London Prepares Hadleigh Farm Mountain Bike International Sunday 31st July 2011
If you want to get your Olympics right, you need to practice. In particular, if you're an Organising Comittee and all your venues are ready a year in advance, you can practice early. The first paid-for Olympic practice event took place yesterday, in south Essex, at the Hadleigh Farm mountain bike course. A field of top international experts came to show off their cycling prowess, to win medals and to test the system at the same time. You could have bought tickets, there were 5000 available, and they weren't snapped up quite as fast as the real tickets for 2012. And what a great day out, possibly even better than the proper Olympic race days next year.
Reasons why it was great, number 1: the course
OK, so there are no mountains in Essex. Hadleigh Farm doesn't even have an especially high hill. But it does have undulating contours a-plenty, and that's all the designers needed to wring a mountain-like course out of a patch of farmland. They've devised a compact three mile circuit that twists and turns (and in one place crosses over itself), but still with sufficient climbs and falls to mimic a typical mountain ascent. The rocks along the way aren't natural, they've been imported and aligned to create a variety of major and minor obstacles. Some are merely minor jolting hiccups, others sheer tumbling descents. The organisers invited local schools to name some of the most interesting features, hence the sheerest drop has been designated the "Leap of Faith" and the hillside scramble is "Deane's Drop". Most major obstacles offer a choice of paths - the main, slightly more challenging, route, and an alternative nicknamed the 'chicken run'. I'll not name the overwhelmed British rider who even stopped and walked down the chicken run, because that would be impolite, but let's just say she abjectly failed to complete the course. [the course][map]
Reasons why it was great, number 2: spectator-friendly
If a mountain bike course went up a proper mountain, you'd have trouble spectating. Getting up to the interesting bits would be difficult, and then each biker would only whizz past once. Devise a circuit around some fields instead and suddenly watching the action gets a whole lot easier. The Hadleigh Farm course is three miles long, and the cyclists go round six or seven times. This gives ample opportunity to stay in one location and watch everyone pass by repeatedly, or else to walk round the entire course over the space of an hour and a half and observe the action at all points of interest. Lap 1 you could be up on the escarpment (where the VIP grandstand is going to be), lap 2 standing at the foot of Deane's Drop (waiting for the British cyclist to fall off and crack his head), lap 3 up a grassy slope beside the zigzags (watching lots of very fit athletes panting furiously), etc etc. It's precisely the same model that's being used for the London 2012 marathon - a compact circuit course is both cheaper to operate and easier to follow.
Reasons why it was great, number 3: getting close to the action
At many sporting events, say a major football match, you're held back and forced to watch tiny stickmen running about on some distant field of play. Not here at Hadleigh Farm. Here we were kept back by nothing thicker than a strip of plastic tape, so when a cyclist sped by we were right beside them. Every last bead of sweat, every pert lycra-clad backside disappearing over a precipice, all perfectly visible (and perfectly camera-able). It was almost as if the spectator had the upper hand, with ten designated crossing points allowing the public to trespass officially on the course while the race was underway. A series of whistles followed the race round the track, warning that the next biker was approaching, and only then was each crossing point chained off. Other than that, go where you like, explore where you like, spectate where you like. I liked.
Reasons why it was great, number 4a: Only 5000 spectators
They didn't want to overload the test event, so only 5000 tickets were up for sale. Come August 2012 there'll be 20000 paid-for spectators out on the course, and with hangers-on the total number could be considerably higher. So we lucky guinea pigs enjoyed four times the space that the proper attendees will get. No nasty queueing bottlenecks at key junctions, no jostling for a decent camera position at the foot of an incline, just acres of space for one and all.
Reasons why it was great, number 4b: two races
Only four international events are scheduled to take place at Hadleigh Farm. Two are part of the Olympics next summer, the women's event on the Saturday and the men's on the final Sunday. Attend either of these and you'll see only one race, plus a bit of practising, lasting two hours max. The other two international events took place yesterday, and I watched them both. I got to spend the whole day on an Essex hillside - gates opened at nine, carriages at four. OK, so this wasn't the Olympics proper, but I reckon yesterday was best value.
Reasons why it was great, number 5: expert riders
I'd have enough difficulty riding a bike to the shops, so I have enormous admiration for anyone who can ride non-stop for an hour and three-quarters whilst ascending the equivalent of Ben Nevis. The women's race took place first, in the morning, with a field of approximately three dozen careering round the course like it was second nature. They dropped over the Leap of Faith with aplomb, sweated seamlessly up "The Breathtaker" and earned applause from the crowd wherever they passed. First place eventually went to Catharine Pendrel of Canada, who finished quite a long way ahead of riders from the USA and France. The men's race was even more one-sided, with reigning Olympic champion Julien Absalon storming forward from the beginning so that the outcome was never in any doubt whatsoever. Greater leg-power, faster speeds, more laps - the men's race certainly showcased the course to best effect. Only at the very end did the three medal winners remove their helmets and reveal the grinning athletes beneath, to much adulation from the assembled public. [results]
Reasons why it was great, number 6: the weather
Blimey the weather was good yesterday. Pure blue skies and the sun beating down throughout, enough to turn anyone without sunblock a lobstery shade of red. I'm very surprised to see that the temperature only reached 21 degrees, it felt much roastier than that, but a cooling breeze off the estuary helped keep sunstroke at bay for most. The fine weather generated a slightly-lethargic but celebratory mood throughout, and even made the backdrop of CanveyIsland look appealing. It would have been a very different day after heavy rain, all muddy quagmires and dripping spectators, and maybe that's what August 2012 will bring. But we event-testers got nigh perfect conditions to watch true experts in two epic international contests.
Mountain biking in Essex? They laughed when it was first suggested. But well done LOCOG, case proven.