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Row, Row, Row... Your E-Boat 

Paddlers plug into a new way to work

click to enlarge The author competes for a cyber win. - JORDAN SILVERMAN

My grandfather was a butcher. He was 5-foot 8-inches tall, weighed 350 pounds and had a 52-inch waist. He wasn’t what you’d call a health freak. By the time I was a teenager, I’d followed in his footsteps: I was chubby. Naturally, I tried everything. I counted calories. I ran. I swam. I even tried out for the cheerleading squad. At my pudgiest, I weighed more than I would 10 years later, full-term with my first child.

In college I shed 30 pounds and never looked back, but along the way I developed a bad attitude toward exercise. Call me a Calvinist, but for me physical exertion has to be purposeful. If I’m digging my guts out trying to eradicate a comfrey from the garden, that’s OK. Shoveling horse manure out of my neighbor’s barn is all right, too. Walking to a destination is good. “Power-walking” isn’t. My idea of a nightmare is going to a fitness center and throwing my Lycra-clad body against the cold steel frame of a weight-lifting device.

So you can imagine my reaction when a friend suggested that I buy an indoor rowing machine, an 8-by-2-foot steel apparatus made by the Concept2 company in Morrisville. Right. If I had an extra $800, I’d spend it on repairs to my 1985 Peugeot station wagon — not an exercise machine. Still, the reality is I spend most days letting what little muscle mass I have atrophy in front of a computer screen. On second thought, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea.

Once I got past my initial baulkiness, I agreed to borrow a machine and check it out. What piqued my computer-oriented interest was the e-Row program that comes with it. E-Row offers more-or-less anonymous competitive opportunities in the privacy of your own home. It’s sort of like answering a personals ad, except the raciest part of the experience, is, well, racing. All I had to do was virtually contact someone online, hook up my machine to the computer and race against them.

I went to a custom bulletin board on the Internet, where owners of Concept2 machines can look for scheduled races or set up a one-on-one. I logged onto the Internet, ran the Windows bulletin board software and looked for a good match.

My first e-Row encounter was with a rowing fanatic from Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand. He wrote me a two-page e-mail promo about an e-Row relationship: “Every Sunday I race against another Kiwi… and nearly always improve my personal best time in this race. There is no way you could row that hard unless you were racing somebody else.”

Determined to race, we tried to connect four times, through the e-Row chat room and the message board. But we never got the 18-hour, day-ahead-day-behind time differential worked out. After all that talk, we stood each other up.

Next time, I scheduled a 2000-meter race with a Stateside guy named Bill. He had also responded to my all-call, is-there-anybody-out-there-willing-to-race posting on the message board. But this time I was clueless as to his abilities. It was kind of like going on a blind date — I had no idea if Bill was a couch potato or a member of the U.S. National Team. I just got an e-mail from him that said sure, he’d like to race, with a date and time. No braggadocio about his biceps, or self-deprecating remarks about how out of shape he was.

At the appointed time, I checked into the e-Row chat room, and received an e-mail from him asking me if I was ready. I wrote back yeah, and we cut right to the chase. As Bill and I logged on, our yellow stick-like “boats” appeared on the blue computer screen. I hit the program’s Start button, triggering the countdown which appeared on the computer screen: 5-4-3-2-1-ROW. Eyes glued to the tube in front of me, I cranked the handle back as hard as I could, then folded my body forward with my knees balled up in a crouch and then pushed my legs straight, letting my bottom glide on the seat that slides along the steel beam supporting the rowing machine.

Immediately, my virtual scull pulled out ahead by a full length. But after pulling for three or four minutes I felt like a marathoner who’d taken the lead too soon. I wasn’t exactly taking the race in stride. I was breathing hard, racking the machine and generally flagging.

From my in-motion vantage, heaving forward and backward, alternately pulling the handle connected to the flywheel of the machine and pushing back again with my legs, I kept track on the progress of my yellow boat, number 1, and Bill’s number 2. The course, shown on screen, is to scale. The racing lanes, demarcated with white dotted lines, are marked every 100 meters. By the 400-meter mark I’d fallen behind. And I have to say I cared. If I’d just been noodling around on my own, casually attempting to get some exercise, there’s no way I would’ve been this motivated. I mean, I couldn’t just let this guy beat me; I had to get my butt in gear. I pulled and pushed like a maniac and, gratifyingly, that stupid little boat of mine slowly inched ahead. It took another 300 meters to catch up again.

Nearly 10 minutes later, coming into the finish, Bill and I were neck and neck, and I had a rush of adrenaline. My palms were sweating, my heart was racing. I wanted to win.

And I did, by three seconds. My rapture was deflated as soon as I went to the Concept2 Web site and posted my results on the online rankings. For my category — a lightweight female, age 30-39 — I came in almost dead last for the 2,000 meter race. But, hey, I still had a pulse. Bill and I raced together again once, but then I got too busy and we lost touch.

