Rowing machines have been around for a while, but most people are familiar with the Concept 2 made in Morrisville, Vermont and used in the annual C.R.A.S.H.-B sprints — the putative world indoor rowing championship. In the last decade the ergometer has broken out of the boathouses and basements where they were alternatively ,loathed and loved by their users, largely due to CrossFit’s embrace of the machine for its high intensity interval workouts.
Since first appearing in the late 1970s as the Model A, the Concept 2 has become the standard rowing machine used by rowing teams to train and score rowers. There’s also a big following amongst non- and former-rowers, who used Concept2’s online logbook to log their workouts and compare themselves to other rowers around the world. Every winter — usually smack in the middle of the worst of the ice and slush — indoor rowing races like the Cranberry Crunch held here on Cape Cod give people like me a chance to compete against other people and not go slowly crazy cranking away listening to the same heavy-metal playlist I’ve been listening to since 1995 when I bought my Model C.
All those satellite indoor rowing regattas culminate with the C.R.A.S.H.-B’ Sprints in late February — a couple hundred ergometers on the floor of the Boston University hockey rink — with a digital leaderboard and an announcer and all the trappings of an actual sport. Those sprints are 2,000 meters and can take an Olympic gold medalist as little as five-and-a-half minutes to complete, to somewhere north of eight minutes for less endowed mortals. It’s an ugly experience marked by anguished expressions on red faces followed by involuntary vomiting int a trash can. The sound of the flywheels and the fan blades is Pavlovian for anyone who has logged a lot of time on an erg. My buddy Charlie who has a silver medal, used an erg on the balcony of his apartment in Arizona while he studied for his MBA and got in shape for the ’84 LA Olympics. He says the sound makes his stomach churn. yet he still climbs onto the machine every so often.
There have always been other rowing machines to pick from. A college teammate, John Duke, designed and marketed the Water Rower — which uses a clear plastic tank filled with water instead of the Concept2’s use of air pressure and a damper to simulate the drag of an oar through the water on the internal flywheels. Kevin Spacey rowed a Water Rower in House of Cards. I’ve never tried one.
Then there are the horrors that hotel chains used to buy and stick in their fitness centers. Those things were bad and led to Concept2 offering an “Erg Locator” on its website so addicts could book themselves into hotels with the real McCoy when they traveled on business. Those knockoffs weren’t nearly as bad as the “rowing machines” sold for $29.95 that used two screendoor pistons, and a squeaky seat on wheels to give grandma something to ride while she watched General Hospital.
There have been some software programs that have tried to enhance the monotony of indoor rowing. Because the Concept2 display has an ethernet port, I could plug it into my laptop, set that on a chair next to the machine, and row against virtual conpetitors or a computer-generated paceboat. Those programs would upload workout results to the Concept2 Online Rankings, and had options to show one’s power profile, and other super geeky statistical functions that did nothing to improve on the bleak truth that rowing is about as dynamic an activity as being a human metronome approaching cardiac arrest.
Stationary bicycles, treadmills, stairmasters — all of them are boring because they don’t move. The view never changes, there’s no wind rushing, no splashing, no risk of capsizing or getting taken out by a Cape Cod nailbanger in a Ford F-250 with a bag full of Fireball nips. Peloton is viewed as the digital exercise company that cracked the boredom issue by networking high quality stationary bicycles with online classes. I tried to ride one in LA last spring, but I was too tired to figure it out and missed the full Peloton experience.
Now a Cambridge company, True Rowing, is about to introduce a new indoor rower, the “Crew” with a 22″ flatpanel display and the promise of real time rowing workouts broadcast from the Thames, the Charles, the Schuykill ….. There will be instructors, and from what I can read from the press release and early coverage, an opportunity to row in synch with the rower (s) on screen. That’s a big deal because a lot of the trick in rowing is learning how to perfectly coordinate oneself with seven other people in a round-bottomed, 60-foot long boat that’s a little bit wider than your butt in lumpy water and waves.
The Crew is a good looking machine – a little too “Jetson” for my tastes — and has all the expected pieces such as an oar handle, a place for the feet, and a rolling seat for the butt. Resistance comes from magnets. I’ve towerd on ergs that used a basket of weights (the Gamut circa 1976), water, air, and even magnets to put some resistance behind the flywheel. Magnets were the worst and the method favored by one of the early makers of health club and hotel rowing machines. But no judging until I actually get on a Crew and pull a few strokes.
The obvious difference with the Crew is the monitor. Concept2 uses a display that gives the most basic feedback — split times, elapsed time, strokes per minute, calories, watts , etc, — so the rower can stare at a little square of grey LCD numbers and do constant arithmetic, calculating how many more strokes will be needed before the agony will end.
I wish True Rowing the best, and I signed up for a first look. At $2,000 for the machine and $40 monthly subscription, the machine is priced exactly the same as a Peloton bicycle. That prices the Crew at twice the cost of a Concept 2, signalling that True doesn’t have delusions of eating into Concept2’s base in the rowing and CrossFit markets, but is going after the rich guy with the same pitch the Water Rower used — rowing machines should be beautiful and capable of hanging out in the living room.
Dick Cashin is one of the investors in True Rowing, and that more than anything is the best endorsement for the Crew as he is a rowing legend who rowed in the USA eight in the 76′ Olympics, won the Worlds, a medal in the Pan American Games, and consistently wins his age group in the C.R.A.S.H.-B’s. I interviewed him for a story I wrote about indoor rowing for Forbes in the early 90s and he’s still active competing on and off the water. If Dick thinks its a machine worth investing in, then it’s a machine worth checking out when it starts shipping next year.