London Prepares Hadleigh Farm Mountain Bike International Lessons Learned
Why run an Olympic test event, such as Sunday's Mountain Bike International at Hadleigh Farm? It's not an essential part of the international sporting schedule. It's not the best way of keeping thousands of Essex residents entertained. It's not specifically to give the world's top bikers advance experience of next year's Olympic course. It's not cheap to organise, that's for sure. But it is essential to run through your procedures in full to ensure that nothing goes spectacularly cringeworthily wrong when the eyes of the world are upon you. Sunday's race was as much about the spectators as the riders. How did we behave, what did we misunderstand, how might our movements have been more efficient? LOCOG had several observers in place scrutinising every move and making notes, and they'll be reporting back to help make improvements for this and every other Olympic event. Here's what I learned.
Transport: Most Olympic events will be fairly straight-forward to travel to. But the mountain biking takes place in a field, on the south Essex coast, halfway between two railway stations, down the end of a narrow lane. Now there's a challenge. Very-local residents were encouraged to walk. Fairly-local residents were asked to park-and-ride. And for those of us not-very-local-at-all, they laid on a bus shuttle from Leigh-on-Sea. The operation was 2012-sized, for proper practice, which meant queueing chicanes of unnecessary size and a double decker every five minutes, full or not. There was plenty of bikerack-space too, which was nice, especially when the recommended bike route from here to Hadleigh was a bonkers coastal detour via Benfleet. Nobody checked our tickets, although the smiling volunteers did turn back an elderly couple who wondered if this was the courtesy bus to "the car boot sale". Off we went up the hill, past numerous signs warning that vehicles in contravention of parking restrictions would be towed away, and the occasional closed-off road. There were no segregated Olympic Lanes, but the arrangements were a first indication of how local residents will need to work around imposed traffic restrictions. All was well until we reached Hadleigh, at which point the bus turned left into a fallow field. Contractors had laid a temporary load-bearing surface across the grass, a bit like a mountain bike course for buses, and we teetered oh-so slowly to the drop-off point on the far side. A fairly swift transfer, all told, but no expense wasted on the bit at the end.
Getting in: And did the buses drop us off by the entrance? Of course not. They had to terminate early so drivers could escape up a single-track lane, leaving us an undulating 500m walk to the field of play. Weren't the volunteers posted along the way friendly, forever wishing us a good day on the way in (and a smiley thankyou on the way out). A big thumbs up to the Salvation Army, on whose land the mountain biking is taking place, and who'd positioned a brass band in a tent to entertain passing spectators. It's little quirks like this that'll make London's Olympics special, as opposed (say) to the flawless perfection of Beijing. Eventually we reached the security checkpoint, where I was expecting a mini Spanish Inquisition. Not so. I'd deliberately brought a bag, within which I'd deliberately brought a packed lunch and a bottle of water, to test out the list of restricted items we'd been sent in advance. But nobody even summoned me over to take a look inside, let alone rummage in every concealed pocket. I could have been carrying kitchen knives, fireworks and a vuvuzela for all anybody cared, whereas in fact I was importing nothing worse than two pork pies and some sandwiches. Staff simply wrapped a cheap green security bracelet around my arm and sent me inside smiling. I'm sure 2012 friskdowns will be rather more severe but, for any potential troublemaker, this was a walk in the park.
Orientation: On the way into the site, each spectator was given a handy guide to the event to help them find their way around. A single sheet of folded A3, sturdy paper, brand-friendly design. On the back was a schedule and a bit about the venue, open up for a welcome and a bit about the sport, and then (very usefully) a list of all hundred-or-so riders due to be taking part. I could have done with a bit more about the rules of the event, for example the "80% rule" which forces riders to retire if they fall more than 80% of a lap behind the leading rider, as this turned out to be crucial to understanding how the race played out in its later stages. But this was an ideal cheap-to-produce souvenir of the day, both resilient and informative, and hopefully something that'll be common to all 2012 Olympic events. And there was a map included too, reproduced here, which helped us find our way around the sprawling course. It suffered a little from being too schematic - I understand the layout perfectly now, but didn't when I first arrived. Only four of the course's major obstacles were highlighted, so when the race commentator started going on about events at "Ollie's Leap" I had absolutely no idea where that was. It was great to have the map reproduced at key points around the course, but a simple "You are here" would have helped enormously. I had six hours to wander the course yet still missed several points of interest. Visitors in 2012 will have less than half that, and are bound to overlook even more.
Food: Bet you're expecting this pre-Olympic event would be serviced by McDonalds, the official junkfood of the 2012 Games. Not so. The organisers had hired catering trucks of the kind you'd find at a fair or festival, nothing branded, mostly British. Out by Deane's Drop a Hog Roast trailer serving sustainable Norfolk pork. Down in the hollow one Fish and Chips, one Tapas. And up top a baguette production line in a truck and a coffee dispensary. Most of the day this worked fine, sufficient to service those who'd not brought any sustenance with them. But at lunchtime, between the women's and men's races, the food supply chain quickly congealed. Most of the spectators were up on the hill, where the only edible option was French sticks, and the girls behind the counter couldn't cope. They doled out meaty bread so slowly that one queue barely shuffled forward at all, while the other would have been longer if only it hadn't extended into the portaloos. The poor lad in front of me waited stoically for 40 minutes just to buy a £1.90 bottle of water, then rushed off to drink it before the first race started. Lesson learned: it's all very well providing alternative food choices at an outdoor event, but if that choice is five minutes walk down a sweaty hill, spectators simply aren't going to go there. If nothing else, a few mobile trolleys selling bottled drinks to the masses would have been a life saver.
Communication: A mountain bike event is incredibly difficult to watch, except on TV. The riders spread out around the entire course, so the action is invariably happening somewhere that you're not. So all credit to the presentational team who managed to keep everyone fully informed, throughout the day, with a commentary that only occasionally descended into cheese. Hire them again next year. And a special well done to whoever installed the loudspeakers, because every word was crystal clear almost everywhere around the site. Who needs TV when you've got live action plus commentary?
Accessibility: In the centre of the course, at the summit of the highest steepest hillock, I passed a mum on a mobility scooter. That's a big tick in the accessibility box.
Trust: Most encouragingly of all, everywhere spectators went, we were trusted. We could easily have crossed the boundary tape, anywhere, but we didn't. At crossing points when the whistles blew and the chains came across, we held back. Several security teams stood ready, but weren't needed. The handful of mounted police observed, but never intruded. It all contributed to Hadleigh Farm being a free-wheeling celebration, not a regimented lockdown. If LOCOG can get this balance right at every event in 2012, we're in for a treat.