The 11,000-plus rowers who use the online rankings include Olympic medalists and members of the United States National Rowing Team. It’s intimidating, but it means average Joes or Josephines can size themselves up against the pros. This democratic approach to what used to be the sport of toffee-nosed Ivy Leaguers makes the Concept2 company appealing.

The rowing machine as we know it is the brain-child of two brothers, Peter and Dick Dreissigacker. Dick competed in the 1972 Olympics, and together the brothers tried to make the 1976 Olympic team and failed by seconds. Way into rowing, they had just finished earning engineering degrees when they wound up living in an old farm house on Route 100 near Morrisville.

The Dreissigackers spent their first winter in Vermont perfecting an oar they’d developed to give themselves an edge for the Olympic trials. They’d chopped the end off a typical wooden oar and replaced it with a hollow shaft made of carbon and blade made of a mixture of Fiberglas and resin. This reduced the weight of a 4-foot-long oar. During their homespun research and development period, Peter and Dick took this idea several steps further: They replaced the entire shaft and made the blade more scoop-like.

By the spring of 1978 they were producing a small number of composite oars with jerry-rigged manufacturing equipment for all their rowing friends.

“We always thought small,” Peters says. “We always thought we’d be making oars just the two of us a couple days a week.”

It wasn’t long before they were selling as many oars as they could make. They hired employees. A few years later, the brothers experimented with other products — wind-surfing masts and cross-country ski poles — that would extend their manufacturing season into the winter months. Then they hit on the answer: a revolutionary improvement to the indoor rowing machine.

Hydraulic and friction-based rowing machines have been around since the Titanic, Peter says. The flywheel-based rowing machine was in use by the 1960s, but it had the grace of a piece of farm equipment and cost about $3000.

The Dreissigackers set out to create “the people’s rowing machine.”

“Our goal was to make it for under $100, which we never did, but it was the starting point,” Peter says. “The next thing you know we had a Huffy bike nailed to the floor and we pulled on the chain and we said, ‘You know, this isn’t bad.’”

By summer of 1981 they had a prototype: The tire was now a flywheel with fins on the spokes for air resistance, a sliding seat mounted on a steel shaft, and wooden pull on the chain. The Dreissigackers used bicycle parts for the flywheel mechanism and a local machine shop put together the rest. The result was a rickety, noisy construction that replicated the rowing motion.

They took the machine to rowing regattas and the response was overwhelming. “It was an easy sell to the rowing community,” Peter says. “One thing about rowers, they’re evangelistic about their sport.”

In 1985, Concept2 came out with a new model that was more health-club friendly, and it sold like hotcakes. The company spokesman, Bill Patton, is reluctant to divulge how many machines the company sells in a year. He will say that Concept2 is a highly successful, family-owned manufacturing company that currently employs 55 people.

As the updated indoor rowing machine took off, an early version of the e-Row program was soon to follow. By the late ’80s, the company had not only tapped into a worldwide rowers’ market — they have sold machines in 80 countries — it had a cult following at Harvard, where indoor rowing had become a spectator sport. Once a year the Charles River All-Star Has Beens, a.k.a the CRASH B’s, got together to race on Concept2 machines. The company devised a monitoring system for each machine that fed into a computer interface, which posted each racer’s results.

This system later led Concept2 to what Peter calls “the bleeding edge”— experimentation with the online ranking system, which enables rowers to post their racing results by age, gender and weight, and instantly compare themselves with the other 11,000 rowers who use the service. E-Row now enables rowers — 1800 simultaneously at the last CRASH B race in Cambridge — to compete with each other in real time. It also provides an Internet interface for one-on-one and group races.

Concept2’s e-Row server now hosts races among 300-plus regulars, who compete from places as far-flung as Italy, Brazil, New Zealand and Finland. To join the fray you need a PC and a package that includes the Concept2 indoor row machine, e-Row software and Performance Monitor 2+, which connects the machine to your computer via a serial cable. The whole deal costs $830.

But you won’t find it at Best Buy or Staples. Concept2 hasn’t promoted the program yet because it’s a long way from perfection, say the Dreissigackers. The program isn’t exactly user-friendly, either. The e-Row CD comes in a blank case with no instructions. Installation is easy, but using it the first time is not. Even Peter concedes it still needs improvement.

Part of the problem is getting rowers of similar ability together for races. The Dreissigackers envision a system that would make rankings part of the introduction process. They also want to facilitate event-based e-Row races between, say, Harvard and Oxford universities.

In the meantime, if you have yen for competition, my advice is: Find a racing partner — in your time zone — in advance, and go straight for the Help menu before donning any Lycra.

For more information about the Concept2 e-Row system, call 1-800-245-5676 or check www.concept2.com.

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