to business. Jan knew something about the QBR Bergerac project from reading the website, and understood my interest in the use of data in both fitness and technical training. I said I had come all this way to see his production methods and wanted to get a feel for how his company worked and where it was heading. Where would they be in five years’ time? What sort of things would they be producing in the future? We chatted about general business stuff – R&D, production, competition, marketing, and about how algorithms are changing everything. And then he took me on a guided tour.
I was impressed. The ground floor was assembly, dispatch and store rooms, plus a workshop in which the heart of the machine, the fly-wheel, is made. These steel wheels, which looked identical to the ones still working well in my original Rowperfect Classic, were being assembled on premium-quality German bearings and trued to 0.2 grams. This is the key assemblage which must be made flawlessly, which is why this work is always kept in-house. Other components can be outsourced, but not the flywheel. Small magnets were being inserted into the steel dish to which the blades are attached, a delicate process which reminded me of the (rather larger-scale) turbine production line in Rolls Royce’s Derby factory.
We looked briefly at handles. The Dutch national squad had asked for a slightly non-standard dipped angle, rotated down and out to give a more natural finish position comparable to how handles are angled when working with two sculling blades. The theory here is that the wrists would be more comfortable in a more natural finish position, particularly for long sessions. These handles were now being made in several variants with larger and smaller grips. I am keen to try these myself and do some comparative testing with the guinea-pigs at Bergerac to see if they really do make a difference. I’ll write more on this once I have clocked up some mileage with them.
Upstairs there’s a Scandinavian-style open-plan work space with a large meeting table and a some desks: this is the HQ office. And next to it is a large room full of working machines, many of them in active use throughout the day.
Just seeing this activity room, which combines the functions of showroom, research lab and development workshop, made the trip worthwhile. Here I saw how groups of machines could be monitored by a coach remotely. They were testing Bluetooth low energy links, and the aim is to facilitate the linking of new machines to Ant + (the Garmin standard) and other Bluetooth platforms for heart-rate monitoring. This will allow people to use their own straps and continue live transfer to their own devices as well as to the local RP3 network. Clever stuff.
Before I set off back to France, Jan showed me some prototypes. One was a new method of linking machines into a network for precisely-synchronised group workouts – potentially very useful for pairs and quads. Another was a fitting for the RP3’s rear leg to measure and record the degree of bounce. Both of these struck me as exciting developments, and I told Jan I would be happy to collaborate in these areas of research if that would be helpful. We agreed to pursue this idea further.
I left Holland with two large cartons in the back of the car, reinforced in my views about the RP3, and the practical advantages of its ultra-realistic simulation of real-life rowing. Jan is a great salesman.
But before making final decisions, I needed to look again at the main competition, the C2. Is the difference between these machines really all that important? And what is it worth?
The Concept 2 is of course the industry-standard machine, used all over the world for assessing and comparing performance. I’ve accumulated quite a collection of these over the 30-odd years I’ve been working with ergo kit. I haven’t tried to work out how many C2 kms I’ve clocked, but it must be high 5-figures. The machines get better with every new model – and are, into the bargain, almost half the price of the RP3. So the practical argument for the C2 is strong, and for many people it will be the obvious choice.
At a personal level, too, I have huge admiration for its inventors Dick and Pete Dreissigacker, having met Dick at their factory in Vermont (where they once kindly mended some broken oars for me without charge). I’ve also had several enjoyable outings at their nearby Craftsbury Sculling centre – which is impressive even in comparison with Temple-sur-Lot.
Nevertheless, it must be said that the C2 remains in some respects short of perfect, and the RP3 does solve some of the C2’s persistent problems. For many people, these problems will not seem all that serious: but for me personally, the advantages of the RP3 are important and valuable.
In fact, I must declare an interest here: I have grown to love my RP3 because I know it will not hurt me – while I merely respect my C2, which I know I must treat with caution because of my delicate ribs and shoulder, both of which I have managed to injure on a C2 session.
