London 2012 Olympic Mountain Bike Course Preview

Yesterday, Chipps headed down to South Benfleet, Essex, to see how things are coming on with the 2012 Olympic mountain bike venue.

(Note, pictures have been shrunk a little to fit in our new page – click them for a supersize pop-out though)

This is the view that'll greet Olympic spectators. The straight bits are where the pits will be.

The construction started in July and there’s been a great deal of progress made already. The builders reckon that the course is 60% complete so far. The venue is owned by the Salvation Army and is home to its Rare Breeds Farm and very fine tea shop. The Salvation Army has owned and run the farm for 100 years and there’s a mix of rolling hills, bits of oak woodland, wickedly sharp gorse and that fine view of the Thames Estuary.

The cake was good. It was a good start.

A rabble of journalists. A pitcher? A booze of journos? A freeload of journos? Anyway, many were there.

OK, first we’ll get the bitching over with. It’s been done enough already, but just for everyone’s benefit, we’ll go through it one last time.

No, there aren’t any mountains in Essex (and there are barely any rocks either…) and yes, the Olympic sailing is taking place in Portland {Edit}. But the LOCOG and UCI have chosen this corner of Essex for the Olympic XC mountain biking. It’s going ahead, whatever anyone says, so let’s move on and look forward to what’s actually going to happen.

I’ll admit that I’ve been very big critic of the bulldozing of Eastway to make room for the velodrome, and in not having the racing anywhere that’s particularly indicative of UK mountain biking, but I’m going to have to admit that I was quite impressed with the scene that’s taking shape down in Benfleet. We started humbly enough, in a cowshed on the Salvation Army’s rare breeds farm – the crowd a mix of local Essex and South East media and mountain bike journos. Steve from Shred had come up from Plymouth, I’d come from Yorkshire, Dave Arthur was there from Londoners Bikemagic and James C-W was up from Future in Bath. Even Kitch was there from London Cyclist. No signs of our Croydon cousins though. We had introductions from the Councillors on the political side, the Major from the Salvation Army and David Luckes, who’s from LOCOG and in charge of sorting many of the venues. Everyone was obviously overjoyed to talk about how amazing the venue was and how it was great to have the Olympics come to this corner of Essex.

We all wanted to see the venue… so we were soon on the ten minute walk along a narrow path to where the building work has been going on since July. There were a few top riders drafted in for our photographing pleasure, plus course designer Martyn Salt. You’ll know Martyn as being the guy behind the XC NPS and a generally good, if rather hectically busy, guy.

That's Canvey Island in the background, with the Thames Estuary beyond.

Here you can see several parts of the course. The big rooty drop is behind the brow of the hill and in the middle you can see the over/under tunnel. In the foreground is the pit lane.

Hadleigh Castle looms in the distance while Maddie Horton rails one of the bermed corners.

As you crest the hill, the initial view is very impressive. Much of the action takes place in one curving amphitheatre, that pushes into the hillside, with its open edge backing on to the Thames Estuary. One of the boasts of the course is that you can see the majority of the course from many points. With the two or three valleys filled with what’s hoped to be 20,000 spectators, this should make for some great viewing. The course also can be covered by a mere 20 cameras, unlike the 45 or so needed in Beijing.

The rooty drop: One of those things that'll never look steep on camera, but standing at the top, it does make you go 'Whoah!'

The course surface is going to be probably 70% manmade ‘trail centre’ style fine pea-gravel with numerous rock ‘features’ built into the hillside. There are some technical rock step-ups, some technical rock slab descents (real ‘full fork travel’ jobs too) and some crowd pleasing features like an over/under tunnel/bridge combo. While it currently looks like an orange scar, that’ll soon wear in to look a lot more natural come August 2012.

Two other whippets show off the estuary scenery. Paul Beales and Billy-Joe Whenman are a couple of Olympic hopefuls.

The course is still in rough-and-ready state at the moment. Much of it will bed-in over the next year or so and the rather sterile feel will ease.

One obvious criticism of Essex is a lack of elevation, but the organisers are keen to point out that the elevation difference between the highest part of the course and the lowest is 70m. Compare that to Beijing, which had 55m and you see the potential for a good course – and given the winding nature of it and the multiple climb/descent combos and it looks like the course will be as testing as it has to be. There’s virtually nowhere to sit up and take a rest, or a drink, and with a hoped-for lap time of around 15-18 mins, it’ll make for some very hard racing over the two hours.

One of the many rock features. We're not sure where the rad 'Tomac-line' will go for desperation overtaking, but that gorse is razor-sharp, so don't get it wrong.

One of a couple of zig-zag climbs. For the most part, the course is a good 6ft/2m wide to allow to overtaking.

A stepped zig-zag climb. It's not going to be an easy course. There are also plans to keep the course in place for ten years after the games. This is still in the planning stage, but we're happy about how it's sounding so far...

Now imagine this with 20,000 yelling fans. Should be pretty impressive.

Now, if you’ve been to something like the Fort William World Cup, you’ll be used to a certain standard of entertainment for your money. And talking of which, prices have just been announced for the mountain biking – which are going to be £45 and £20 (per day) – although there looks like being a few more variations on those. We’re used to wandering around the pits and demo areas, we’re used to seeing the practice, seeing the athletes warming up and so on. This will all be different for the Olympics. For a start, the riders will be in national teams, not trade teams, so there’s likely going to be less tech support to see – and there’s currently no real plan for a tech-expo area. Olympic athletes live in a security ‘bubble’ and will likely travel from the Olympic village by train (with bikes? We’re not sure) and head straight to their country’s compound, warm up, grid up and race.

Spectators will arrive, get to see the riders maybe doing some warm-up laps, and then they’ll watch the race – around 30 women racing on the first day and 50 in the men’s race. Then there’ll be a medal presentation and everyone will go home. You’re unlikely to see Julien Absalon in the pub that night… But this is us coming to the event as mountain bike fans. For the general public, the mountain biking gives many people the opportunity to get really close to the action and to see the best athletes in the world racing close up. You’ll be able to see them up close, hear their breath rasp, get sprayed in snot and energy drink. Even if you stay in one spot, the racers will come past eight or nine times and if you move around, you’ll be able to see them several times a lap. At the end of it, the winner will get an Olympic gold medal. From that point of view, it’s going to be pretty exciting. Quite what everyone will do for the rest of the day, we’re not sure – but I guess that, in the athletics, there probably isn’t a running shoe expo, or a swim-goggle exhibition in the swimming…

Much of the course will be artificially surfaced to make the course all-weather. However, some better draining bits will be kept natural.

No rocks in Essex? Then we'll bring some in. Before you criticise, there aren't many rocks in Dalby either. The ones there came from the same quarry as these ones (looks like Bath stone to us, but we didn't get a chance to check)

Martyn Salt - he knows that he's got the unenviable task of making a course that's challenging to ride, great to watch, buildable and maintainable - and still have time for silly questions from us in the media.

The builders reckon that they have 60% of the course built so far. It'll be finished by March, with a test event scheduled for July 2011. We'll be down to ride it before that though.

Overall, I’m very excited about the venue. I went along in full sceptic mode and I came away very impressed with the technical nature of the course, with the climbs and the descents and with the overall spectacle of the venue. There are a few things that I’ll hold fire on just yet until more details emerge, such as things like if there’ll be tech zones (or bouncy castles) but at the moment, it’s all looking good.

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