Mahe Drysdale finds himself in unusual territory as he prepares for this year's European rowing campaign.

Since moving into the single seat in 2005, Drysdale has won five world titles, one silver, an Olympic gold and bronze and rates among the all-time greats.

His career in that time has been guided by the sure and certain knowledge that at the startline, provided he performed to the best of his capabilities, he would be the dominant figure in his class.

Not so now. For one thing, Czech Republic sculler Ondrej Synek is top of the pile, but Drysdale is also coming back after a 10-month break, followed by an unsatisfactory partial campaign last year. On limited preparation, he failed to get past the quarter-finals at the world champs in South Korea.

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So the 35-year-old Aucklander has set about restoring the old order. It won't be easy. Synek has proved an outstanding competitor and Drysdale knows he'll go to Europe next month with a few unknowns rattling around.

"To be honest I am not quite sure where I sit," he said.

"I guess the world cups will be about trying to suss that out, where I am and what I need to do to get back on top."

Drysdale has changed his training regimen too.

Three years ago he introduced bike riding and reduced his on-water training to try to ease disc problems in his back. Now he's tweaked that. The programme is six rows a week, four bike rides, two kayaks and two weight sessions.

Drysdale said while he had enjoyed the riding, he felt he had lost upper body strength. He feels he's getting that back, things are on track, but true racing speed is yet to come.

Over summer, Drysdale was beaten three times by world and Olympic coxless pair rower Hamish Bond as he made his way back. He didn't particularly enjoy the feeling but gives Bond his due and acknowledged the upside of having top class athletes to compete with in his own back yard - "nowhere else in the world has that".

Drysdale loved his 10 months off, but knew it couldn't last.

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"I just had so much fun doing all the things I hadn't been able to do when I was rowing. But it wasn't sustainable.

"If that was my life for the next 10 years there's no way I would want to go back to rowing. But it was false reality and it was not going to continue forever.

"By the end of it I was actually quite pleased to get back to rowing because it meant I was back at home."

Drysdale estimates he had 28 days at home from May 2012 until the following April. It was "nice to knuckle down and get back into it".

Although officially he returned to the squad last June, Drysdale thinks of October 1 as his "real" comeback. It has been a grind, but once back on the water he reckons there's never been a time when he wondered if he'd made the right decision to take time out.

"The last few weeks have been really positive, more than anything recovering between sessions which has taken this whole time since October to get to this point. It gives me a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, which is nice."

Just how much work Drysdale has ahead of him becomes clear when he talks of ambitions for Europe this year.

"If I got to France [the second world cup] and got on the podium I'd be absolutely stoked. You really don't know but if you're on the podium you're right in the ball game."

If not, it all goes into the mixer for Rio.

He reckons Synek is "in a class of his own" in the event. "Everything from No 2 to No 6 is up for grabs.

"That's where my goal is, that I'm back in that class with Synek and we hopefully distance ourselves from the rest of the field."

Drysdale and his wife, 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Juliette, are expecting their first child in October. By then the mist surrounding how Drysdale is travelling compared with his rivals will have lifted.

Regatta dates
• New zealand will compete at the next two World Cup regattas, in Aiguebelette, France from June 20-22 and Luceme from July 11-13.
• The world championships are in Amsterdam from August 24-31.