London 2012 Olympic Mountain Bike Course Preview

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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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Chipps Chippendale

Singletrackworld's Editor At Large

With 22 years as Editor of Singletrack World Magazine, Chipps is the longest-running cycling magazine editor in the world. He started in the bike trade in 1990 and became a full time mountain bike journalist at the start of 1994. Over the last 30 years as a bike writer and photographer, he has seen mountain bike culture flourish, strengthen and diversify and bike technology go from rigid steel frames to fully suspended carbon fibre (and sometimes back to rigid steel as well.)

More posts from Chipps

Comments (57)

    Looking good! (some of the comments are missing from under the pix)

    I’ll get on to that…

    That course sums up UK mountain biking pretty well I think.

    Sorted Chipps

    It do look good. Care to expand on that doof?

    I think it’s going to be ace. Can’t wait to ride it once it’s open to the great unwashed!

    Question is, once the games are over and done with, is it going to be left so we can all go and play on it,

    Well, it’s not really representative of the sport I do, but then I do also acknowledge the difficulties of hosting an event like this.
    I can’t help but think it’s a shame that when our sport will get the most TV viewers, this is the view of it they get. Mind you, that’s the XC competition world in general’s fault, not just the Olympics.

    No mention of the Crap Coe spouted about increasing the popularity of MTB as a gateway to getting kids into road and track cycling (I admit I didn’t read closely, just scanned and looked at the pictures)? I’m not saying it might not be true to a certain extent, but I thought it showed a lack of respect for a sport that is fairly popular and has some world-class British competitors.

    Will be a good trail centre afterwards and it’s already got a good tea room 🙂 Hope they can come to some arrangement for the 10 years after.
    There is some good scope in there by the looks of it. And not too far away from me in just as hilly Suffolk!

    what Coe said was very true though, a fair few pros start as mtbers and go to the road to make some money.

    as most people here do mountain biking as a pass-time not as a sport. XC racing is not stopping for a chat half way up the first climb at cwm carn.

    Test Event, eh? I’ll get our team to sign up for that 🙂 Looks swoopy and fast, although 70m between the highest and lowest point is interesting… what does that equate to in total height gained during a lap? bristol was awesome at 13km and 180m.. super fast, and that’d have made a great course.

    More importantly what cake was served!

    At least Chipps has made the whole thing sound a bit more exciting than the guys did over at

    Lets face it, we’re all committed mountain bikers and we can all claim to know somewhere better than what has been chosen. However in reality the same guy or girl will win, wherever. The Olympics will always be a made-for-television event, and the sponsorship gained from the event will help the sport for years to come.

    Let’s get British Cycling bidding for the World Championships, at least we know that’ll be on a ‘proper’ course.

    Really excited about this track- it’s only across the Thames for me. Cant wait to ride it!
    Hope they keep it longer than 10 years and expand the trails- they can turn it into a small trail centre maybe?

    Looks good. The sailing is at PortLAND by the way, not Portsmouth. Just thought i’d let you know.

    Will be lots of 29ers,on skinny tyres,with drop bars…oh yeah cyclocross.

    Cross should be an Olympic sport anyway.

    Chipps has made it sound exciting. Let us not forget that a xc race course should be different to your local xc loop, and with Martyn Salt in charge of the course, you’ve at least got someone there who know’s what he’s doing.

    I’ll be buggered if I’m paying £45 to watch some blokes with no leg-hair ride a lot quicker than I can.

    Should of gone to Swinley.

    I was trying to work out what that reminded me of, I’ve worked it out now – the canal tow path they’ve just put in Woking.

    See? FFS.

    Well the pics and course description put quite a lot of my initial fears to rest. Looks like it could be a good XC race venue (Martyn Salt being involved is very very good news) If the course can be left in place as a proper legacy after the Olympics then thats good news too as this part of Essex is pretty limited for mountain biking at the moment.

    It looks like being the sort of course that’ll fold ‘cross bikes. Give it some time to bed in and I reckon it’ll look great. I remember helping build some trails at Afan, which started out as 4ft wide gravel scars and are now 12in ribbons of fun.

    Well done Chipps for bearing in mind it is a race course – not a trail centre being used for racing. Still agree there were more suitable areas for an MTB venue from a rider’s POV, but as you highlighted, decision’s already made, time to get on with it.

    Still folk whining about the location, I see. The clue is in the name – LONDON Olympics. Not Cardiff or Peaks or any number of places subjectively more suitable. Course looks good though. Long term future highly questionable given cost implications and unwillingness of riders to pay to ride.

