London Prepares BMX Supercross World Cup 2011 Saturday 20th August 2011
Saturday's bikefest wasn't just an Olympic test event, but a proper contest on the global BMX circuit. Hundreds of riders turned up, 96 made it through to the second day of competition, and then it was race after race to whittle that down to one men's and one women's champion. The crowd's hopes were on Shanaze Reade, the golden girl of British BMX, but not especially on our GB blokes because few people quite knew precisely who they were. That's the thing about an Olympic audience - most get tickets because it's an 'event', rather fewer come because it's a sport they love.
The plan was for a full afternoon of racing, with each rider running in three preliminaries before the whittling down began. But heavy rain put paid to that, so we ended up with merely ninety minutes. If riders finished in the first four of each eight-bike race they progressed, and if they didn't they were instantly eliminated. That led to several frustrated handlebar-thumps from the unfortunate riders coming in fifth, their moment in the sun cut suddenly short. Fifteen races in total for the men, seven for the women, so we spectators still felt we'd got our money's worth even after all that waiting.
Each race began atop an eight-metre high ramp, bedecked in the sponsor's hoardings from the front, but revealed as a massive tower of scaffolding from behind. It was very windy up there at the start of the afternoon, disturbinglyso for some riders, but calmed somewhat later in the day to the relief of all concerned. The descent looked brutal, sweeping the riders into the first daredevil leap - which not all completed. It was unnerving in one of the early women's heats to watch one of the favourites miss her footing and crash awkwardly to the floor. Paramedics clustered rapidly around her prone body, a stretcher was called, and before long an ambulance had backed up to the track to cart her away. Meanwhile the commentary team gabbled on like nothing untoward was happening - it's only something broken, nobody's died. We soon learnt that crashes are commonplace on a BMX circuit, and "medical intermissions" littered the evening's proceedings.
The most dramatic parts of each race were the skywardleaps. The men ascended taller piles of sand than the women so their leaps were the mostphotogenic (but only decently captured if you had a telephoto lens). For balance the women's course boasted a feature never previously seen on a major BMX circuit - a full-scale concrete tunnel. It looked better on TV than from the stands, and thankfully nobody fell off at speed and had to be scraped up by the St John's Ambulance. The 'Underground' was sponsored by a sunglasses manufacturer, and the neighbouring men's 'Box' by a well-known energy drink. That won't happen during the Olympics - there are strict rules barring promotion, no matter how hip, rad or cool the brand. I doubt they'll allow a DJ to accompany each descent with a blaring soundtrack either, no matter how appropriate the theme from Austin Powers sounded during one of the semi-finals.
I was seated up the far end of the grandstand, which also happened to be the designated area for non-competing athletes. In front of me was a Japanese rider who'd failed to qualify on day 1, to my right the team from Denmark, and very close by the coach from Brazil. He whistled furiously as each of his athletes sped through the finishing gate, attempting to pass on urgent words of congratulation or consolation before they passed through. Then towards the end of the evening a neighbouring seat was taken by an Australian rider who'd been eliminated in the quarter finals, joining his girlfriend in the stands. Plaster tube down one arm, freshly-scarred bruising on the other, he recounted his experiences on the track and cheered on his remaining countrymen. One thing he definitely wasn't impressed by was the orientation of the course. From the top of the ramp and all along the ultra-challenging first section of the course, the riders had been squinting directly into the sun, and apparently this had made conditions <swearword> dangerous. Let's hope it's not quite so blindingly sunny during the Olympics (or that no session is postponed similarly late into the evening).
Shanaze played ablinder, leading the pack on every race but one. Only in the semi-finals did New Zealand's Sarah Walker nip in front along the rhythmic third straight and pip her to the line. No such problems in the final as Shanaze led from the start, careering deftly around each bend to take gold with ease. I couldn't see the final approach, there were too many spectators blocking my sightline, but I did enjoy an uninterrupted view of Shanaze crashing askew into the inflatable exit gate. Helmet off, she raised her arm to the crowd and smiled a broad grin at her impressive win on home soil. Perhaps it bodes well for next summer, or perhaps we should stop assuming our athletes are going to win solely because they're British. [women's final][men's final]
As with the mountain biking in Essex last month, these test events are great value for money. Far better, indeed, than the relevant Olympic events next year. We got to enjoy 22 races, whereas those with tickets for the final day's session in 2012 will see only six. With each race less than a minute long, there are several people out there who've paid £45, £75, even £125 for approximately five minutes of BMX action. Watch the London Prepares website for details of upcoming test events over the next nine months - they may be your very best chance to enjoy an approximately Olympic experience.