A chat with Chris Bartley – Olympic Medals, Masher of Pedals

Chris Bartley is one of the endless supply of extremely talented athletes that hang out in Henley on Thames. He is also one of the many ex-rowers that initially located themselves in the area due to the rowing clubs and facilities that it boasts. Chris has now hung up his oars and turned to a proper sport: cycling.

This oar-peddler turned pedal, ummm… pedaller, is not just your average joe ex-rower however. Not just another rower who had grand visions of national representation but never made it, or cyclist who has ambitions on the town sign sprints in the Saturday club run; Chris won silver medal in the lightweight fours event of the 2012 Olympics, and now has more watts on the bike than I have jars of peanut butter (i.e., a shamefully large amount). Along with being part of the lightweight four that missed the gold medal by a hair’s breadth in London 2012, Chris went on to represent GB again in Rio 2016. Oh yeh, and he was World Champion in 2010. So he’s pretty good with his plank of wood (and an oar).

Now Chris is out of the boat, he has turned his massive engine to riding his bike ridiculously fast. I look at his workout files with the same sense of distanced disbelief that I do a pro’s. He holds numbers for an hour that I feel proud to push for five minutes, and has a power to weight ratio I thought reserved for those on ‘asthma medicine’.

I got to know Chris through working at Athlete Service, where he is one of the heroic saviours fixing bikes for damsels in distress in the workshop, whilst I assume the role of the immasculated laptop nerd. Along with the mutual love for two wheels and shared reverence for our choice of rides – we both own a Cannnondale Supersix and Giant TCR – we bonded over the finer things in life, namely the flapjack we serve in the café, and mid-90s heavy metal.

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Chris (foreground), on discovery the shop has run out of  his beloved ‘flappy’

I thought I’d have a chat with Chris to find out more about what it is that make 99% of rowers such awesome cyclists, how the disciplines inform each other, and the nuances in sex appeal of a man with a blistered arse vs a man with shaven legs.

Read on….

What’s better, rowing or cycling?

Ah, tricky one to start with!

My initial forays into each sport left me a little cold to be honest. Starting rowing as a 13 year old boy without enough kit, in the depths of a British winter was truly grim, and left me wondering what on earth I had got myself into.

My first real experience of road cycling was a rowing team training camp, for which I was physically and mentally underprepared, and the resulting suffering so great that I considered throwing myself into the verge at the side of the road, rather than carry on pedalling.

I certainly didn’t take to either very naturally. I find cycling more exciting viewing, with seemingly more to learn about the sport from each race, but there is something very appealing about the simplicity of a rowing race.

Both sports can appeal to all levels, with similar rewards really – there’s no better way to see the river than by your own efforts, equally the bike is the best way to see the countryside.

This question is too hard, can we move on?

What’s harder, rowing or cycling?

This is easy. Both are well hard!

Technique wise, having tried to perfect a rowing stroke (and never got there!) and now trying not to pedal in big fat squares without falling off I’ve found there’s more to both sports than probably meets the eye.

Physically, you can ride for a lot longer than you can row (6 hour row? No thanks!) which brings its own suffering, but with rowing there isn’t one bit of you that doesn’t scream for a rest at some point. Rowing races generally have a pretty set duration for suffering to take place, which in some ways makes it slightly easier.

From my experience on the bike, the agonies can be indeterminate – you just don’t know how long your mate will keep kicking your head in for. My final word on this is that both make your arse hurt, and that the sooner you accept that the better.

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That doesn’t look very hard? Rowers… wusses.

Which side of the fence do you sit on when asked awkward questions?

Firmly in the middle, can’t you tell? [Jim comment – please note; i may have made this answer up]

What have you learnt from rowing that informs your training on the bike? Do similar principles apply?

In rowing, I was part of the national training group for ten years. Every day of the training was mapped out, with power or pace targets, session types, stroke rate requirements all periodised to peak for the Worlds or Olympics each year. In this time I’ve definitely learnt a lot about physiology, nutrition and how I respond to each type of training – and of course what I enjoy.