    “The clue is in the name – LONDON Olympics. Not Cardiff or Peaks or any number of places subjectively more suitable.”
    As Above, in the spirit of accurate journalism, the sailing will be at the subjectively more suitable Weymouth and Portland NOT Portsmouth. Yeah, just outside London!

    cant see it challenging Steve Peat or the Athertons much
    Britain should romp it with a gold silver and bronze 😉

    “I’ll be buggered if I’m paying £45 to watch some blokes with no leg-hair ride a lot quicker than I can.”

    Then don’t!

    …….there are £20 tickets too if you read carefully, and I believe you’ve also forgotten there is a womens race on too or don’t they count? (I imagine, however, that they are also quicker than you so you probably don’t want to watch them either)?

    what a total piss take.

    b nice if it was left 4 public 2 use after

    nice shapes but i would prefer more rock lorries to visit, it looks like a ramblers wet dream

    ‘ I believe you’ve also forgotten there is a womens race on too or don’t they count? (I imagine, however, that they are also quicker than you so you probably don’t want to watch them either)?’

    Did a touch a nerve there? Believe me, I’m a great advocate of equality, so no offence intended.

    Clearly you disagree regarding pricing, but even £20 to see one race seems a lot. Everyone has perspective on value though. If I went, I’d want to see both the men and women, so my £20 wouldn’t go far.

    Where is the mountain for the mountain bike? Its also bit smooooooooth is it not?

    would be fun to try it out one day

    A helmet cam of the run would be great to see, I agree the justification makes it seem fitting (elevation etc) but a bit….bland. The climbs are eased by zig zags and there doesn’t appear to be a strong rooty/loose presence. I’m sure I’m far from the first to make these points, but that’s what comment boxes are for!

    can someone organise a 6/12/24hr later in 2012 ? It’d be great to race on the same track as the Olympic event.

    I don’t see an enduro race working, too many riders on too short a lap. I assume there will be test races, maybe a national round to check how the course works. So if you want a go.

    I think the one thing I would be opposed to is if they bulldozed the site afterwards as that would be a tragic waste of money. I am no fan of the Olympics as I feel we can’t afford them, but as you say, best to try and make the most of a bad situation, and hopefully this will become a much used facility if it going to be made permanent.

    “A helmet cam of the run would be great to see”

    Er, dont think it would actually!

    To all the nay sayers saying there are better trail centres that could have been used.. well, yeah, but at least now we have another trail centre, where there was non before, and without the Olympics, probably no chance of being built at all.

    Having just got back from a sneaky walk round the site, I agree with Chipps that the course will be just fine. There’s plenty of ups to turn your lungs inside out & the downs vary from fast & swoopy to steep & rocky – I have not seen any photo’s on line of the steep rocky down, but I’m sure it’ll get your attention – particularly after the preceeding climb. The site was one of the country’s top motorcycle scramble circuits in the 60’s to 80’s, many races were televised. I only rode there twice, the steep hills were the reason everyone liked to ride there. All you doubters are welcome to come to Essex & give it a whirl, then see if you still compare it to a towpath.

    Perhaps this could be the catalyst for a frenzy of trail centres being built in Essex?

    If they remove the rocks from the tracks afterwards I can see it having a good ten year legacy.
    As the Olympic golf course. Just needs a few holes here and there.
    But a mountain bike course for Londoners would be good, hopefully they’ll also be able to landscape in a few extra off piste routes for a weekly changing course event ala Beastway.
    But how will the average London mountain biker get there for an evening meet after work? I used to ride to Eastway from South London, I doubt very much there will be a cycling train every Wenesday evening. The Beastway Express? That just won’t happen. So it won’t meet targets and all likely shut within ten years and be turned into a golf course.

    It’s great the facility is being provided but I doubt any London mtbers were polled to see what they would like, I certainly wasn’t. Why not? Don’t the views of the users matter?
    If I can I’ll go and watch the Olympic events there but I can’t see how I’ll get to use it afterwards except at an NPS round or something, and as I prefer enduro events even that’s unlikely.
    A 24 hour event maybe.

    Also someone mentioned the velodrome. London needs an indoor velodrome to compliment Herne Hill, but originally when Eastway was taken away the velodrome was promised for 2008.
    When taken as a whole it is one large sham.
    But it is now our sham which we will have to like or lump.
    The worry is that if we do indeed lump it because it is impractical nothing else will ever be done here.

    Oh FFS, get over the “could have done this better, that better, the other better” whinges. Start to realise it’s not all about the riding and the quality of the course. It’s about being able to televise a multi national sporting event all around the world with a minimum of cameras. Joe public doesn’t know whether a course is interesting to ride or not, but the rocky sections will be where the cameras are pointing, and most people will be commenting on “that rocky bit that looked impossible – people were riding their bikes down it – nutters!”