But money doesn’t grow in trees, as the politicians have helpfully been pointing out. Before committing to one side or the other, the competing arguments must be weighed. So in conclusion, here’s a summary of the main points on both sides, with an attempt at impartiality:
How the RP3 scores against the C2
- Both machines can adjust resistance to match gearing in the boat, but with the C2 one has to adjust the drag by reference to tables and formulae. The RP3 self-adjusts with remarkable accuracy when you enter your weight and boat-type. This is valuable if there are multiple users.
The RP3 software displays an accurate real-time force curve which is far superior to the equivalent read-out on the C2. It can also collect and display other information such as power output per pulse, or length of stroke. Wonderful for data addicts.
- The way in which both fly wheel and sliding seat move together on the RP3 provides a softer pick-up and a “dynamic” action which is a more realistic simulation of being on the water. (With school-age beginners who spend too much time on C2 machines without coaches, I’ve noticed that most of them lift their shoulders far too soon – and I attribute this to the static wheel and unrealistic weight at the start of the stroke.)
- The RP3’s wobbly seat encourages better posture at either end of the stroke (their website emphasises “core muscle-development” in this context, but I see this as a bit of a side issue).
How the C2 scores against the RP3
- The C2 is the global standard for comparative data. Currently, if you want to know how you stack up compared with everyone else, you must get on a C2.
- All the major heartrate monitor systems are supported (Garmin has overtaken Polar as the most-used system and the new C2 machines recognises all the major manufacturers). RP3 currently recognises only the Polar HR straps. People who have their workouts logged automatically (using Training Peaks, Strava etc.) often prefer the C2 because of this.
- Its mechanisms are easily maintained and extremely robust and should last you a lifetime.
- It’ll cost you a lot less than an RP3.
A decision is finally reached. We’ll keep least one C2 machine for reference purposes – but for day-to-day training work we’ll go for the new RP3.
The deciding factor for me was the software. The RP3 analytic data-handling is tremendous. I could, for example, (and indeed hope to) obtain a workout database from Andrew Campbell – a talented Harvard University lightweight sculler & RP3 user of about my size who won the Head of the Charles three years ago – to compare his output with my own, or with that of pupils of similar size. By visually overlaying the Campbell stroke profile onto the RP3 screen, I can copy his stroke precisely, with full powerphase and ancillary data (such as power per pulse and stroke length). This is ground-breaking stuff, and I predict it will be very useful for technique-development.
Now comes the budget crunch, though – and I must raise some money by selling some of my older equipment, including the two RP Classics. Here’s your chance! Any reasonable offers will be considered.
Here’s what I’m offering, with some buy-it-now price suggestions:
- Rowperfect Classic (1)., with data port, Polar HR monitor Strap and sensor. Selection of disks for adjusting resistance. Good working order. £850 or €875.
- Rowperfect Classic (2)., with data port, Polar HR monitor strap and sensor. Ex OUBC machine, so a bit battered (e.g. part of handle rest cradle missing), but all functioning correctly. Still a great machine with good data. £650 or €700.
- Concept 2 Model B – Best offer!
How did the guinea pig do?
Brilliantly. Richard worked hard and improved his technique on both real and simulated water. On the Ergo evaluation side, the time he spent on the RP3, comparing it with his previous experience of the C2, resulted in the RP3 claiming a zealous new convert: on departure he vowed that as soon as he got home to London he would call his builders with a view to converting the attic so that he could buy his own RP3 and install it there.
As for his reaction to the Bergerac setup generally, here’s the message he sent when he got home:
“Thanks for all the great coaching – I learned loads in my two days clinic! New training regime starts here and now. British National Masters coming up and feeling new confidence going into lanes. Can’t wait to come back to Bergerac for a full week.”
Not at all scientific, I know, but an encouraging start. When the next guinea pigs come, we should have more data-gathering capacity and can make a start with the stats. Meanwhile, if you think you might like to come to Bergerac yourself sometime, whether as a coach, a pupil or even a guinea pig, do please send the enquiry form, and we’ll keep you posted.