row2k Features
Is Erg Racing Dying? Or Is All Erg Racing Just Local Now?
March 25, 2024
row2k Staff

The Stem to Stern middle schoolers at the Mercer Indoor Classic

Is erg racing dying? With the cancellation of the CRASH-B this year, and the annually changing venues of both the World and national championships, some folks are asking this question.

row2k attended a dozen-ish erg events this winter and noticed that, while some of the biggest events saw lower numbers, many of what I would call 'regional' events saw entries surpass 2019, pre-Covid numbers.

Our impression: it might be the case that all erg racing is now local - or if not local, regional.

In addition, there has been a surge of new, post-pandemic virtual opportunities; the HOCR 4702 virtual event, originally created to offer a competitive outlet during the fall of 2020 regatta cancellations, was the year's most heavily subscribed event.

And why not? Erging against your friends as well as the best in the world without getting on planes, paying for hotels and rental cars, and worrying about false starts certainly makes sense. And a lot of folks did both virtual and local events over the course of the winter.

We did notice that some smaller events were mostly attended by athletes from the host school or club, and acted as a team erg test with a few masters thrown in - but those same events also held raucous relays, bonkers coxswain events, had parent-child events, saw the brothers and sisters of rowers take a spin, saw the coaches get on the erg, and brought middle schoolers in to have a go at the machine.

As a result, some of the 'smaller' regattas turned out to be the loudest, most boisterous events of the winter. Parents of novice rowers hung over the barriers with anxiety, pride, and wonder in their eyes while watching their young charges dig deep on the ruthless apparatus that is the rowing machine. Young siblings bellowed at the top of their lungs. Rowers coxed their teammates, and then switched places to put the 'coxswain' on the erg while the rower coxed.

We saw several rowers multiple times over the course of the winter, taking repeat shots at PRs or just getting a full pull in every Saturday - we do a full 1500 or 2000m race every weekend all spring, so why not in the winter?

When you add all that stuff up, folks had a great time while working hard, and the events ended up working really well as team bonding, community-building, and even family-outing events.

Beyond erg training, the fact that so few bodies of water are freezing over for any duration if at all is very likely affecting erg race attendance. If you are already able to row every single day when you get back from break or a training trip without having to break up ice, worry about putting launches in, etc., the prospect of a March 5 erg race is far less appealing

But the question remains: Is on-site erg racing dying?

The CRASH-B Conundrum

The cancellation of the CRASH-B looms large in the erging is dying conversation, and folks here at row2k lamented the loss of the qualifier status at some events. On the other hand, it might only be a few rowers who actually got invites to the CRASH-B, which wouldn't account for overall attendance.

As row2k reported in early January, the newly constituted board of the venerable CRASH-Bs, the world's pioneering erg race, ambitiously planned their 2024 event on both a new date and at a new venue. As the snags mounted up, the organizers were faced with the decision either to cancel, or run a subpar event, and chose the former, vowing to come back strong in 2025.

Of course, the CRASH-Bs will face the headwinds of a very full indoor rowing calendar - both USRowing and WorldRowing are running their own erg championships now, arguably filling a role that the CRASH-Bs used to.

Here's hoping that the "granddaddy of them all" will stick around to award a few more hammers to deserving, well, hammers.

After what we saw this year, if they do so as a good, well-run, and really fun regional event, the go-to erg race for Boston-area rowers, that would be a great thing.

But indoor rowing definitely misses its absent north star.

Here is some of what we saw this winter, in chrono order.

Ironman Erg: Youth Movement

We saw more and more middle schoolers hitting the erg this year, which certainly filled out entries at a few races. Whether it was full middle school teams, like the kids from San Miguel at the Ironmen, clubs with middle schoolers on the roster, or Stem-to-Stern groups like we saw at the Mercer Challenge, the young'uns like to erg, so those events seem like a great way to keep events healthy and growing.

Also a big hit at the Ironmen? The Don Bosco football team dropping by to do the erg relay.

Pittsburgh Indoor: Cross-Fit-Friendly Erg Racing

Some folks might have wondered about exactly what was happening in this shot from the Pittsburgh Indoors.

Just a bit of experimenting with a format that might get cross-fitters in the door. The idea here? Well, for all the erging that might happen in a cross-fit gym, one longish 2k erg piece is not the kind of thing a typical crossfit workout involves. The Pittsburgh race got some traction and entries from crossfitters both in the relays, where they could crank out short pieces, and the novel event in that photo: two person teams doing a bike, erg, and sets of a very cross-fit-esque "burpees with a jump over the erg rail" each time the competitors switched from the bike to the erg.

Main Line Slide: Family and Erg Fire in Kobe's House

Held in the Lower Merion gym where Kobe Bryant first made an impression as a basketball player, the Main Line Slide featured WWE-style announcing that was easily matched by the noise coming from the stands and the coxswain seats.

While heaps of rowers brought the heat to the gym, it was the parent-child racing that most warmed the heart. Nothing can quite beat family members circled around the erg cheering each other on through the tough minutes, then falling into long embraces when it was over - it is the best of what the rowing community can be.

The parent-child racing could have had its own gallery; the photos start here if you want to have a look at some heart-warming stuff.

Erg Sprints: Local Doesn't Always Mean Small

Erg Sprints in Alexandria remains massive, driven by the huge numbers of high school rowers in the NoVa/DC area. The bulk of the entries come from the local schools and clubs, even when the race does attract out-of-owners for hosting the USRowing Indoors, as it did again this year, or the World Indoor Championships as in 2018.