    Looks like it’s going to be a great track to me. Good report, thanks Chipps.

    mmmmm, i just dont get it! 🙁

    ive ridden over here for nearly 20 years now and am fed up defending the place from people that have never been here yet know its a load of rubbish… thanks chipps now perhaps people will realise this isnt going to be a joke event on a flat course – personally cant wait to do the test events (which have to be done next year according ot the ‘rules’) and looking forward to the olympic races too….

    might try and get on there over the weekend.

    If you learned bike skills riding around your local street hoping up and down curbs and you can be arsed to spin then you’d do well. I think watching a gym ‘spinning’ class would be more exciting.
    These people whom compete at these events are meant to be the best in the world…when will XC riding actually be about bike handling skills?

    Like many on here I’ve raced on some ‘flat’ courses eg Thetford – it’s definitely XC racing – the fact it doesn’t have load of big rocky bits and isn’t remote doesn’t matter.

    Surely something that works for TV (how most will see it) and is close enough to London to get to is fit for purpose? The fact there should be a legacy is just a plus, isn’t it?

    large418 you need to get over your whinges about whinges you whinging whinger.
    I’m sure the course will end up being more than adequate for the Olympics but cyclists in London have been shafted by the Olympics. Eastway taken away and nothing put in place, velodrome not delivered etc etc.
    People have suffered much worse I know.
    Loads of families in three bedroom places moved to two bedroom places and many worse things than this, but whoopeedoo, the mountain bike course will be good for the cameras.
    I have actually written politely to the Olympic committee asking about transport to the event for the “legacy” years (replacement for a London based location to a good train ride away).
    An all weather course would allow for night racing too perhaps.
    Maybe I’ll get a positive response, I’ll let you all know.
    Maybe I’ll get nothing, although I am expecting no more and no less than a polite thanks for your letter type response.

    I am sure read somewhere that the Olympic velodrome (or nearby) at Stratford will host a permanant 5k mtb course open to the public for after the games.

    If true – happy days.

    I live in Chelmsford (in between East London and Hadleigh).

    Does anyone know if there are ways to ride the Hadleigh course now ?? Maybe at night..

    The course is off-limits at the moment – which is fair enough seeing as there are great big machines hooning around with buckets of boulders. I’ll post some more pics and video soon of the other bits of the course – there’s a great rocky descent being put into a pretty steep slope too – though I do think that it would benefit from 50yards of Lakeland shale too, just to get some fishtailing in there too.

    The transport there will need sorting. They might think that most people will get there by train, but that’s probably most general Olympic fans. Most mountain bikers will probably drive down and discover the hugely crowded, teeny roads around there. It took me half an hour to get to the nearest dual carriageway on a Thursday lunchtime.

    I’m still waiting on clarification on the ticket prices. While they’ve been quoted as £20 and £45 – this isn’t necessarily for women’s and men’s races. It could be grandstand and standing. (There will be grandstands built there…) – there will be other prices too, such as a ‘Pay your age’ ticket scheme for under 18s.

    Has anyone seen the other ticket prices?
    The badminton is £150 down to £45 a ticket for the final. Bear in mind that the mountain biking event IS the final, and you’ll probably be able to get pretty close to much of the action.

    Loving the strength of opinion thing on these comments. Plenty of people appear to be in need of some stress relief… that’s all I’ll say.

    £45 for a ticket ain’t too bad, if it takes in both the mens and womens races. Think about it, say 10 laps for the mens and maybe 8 for the ladies, that’s gotta be close to 4 hours of racing not including breaks between races.

    Better value than a Premier League game up the road I’d say.

    You’ve also got to remember the event is an XC race, not an enduro or a gnarl fest. It’s got to be designed for the TV cameras and spectators.

    Doesn’t look like a bad effort to me if I’m honest, but as I’m clearly not an established trail builder / global events organiser like some posters perhaps my opinion is invalid 😉

    Looks great from here.

    Looks like a CX track.

    can’t believe how many people are saying it’s like a CX course, or it’s not tough enough. After Beijing, they (the Pros) were saying how hard the course was, and this one looks tougher.
    Don’t forget they are only 60% done, and there are still plenty of rocks to go in.
    Oh, in CX race, you don’t have to stand for 2hrs, which is what this course will be like. No rest for the racers at all.

    Looks pretty good as an XC race track, not what I’d necessarily want to spend a weekend riding, but fun nonetheless.

    Certainly better than the Madrid XC track!

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