By Alexander Smith
ELY, England (Reuters) - Sandwiched between a country road and a train line, the wind funnelled by its banks, the Great Ouse river appears an unlikely venue for one of Britain's most watched sports events.
But with England in partial lockdown and one of the bridges over their usual London boat race course in danger of collapse, a stretch of the Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire is where Oxford and Cambridge universities' rowers will lock oars on Sunday.
The contest, which dates back to 1829, was cancelled last year during Britain's first coronavirus lockdown, leaving Cambridge unable to defend both the men's and women's races.
"It feels almost surreal, it's been a long time coming ... some of us have been training for almost two years for literally about 16 minutes of our lives," Sophie Paine, Women's President of Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC), said.
The only other time it was raced at Ely, where Cambridge do most of their training and the course is almost entirely straight and has minimal current, unlike the River Thames in London, was in 1944 during World War Two.
"We do know almost every blade of grass, so it's quite nice to know where we are in the race ... It will be really nice to row on our own home waters," Paine told Reuters before a practice session last week on the 4.89 km course.
Whereas thousands of spectators would normally flock to pubs and bridges to watch, organisers and authorities have made the 166th men's duel and the 75th women's race a closed event to comply with coronavirus rules.
"The crowds won't be there, but it's going to be just another chapter in the race's history," Callum Sullivan, Men's President of CUBC said.
For men's coach Robert Baker, the challenge has been bringing his crew together during a disjointed training build-up, with the rowers having to practice on rowing machines in their bedrooms rather than on the river.
"We've got a great bunch of guys and they want to win and work together as best they can," Baker said, adding that the focus has been on what the crew can do to prepare within the constraints of coronavirus restrictions.
"I've got the utmost respect for the training they've done during lockdown," Baker added.
(Reporting by Alexander Smith; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)