How Olympic rower Jason Osborne beat WorldTour cycling pros on Zwift

For starters, the Olympic rower can do a 20-minute cycling power test at 480 watts — weighing 72kg/159lb.

Photo: Jason Osborne

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The cycling world was left chattering recently when unknown German cyclist Jason Osborne won the inaugural UCI cycling esports world championships.

Attaining level 37 in Zwift at the time of his win, the young and talented athlete was familiar with the game dynamics and had trained on the course used for the championship race. So when Osborne unleashed sprint power in excess of 10.3w/kg in the closing 400m of the inaugural “Zwift worlds,” he dropped pros like current world hour-record holder Victor Campenaerts and climbing ace Rigoberto Urán, as well as top-ranked Zwifter Holden Comeau, in the finale of the 50km event.

Jason Osborne stats

DOB: March 20, 1994
Weight: 72kg
20-minute cycling power: ~480 watts  (6.67w/kg)
2,000m rowing ergometer score: 6:03 (472 watts)
Notable finishes: 1st place 2020 UCI cycling esports world championships, 2nd place 2019 FISA world rowing championships LM2x, 1st place 2018 FISA world rowing championships LM1x, 9th place 2016 Rio Olympic Games LM2x

Male lightweight rowers must officially weigh-in two hours before racing; individuals must not exceed 72.5kg (159.8lbs) and crew average weights may not exceed 70kg (154.4lbs). Rowing races are 2,000m. An individual will cover this distance in about 6:40; a two-man crew is about a half-minute faster.

While Osborne is not a recognizable name in cycling, in the world of elite rowing he is anything but an unknown. The 26-year-old from Mainz, Germany, competed at the 2016 Olympic Games in the lightweight men’s double sculls and has been at the front of the lightweight men’s sculling field since Rio, including setting a world’s best time in an individual event.

Osborne (right) and partner Jonathan Rommelmann training in the double.

Sport specificity

Osborne took a slight break in his rowing preparation for the Tokyo Olympics to prepare for and race the “Zwift worlds.” He did cycling-specific work to hone his sprint. Holding an ask-me-anything video interview session from Team Germany’s training camp in Portugal, Osborne said he had a cycling coach to provide him with guidance to harness his power and help prepare him for the UCI world championship.

“My focus was a lot on cycling the last few weeks. And yeah, I’ve been getting some help, obviously, from a training perspective. I have good coaches and rowing. But cycling is kind of different. So I’ve got some help and I was able to train specifically for that event, like, which is completely different to a rowing event.”

“The last week before, I did an activation interval session. It was like nine times 630 watts for 30 seconds, then we recover 30 seconds,“ Osborne said. “It was hard, but I think it paid off.”

Yet training and a few tips from a coach won’t elevate an average athlete to the WorldTour level. Osborne has been an avid cyclist for years — his Instagram feed is a testament to this — cross-training when not in preparation for an upcoming rowing regatta. He was 6th in the most recent German national individual time trial championships. In 2018, just weeks after he won a world rowing championship, Osborne posted a 20-minute power test on the bike in which he averaged 463 watts. And for someone who weighs just 72kg, this means 6.3w/kg.

Osborne was matter-of-fact when he said in a recent interview that two years later he’s closer to 480 watts at the same weight for the same duration.

“I can do 480 watts for six minutes [on a standard 2km rowing ergometer test]. In cycling I can hold like 470-480 watts for 20 minutes. So yeah, that’s a big gap, obviously,” he said when referring to the differences between power measurement compared between rowing and cycling. One of the factors in the difference between power output is that while cycling requires consistent power throughout the entire duration, the recovery phase of the rowing stroke generates no power, effectively meaning that for a third to a half of the testing duration, zero power is produced.

Crossover athletes

Osborne’s cycling numbers are verifiable and witnessed, and he has a Strava account that displays an impressive list of KOMs. With a required video-monitored weigh-in for the recent Zwift championship race, and data readily available from ZwiftPower, it’s easy to see how the talented athlete can push numbers on the bike that rival WorldTour pros.

Osborne is not the first Olympic-caliber rower to move to cycling. Cameron Wurf, the professional triathlete who races for Team Ineos Grenadiers on the road, represented Australia, rowing at the 2004 Games in the lightweight men’s double sculls.

Hamish Bond was one of two rowers in the men’s coxless pair from New Zealand that shattered rowing records. At one point in his rowing career, Bond went eight years without a loss at a world championships, a World Cup race, and two Olympics — for 69 consecutive wins. The Kiwi then took to the individual time trial at the Innsbruck UCI cycling world championships, but a double flat derailed his effort. He’s since returned to rowing to prepare for the coming Tokyo Games.

Rebecca Romero of Great Britain won Olympic silver in the women’s quadruple sculls in 2004, and then just four years later won gold in the individual pursuit on the track at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Going in the other direction, 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins made an attempt at becoming a rower for the Tokyo Games, following his 2016 Olympic campaign on the track, but found the transition to a highly technical sport like rowing — which has similar physiological demands as track cycling — unsuitable and abandoned rowing following an unremarkable performance the 2017 British Indoor Rowing Championships.

But Osborne’s win is notable as he did not leave one sport in favor of another; he won a cycling world championship while training for the Olympics in rowing.

Post-Olympic plans

When asked about his plans for post-Tokyo, Osborne was just a bit coy about whether he will continue rowing with the goal of another Games in Paris, in 2024, or shifting his focus to road cycling.

“I still want to give it a shot at cycling after Tokyo. My main goals stay the same. But obviously, having Paris 2024 [in rowing] gives a nice alternative in case cycling isn’t working out,“ Osborne said. “I don’t want to go on track or something, or be a track rider.”

And with performance data that can be validated, and taking a high-profile win among some of the best climbers, time trialists, and other indoor specialists, Osborne has noticed — and has been noticed by — teams tapping talent through non-traditional channels. The German sculler is aware that Bora-Hansgrohe recently signed a skier with little cycling experience, and he has been in contact with Ineos Grenadiers’ Wurf about making the transition from rower to cyclist.

“Yeah, I’ve been texting with him on Instagram… and he’s quite a guy,” said Osborne. “We got in contact like a couple of months ago, I think and yeah, he’s always making jokes with this other guy, [pro triathlete] Lionel Sanders.”

Sanders recently set the Canadian hour record on the track, and competed against Osborne at the UCI Zwift race in early December.

Osborne was clear that he’s no plans for racing bikes between now and the rescheduled Olympics. He’s cautious of not wanting to crash, and he’s already familiar with the training demands — in excess of 1,200 hours annually — of pursuing an Olympic podium in rowing. But if his ambitions match his social media feed, the next selfie he takes from the top of Mont Ventoux might be one with with a pro cycling squad.

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