Dr. Stephen Seiler is one of the leading sport scientists today whose research takes a strong interest in rowing. I have cited his web site here frequently. Recently, he was kind enough to respond to my request for a one question interview on this topic: "what if Lance Armstrong were a rower?"
His very interesting response follows:
Sure , that is a typical kind of "comparative physiology question" that is interesting.I have followed Lance and the Tour for years, so I have a good idea of his specific capacity and his "numbers".
Rowing differs from cycling in a number of ways. In rowing, because the athlete's weight is supported, the expression of aerobic capacity is more relevant when made in absolute terms (or actually scaled in relation to body mass raised to the 0.75 power) and not VO2 per kg. Lance comes out less dominating here because of his lower body mass, and lower absolute capacity.
Secondly, rowing selects for a tall athlete with a relatively long torso and longish arms. Armstrong was pretty average anthropometrically, even if he was biggish for a cyclist. Even the lightweights are quite tall relative to their body mass. In fact lightweight rowers seem to be an extremely homogenous group anthropometrically. The combination of aweight limit and the advantage of being tall seems to carve out elite lightweights with almost cookie cutter similarity. Armstrong would have come up light (and short) as a heavyweight and short as a lightweight.
So, Lance has a GREAT engine for sure, but my educated guess is that he would not have been nearly as dominant in rowing. I am sure he could have been a very good lightweight, but there is no guarantee he would have been a world champion.
Along these same lines, there have been examples of very good Kenyan runners trying (for several years) to develop as cross country skiers. They have been awful. Despite their big per kg capacity, they are just too weak and naturally small in the upper body and probably the legs as well to perform well as XC skiers.
And, in general we have to recognize that at the really high levels of performance, body build, inherent motor skills, and lots of other details can go a long way in determining which sport an athlete is most likely to excel in. Lance made the right choice with cycling.
I gave a lecture on 150 years of developments in rowing and the science of rowing faster recently. I will soon be making the PowerPoint presentation available at www.sportsci.org, so stay tuned there if you are in to rowing.
Stephen Seiler Ph.D FACSM
Faculty of Health and SportService
box 422 Agder Universiy College
4604 Kristiansand, Norway