The rivalry continues at the Holland Beker
Its been another tough couple of weeks training, as the intensity has ramped up after seeing where we stood during the second World Cup in Lucerne. For me there were a few refinements and improvements needed to make sure I wasnít piped on the line again like I was in Lucerne.
The Menís Pair and myself left our base in Hazewinkel, Belgium on Friday morning after the final tiring goodbye from our coach Dick. I was feeling pretty flat and the legs very sore. The last session was certainly no taper for racing so I was hoping my powers of recovery would see me through the racing in Amsterdam at the Holland Beker regatta. This would be my seventh time (sixth time in single) to the Bosbaan for what is always a great regatta.
This would be an important weekend, as it would be the last time I would get to race the Olympic gold favorite, Synek before the Olympics. Synek has been arguably my greatest rival since we both entered the single in 2005. He is the only person who has managed to win multiple times against me over the past eight years. In all finals (Olympics, World Champs, World Cups and Holland Bekerís) I lead 13-10 since 2005. Synek and I, are the only two scullers that have stood on every podium at the major event (Olympics or World Champs) each year. That major event rivalry has netted Synek 1 gold, 3 silver 3 bronze while I stand at 5 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze. Last year Synek piped me by 0.3 sec at the Holland Beker and two weeks ago he won by 0.5sec. Infact over the past two years we havenít had a final with a margin of more than 0.6sec, so the scene was set for a great race.
We arrived at the Bosbaan on Friday afternoon and were immediately reminded that Amsterdam can be, freezing cold with a very strong breeze. First stop was lunch and we were reunited with two of my favorite Dutch delicacies, apple cake (appeltaart) and mint tea. It was then time to battle the wind, rig our boats and go for a paddle to get used to the windy conditions. It would be one of the windiest days I have ever rowed in, the biggest battle was getting the boat to the water fighting the wind, with Ericís help that was achieved, then it was a 10+minute battle to the top of the course, thankfully the trip with the wind was considerably faster.
Saturday was heat day and it was fairly miserable, bit of rain, lots of wind and although I have now raced seven times in Amsterdam I am a very slow learner and despite freezing my arse off every year I made the fatal error of not having enough cloths once again and did the customary freeze my arse off for the seventh time. On the water I was still feeling the past few weeks of training but decided to test the legs with a good blast over the first 1000M. It went well and gave me the confidence that I could handle the tricky conditions, and that I was rowing better than two weeks ago in Lucerne, it was also one of the few times during Saturday I was actually warm. I won my heat comfortably and it was back to make sure the Apple cake and mint tea was actually as good as it had been the day prior. The menís pair also raced, not having the best of days in their standards, but still coming away with a fairly comfortable win.
I never thought I would see the day when I looked forward to racing as an easy days training, but thatís certainly what Saturday felt like after what Dick has thrown at us during training over the past two weeks.
We awoke Sunday to sunshine, some warmth and light winds. The menís pair raced one race, which they won in commanding fashion and were back to their best. I had a semi to get through before the final. I drew Synek in the semi and with the final later in the day it was never going to be an all out battle. Synek led early before I took the lead and we both took the rating lower and lower as the race went maintaining our comfortable gap to the rest of the field. While I finished 4 seconds clear I was under no illusion that Synek had more to give and would be a different beast in the Final. Tim Maeyens had showed good form beating Synek the day before in his heat and winning the other semi to set up a good show down later in the afternoon.
The afternoon seemed to fly past and before I knew it we were back out on the water warming up for the final. I was confident I was ready to produce a good race and was looking forward to the showdown against Synek. I love racing I love the mental games, I hate the anticipation of the pain your about to put yourself through but I love the feeling after a race and how quickly you forget about how much it was hurting just minutes prior. I have found the number of minutes that takes fro the pain to disappear is directly related to the result. Win and the pain is gone within 1 minute, loose and it could take up to 30minutes.
My warm-up was terrible, I was struggling with my rhythm, I struggled to hit the rates I was aiming for and my legs felt terrible. This isnít the first time this has happened, but its not the ideal way to hit the starting blocks. Thankfully experience has shown that generally it is unlikely to have any bearing on how the race will go, if you can mentally deal with it. In fact some of my greatest races have come on the back of my worst warm-ups.
In the blocks I had Maeyens on one side and Synek on the other. Synekís major strength is his sprint, so the plan was always to make sure I was leading by enough going into the final sprint to hold him off. Good plan but not always as easy to execute. I had the same plan in Lucerne but was unable to break away in the third 500M.
The buzzer sounded and we were off. Good solid start, boat travelling well and out with the field, Synek snuck his bow out and I went with him. Through the 500M Synek lead by 0.5 sec and we were already breaking away from the field, this would be a two person duel as expected. Second 500M I tried to fight back to level, each of us did some small bursts and the race was on, I felt I had better base speed but every time I opened up a small gap, Synek responded and closed it down. Through the half way I was up by 0.8sec and it was game on.
This is where the legs really start to scream and your mind is telling you to stop the madness and cease rowing. This would be the 23rd final Synek and I had met each other in, over the past 7 years and fourth meeting at the Holland Beker. We know each other very well indeed and the second half is where the result is decided. It was shaping up as a battle to the line. If Synekís major strength is his last 500M mine is the third 500M and I wanted to make it 1-1 after Lucerne, this was my territory. I put the hammer down again and Synek followed me. About 1250M I had opened it up to about 1 boat length, I wanted more but if this is all I could get I backed myself to hold that in the sprint. Suddenly Synek seemed to struggle I donít know if he had a problem or was running low on energy but I quickly opened up to 2 lengths, I decided to put the dagger in and took the rating up a couple of points. The margin suddenly started to blow out 2.5 lengths, 3 lengths. I was really in the box seat, but still 500M to go. I went again but the legs were starting to wobble, I had put in a big effort early and now the pace was starting to tell. I was clear and it was just a matter of holding it together to take my third Holland Beker Trophy home. It wasnít the best last 500M I have ever rowed but it was enough to get me home and hand Synek his largest defeat in the last four years and the biggest margin I can remember over him (5.57seconds).
I was pretty happy, I had done exactly what I had planned and I had won. I had revenge for Lucerne and taken a good step toward London. While I dream I could do the same in London I am under no illusion that Synek wasnít at his best in Amsterdam and I suspect he wasnít 100% or had a poor race by his standards. I have however come away from Amsterdam with what I wanted. A few hard races, some improvements since Lucerne and my fastest time of the year so far (6:42.74) as well as a goodbye apple cake and mint tea. Ideally I would like to race Synek again before London but with him not entering the World Cup next week in Munich that wonít happen, I do however feel I have a better understanding of his strengths, weaknesses, strategies and abilities after the two finals I have raced against him this year and still expect him to be the man to beat in London.
It was great to be on the winner podium again especially when you race and beat your greatest rival. No matter how good your race, a win is a win but it is always more satisfying when you win and beat the best guy(s) in the world.
I feel I still have some things I didnít do that well and overall my race was effective but I wouldnít put it in the prettiest efforts in my life. That is a positive though, as it means I still have room to grow and can hopefully go even faster. On the positive side that was probably the hardest I have pushed myself since 2009 and the best physically I have felt during a race since my world record effort in Poznan. That gives me confidence that my training is on track and I will continue to work hard this week to hopefully refine a few things and improve further before this weekends racing at the World Cup in Munich, where I will get to race all my other London rivals. That will be our last chance to race before London. There is now only 53 days left until the 3rd of August, which is the Olympic final. This weekend has shown that I am continuing to track in the right direction, but there is still plenty of work to do and speed to find to make London Golden.
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