Tons of kids, many of whom double up, keep the entries reliably north of a thousand. There are even a few schools who skip the 2ks and come for the 20 and 30 minute events that maybe fit their mid-winter training better. That, and a sizable heap of masters--including our Erg Race Fan guy from this Rowing Hack--kept 100+ ergs spinning all day long.

Haddon Hammer: Saving Erg Pieces for Posterity

We saw a lot of folks recording full erg pieces, and one guy at Erg Sprints double-fisted a phone in each hand trick to film two ergs at once. We even caught a few FaceTime calls going down with an absent coach.

That is some serious commitment to anyone really going to watch a full erg piece? Seems like, well, a lot.

Ergs (and Teslas) on Fire at the St. Valentine's Day Classic

The original St. Valentine's Day Massacre, one of the very first CRASH-B satellite races, changed hands from the NYAC to Pelham Community RA in recent years, and is held at Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx.

While we featured rowers turned really loud coxswain for a lot of coxswain's races quite a bit this year, a lot of coaches from multiple programs gave the erg a spin at the Classic, offering a great opportunity for rowers to turn coach and give back some medicine as well - while students competently took over the announcing duties.

Attendees got a reminder that they were in New York City when a Tesla just outside the gym doors appeared to be smoking badly; organizer Chris Ives ran outside to figure out that the car was just parked over a steam vent, and racing continued with no further pause.

Center City Slam

The Slammers turned a Drexel gym security separator gate into a proper medal backdrop, adding some formality to the proceedings, offset nicely by warmups happening in jeans and flannels.

And we saw this Philly staple at a few ergattas this year; SPICY!

Prince William Rowing Club: Throwing the Kids an Erg Race

The Prince William Rowing Club masters run an interesting twist on the erg-race-as-club-fundraiser: the club puts on a race limited to the HS kids in the county, which makes the racing team-focused and, from what we could tell, a must-do event on the teams' calendars.

They also make it special by running small heats and marching each group of athletes out into the gym so their teammates and parents can cheer for them on the way to the erg, almost like a swim meet.

This race also set the ergs up so the athletes could see the race on the jumbotron. We saw this at a few venues, having the ergs face the screen not the crowd, and certainly makes things exciting for both the racers and the crowds cheering behind them.

Atlanta Erg Sprints

This was Atlanta Erg Sprint's first year back since COVID. While never a huge event, it would draw the typical local teams, with a few unexpected rowers looking to get to CRASH-B. This year, the race returned to its original venue in the Georgia Tech gym, and Atlanta Juniors and Georgia Tech comprised the majority of the entries.

At 276 entries, Atlanta matched or topped a number of the other races on this list by a bit, even without a 'rebuilding year' post-Covid; seems a promising sign.

Surfing and Sprinting: Ocean City South Jersey Indoor Championship

While surfers enjoyed chest high and clean conditions off the end of the pier, the Ocean City HS crews put on what they bill as the only erg race that takes place over the ocean, and it would be hard to dispute the claim.

Kids and adults alike rowed multiple races, while OCHS coaches did the timing, power megaphone announcements, medals presentations, coxed erg pieces, and, after all the OCHS kids dismantled and loaded the ergs, made a getaway by driving right down the Ocean City boardwalk.

Mercer Indoor PNRA and Middle Schooler Madness

The Mercer Indoor definitely served as a PNRA erg test, with everyone from novices to four-year seniors posting PRs in lane after lane - they didn't necessarily win, but you could tell from the reaction of the rowers and their coxswains if they had hit their target.

But maybe the best show was saved for last when the middle-schoolers of the PNRA Stem to Stern program, all from middle schools in Trenton, took to the machines to finish up their winter campaign (photo at top of article). And when the kids were done, they cajoled their leaders, coaches, and parents onto the machines for a 500 meter dash.

The adults got their day's worth of lactic acid as well; Bruce Boyd was scolded for not listening closely enough to a seventh-graders pacing instructions - but it was the dad in the next lane over from Bruce who could have used the pacing assistance. He went out as hard as he could to start - as does everyone who is doing a 500 for the first time, how long could it last - and learned that yep, rowing is hard about 300 meters in.

ErgZilla: Who is the Fastest?

One way to tell if an erg race is truly broad or if it's a smaller local event is to take a quick look at the times; was the fastest person in the gym a HS kid, or a grownup? If it's a kid, then chances are that it's a local event.

At ErgZilla, held in Harvard, MA on March 3rd, Jeff Powell of Greater Lawrence took the overall top honors, winning the Masters 40-49 category, but the next dozen times were all posted by high school athletes, most notably Atticus Keep from the hometown club, Bromfield Acton-Boxborough, who won the U17 Men's category in 6:33. Westford Academy's Charlotte Aeder was the fastest woman on the floor, winning the U19 event in 7:33.

To our eyes, it was a smoking erg season
To our eyes, it was a smoking erg season

In the end, CRASH-B wasn't an event this year, but plans to return next year. USRowing is still trying to have an erg national championship, but its early days and they are still trying to find their footing. While all of those forementioned races have been around a while, post COVID its also still early days. The rowing ecosystem has had to make some adjustments. With these events slowly returning, maybe they will all make a comeback in the years to come. Or the erg race will evolve into something new. For now, the erg race no longer seems to be a national affair to get to the top, but a local one.

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Log in to comment
03/26/2024  7:55:36 PM
1 people like this
Excellent showcase of the many local erg races - many which have been around for years. Local erg racing makes it much more accessible and invites newcomers to the sport even if they only erg.

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