On the bike, my goals are a bit different. I just want to enjoy it really, but of course going fast is fun. I have no doubt a national cycling programme will be similar in principle to the training I completed as a rower. My training on the bike now isn’t mapped out at all – I couldn’t handle that structure at the moment so I generally just pick whatever I feel like. If I feel good, I’ll do something hard, if I’m tired I’ll most likely skip it! It’s nice having that flexibility. I hope naturally I’ve got a good enough feel for training that I can get into reasonable shape if I want to!

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Chris still won’t tell me who this kid is.

Speaking to you about training and looking at your ride files, you evidently have a very high pain threshold and ability to make yourself suffer. Is rowing really that brutal?!

I think this ties into the previous question. I’d rather suffer for less time on the bike and make the most of my free time now, so I think that’s why I’ll try and push out the odd awful session.

Rowing in many ways is worse! It’s a war of a attrition on the body and mind. We’d train 2-3 times a day almost every day of the year. Any one session might not be mega hard, but the cumulative load would be massive – this is where the suffering would be. And of course, nothing burns quite like a 6-minute rowing race.

Explain about your first experience doing a proper ride. When did you fall in love with riding? Can you explain a little why rowers cycle so much for training?

I first cycled properly on the road in Cyprus on a rowing team camp. I was young, weak and my bike weighed a ton. We had a 40 minute climb to get anywhere from the hotel, and the first few times I needed pushing to keep up with everyone. I absolutely hated the whole thing and the bike was packed into its box for 2 years after that!

In 2009 I attended a training camp in Sydney. Fewer hills and a new-found ability to stick 3mm to whoever’s back wheel I could meant I started to enjoy the whole thing a lot more. My bike still weighed a ton though, so I addressed this shortly after on eBay and took delivery of a sort of shiny Giant TCR, which I’m still riding today. I love that bike!

It does seem odd that as rowers we ride so much, but I think the physiological overlap between the two sports goes some way to explaining it. Standard rowing races are about 6 minutes or so long, and although it sounds short, the effort majors on the aerobic side quite considerably. Rowing may be low impact but the forces required to shift the boat soon add up, putting a lot of stress through certain areas – we are able to ride for much longer than we can row. Riding is a (fairly) safe way of getting a lot of aerobic training in.

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Probably doing about 800 watts at this point.

What makes you more ridiculously hungry, riding or rowing?

Definitely riding..but equally you can’t keep a flapjack in your pocket when you go rowing. But still, definitely riding.

Who are sexier, rowers or riders?

I guess it depends what floats your boat.. upper bodies like Gollum, guys who shave their legs or blistered hands and arses. Both have to spend way too much time in lycra too.. Probably not helping here, I don’t think.

Would I be right in presuming your proudest ever sporting moment is Olympics? What achievement are you most proud of on the bike?

Yeah, I would say competing at a home Olympics for me was the proudest moment I’ve had in sport. Having my family and lots of friends out with me when I won meant a lot, and the whole spectacle was so good for sport in our country, I’m honoured to have been a small part in that.

Having said that, I recently read an article on roadcyclinguk.com and my name was at the top of the Kingston Blount strava segment (https://roadcyclinguk.com/sportive/ten-best-cycling-climbs-chilterns.html) which has pushed the Olympics thing a close second… I now expect this segment to get taken fairly soon.. you know who you are! [Jim comment – not me unfortunately…]

Do you have long term plans / goals for riding?

I’ve signed up to the Etape du Tour this year with a group of friends. It’ll be my first mountainous sportive. Having the flexibility to do this now is really cool, I just hope I can last the 180k or so without wanting to throw myself into the verge again. [Jim comment- I’m yet to tell Chris i’m also doing Etape and plan to sit on his wheel the whole time (if possible), whilst shouting ‘motivational’ abuse]

Also, my place of work (Athlete Service in Henley) have kindly let me have a play on one of their Felt IA TT bikes. I’m just getting to grips with it and would love to do some time trialling this year. I’ve recently joined the Athlete Service Test Team (thanks guys), and the aero discussion on the whatsapp group is truly bewildering. Looking forward to chatting to these chaps some more, if they still want to be associated with me after they see me careering headfirst into the petrol station off the A4.

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A boat. Maybe with Chris in it somewhere.

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