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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 18:42 GMT
Varsity crews seek edge
The Oxford crew weighed in heavier than Camdridge ahead of Saturday's Boat Race
The Oxford crew is put through its paces
BBC Sport Online's Piers Newbery follows the Oxford and Cambridge boats down the River Thames ahead of the Boat Race.

Spending a sunny spring morning on the River Thames might sound like a gentle way to begin the day, but at this time of year it is the scene for some lung-bursting endeavour.

The riverside pubs that will be packed to capacity on Boat Race day are just opening up as the best of Oxford and Cambridge make their way out of the London Rowing Club and onto the river.

Putney Embankment, on the south side of the Thames, is hardly overflowing with people, and with only four days left to prepare, attention is firmly fixed on events on the water.

Cambridge are slight favourites for Saturday's race
Cambridge are slight favourites for Saturday's race
The two Varsity crews will be on the river twice a day this week, looking to get as much time together as possible and learn everything they can about the course.

And in addition to the difficulties posed by the Thames, the two crews have to contend with a level of media interest beyond anything most of them will have experienced before.

By now these oarsmen, who spend much of the year in relative anonymity, are getting some idea of the hype that surrounds the event.

While it might once have been seen as something of a curiosity, even in rowing circles, the quality of oarsmen in both boats now means the Boat Race is of serious interest.

There are world champions and Olympians in both crews, as well as four oarsmen in each boat who already have rowing Blues.

Obstacles

As numerous coaches and members of the press clamber into a variety of launches to follow the crews down the river, the two boats get ready to make their first practice runs of the day.

It may look an idyllic scene from the riverbank but out on the water there is a much greater sense of urgency, as well as speed.

Our launch follows the Oxford boat as it sets off from Putney Bridge, and as we head around the bend past Hammersmith Bridge and into a strong headwind, the engine starts to labour.

A Dutch television crew struggles manfully to stay upright while focusing their attention on Gerritjan Eggenkamp, the Netherlands' first-ever representative in the Boat Race.

Oxford's Dan Perkins
American Dan Perkins will be rowing in his first Boat Race
As we battle to keep up any sort of pace, the effort is plain to see on the faces of the crew ahead of us.

The stroke rate is raised and lowered and the boat takes up different positions across the river to experience the varying conditions.

And there are other obstacles in the days preceding the race as the river carries plenty of traffic.

On Tuesday that includes several ladies' fours that travel at a rather gentler pace, and slow down further to take a good look at the stars in their midst.

We also go past a few groups of supporters, presumably enjoying a well-earned study break, who shout their encouragement from the riverbank.

Not that there is much chance of them being heard.

Smart money

Nick Howe, one of the Oxford coaches, bellows out instructions through a loud hailer before the boat returns to the boat house at a leisurely 24 strokes a minute.

And as Oxford head back, Cambridge come steaming past at full speed, looking impressive towards the end of their run.

Back on the towpath, the smart money seems to be on Cambridge at this stage, although not with any real conviction.

The Light Blues certainly have the edge in terms of star oarsmen, with the likes of double world champion Rick Dunn, Great Britain international Josh West and Australia's Lukas Hirst on board.

But the peculiar demands of the Boat Race mean that despite seven months of training, the key to winning the race could still be discovered in the final days out on the river.

BBC Sport Online's University Boat Race site

Boat Race in-depth

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Links to more Boat Race 2002 stories are at the foot of the page.


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