The Head of the River Fours, which takes place on the Thames on Saturday, is the first big event of the 2011/12 rowing season, with many of the Great Britain squad in competitive action for the first time since the World Championships in early September.
They are all competing for their clubs, though, which makes it difficult for onlookers to work out who is who. They race in a time trial format between Chiswick and Putney Bridges (via Hammersmith Bridge, which is the best place to watch), starting at 1130 GMT.
Here’s a quick run-down on what to look out for:
Elite lightweight quadruple sculls
The first of 12 boats from Leander, the Henley-based club that is home to many of the national squad, goes off number one and looks strongest of this division. It features two of the world bronze medallist Great Britain lightweight four – new father Richard Chambers and the newly engaged Paul Mattick – plus Mark Hunter, world and Olympic champion in the lightweight double scull. Adam Freeman-Pask, who last week won the Wingfield Sculls to be crowned Champion of the Thames, races for Imperial College (crew number three).
Elite quads (openweight)
In a category that is likely to provide the overall race winner, most of the country’s top scullers are split between two crews. Leander (11) features the “Red Express” GB double scull of Matt Wells and Marcus Bateman plus two of the current GB quad in Steve Rowbotham (who partnered Wells to Olympic bronze in 2008) and Tom Solesbury. London (15) features the other half of that GB quad, Bill Lucas and Sam Townsend, plus fifth man Charles Cousins and Rob Williams from the GB lightweight four. GB single sculler Alan Campbell from Coleraine – World Championships medallist in each of the last three years – races for Chiswick-based club Tideway Scullers School (14).
Elite coxless fours
Fours from Molesey (27) and Leander (28) are made up of approximately two-thirds of those in the running for the Great Britain eight at the London 2012 Olympics. Molesey feature James Clarke – a lightweight world champion in 2007 who won world silver in the openweight eight in 2009 then took a year away from the squad. Leander include Constantine Louloudis – Oxford’s Boat Race “Beast” last year whose debut in a top GB boat is greatly anticipated.
Elite coxed fours
Leander (37) field three of GB’s world champion coxless four, plus Pete Reed from the GB pair and cox Phelan Hill from the eight, so must be favourite against a Molesey crew featuring Rowley Douglas, Olympic champion cox of the GB eight in Sydney 11 years ago.
This is also where the University Boat Race crews will battle for early bragging rights. Only president Karl Hudspith returns from last year’s winning Oxford crew, taking his place in their top boat (34). Last year’s president Ben Myers was hoping to trial again but he had to bow out because of academic commitments. Cambridge look to have greater strength in depth, with four entries in this category. Two returning blues – Mike Thorp and Joel Jennings are in 45 and another, president Dave Nelson, is at bow in 36.
Women’s elite quads
Anna Watkins won her second successive world title with Katherine Grainger in the double scull in Slovenia in August and her time in winning the Wingfields last week was faster than any man before Steve Redgrave in 1989. She joins Debbie Flood and Fran Houghton – Olympic silver medallists in the quad in Beijing – in Leander’s first boat (103), while the GB quad’s stroke, Annabel Vernon, is in the other Leander crew (105).
Women’s lightweight quads
Sophie Hosking and Hester Goodsell, world bronze medallists for GB in the lightweight double, are part of a London/Wallingford/Tees composite (108), whose nearest rivals are likely to be the London crew (109) directly behind them, with Steph Cullen and Imogen Walsh from the world champion GB lightweight quad.
Women’s elite coxless fours
Great Britain’s women’s sweep squad are split between two fours, with half the world bronze medallist GB eight racing as Leander (115). Their cox, Caroline O’Connor, steers the Oxford Brookes University men’s four (38). Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, world silver medallists in the GB pair, form half of the composite crew (116) behind them.
And the rest
There are plenty more interesting stories in a 492-crew field, which includes many who will only have been rowing for a year or so. It would be great to hear your tips for what to watch, especially further down the field.