Singletrack reader Mark Bonnes got the job of heading over to the new Olympic course in Essex to ride it for the first time and bring back his impressions on it.
Yesterday, I got to go down to the Grand Opening of the 2012 Olympic XC course at Hadleigh Farm near Benfleet in Essex, on behalf of Singletrack, to see what has happened, meet those involved with the course, hear a few words from Lord Coe himself and all importantly, to ride the course itself. So here goes.
Before going into anything else, I’d like to just mention getting there. My car dying on me the night before meant I was catching the train, so as I was in London at a friends house I hot footed it up to Fenchurch St. Station to catch the train to Benfleet Station. There are trains almost every 10 minutes to Benfleet, and it takes only around 40 minutes to get there. And the good news is that when you arrive there, it’s only a short ride or walk to the course itself. Small things admittedly, but considering the crowds of over 20,000 spectators that they are hoping to draw to the Olympic event, they all help. For those driving to the area, there are going to be Park & Ride services provided to get to the Course. There will be no parking at the course itself for spectators.
The view from the top of the course is promising, spectators will be able to see a large proportion of the course at any one time if they are viewing from the Start/Finish area. Also, the furthest part of the course is only about 300 metres away, so a different viewpoint is only a few minutes walk away at any point. The whole area is a bit of a natural amphitheatre, it is not difficult to find good vantage points. With there being a number of key technical elements to the track this should prove to be a big bonus.
Lord Coe and his entourage arrived, and it was time to kick the days proceedings off. After a short time spent meeting and greeting people from the Salvation Army (who own Hadleigh Farm), he came down to chat to the MTB press about the course, and his hopes for the Olympics. By this point I was already itching to get to see the interesting bits of the course and to ride it, so to be honest hearing a well rehearsed speech about why the Olympics was going to be great for the local area, and why they had chosen Hadleigh Farm, was just prolonging the pain. Let us not forget though, that Lord Coe has spearheaded the whole Olympic effort and is part of the reason we have an Olympics to look forward to in the UK in 2012 in the first place.
Presentation over, off we set to take in various aspects of the course, with our Olympic hopefuls riding them. Much hype has been talked about the course, particularly on whether or not it will provide much of a challenge to the athletes. I can state that whilst there is a lot of wide, smooth surfaces covering the track in places, there are also a number of very technically challenging elements. So with the pro riders primed and ready to ride some of them, out came the camera again.
Each of the technical challenges has 2 or sometimes 3 lines, where as you would expect, the hardest route is the quickest route. In each case, these “A-Lines” as they are referred to are very steep and technical indeed. 45 degree slopes on loose surfaces, rock drops, a gap jump, step ups and a rock garden or two may not get the world’s most extreme freeriders scared, but they would not look out of place on many of the UK’s more challenging “Black” graded routes. Come race day, with riders taking risks in the heat of competition, I can see there being a few broken wheels and shredded tyres as riders look to gain vital seconds by going faster and faster through these sections. I should also note though, that in each case the “B-lines” though being easier, are quite technically challenging in their own right. Sharp switchbacks, and rock gardens still being the name of the game, whilst also being longer than the A-Lines.
With the riders having finished riding sections of the course for photos, we got the opportunity to ask those who had designed and built the course some questions. According to Martyn Salt, course designer, it’s 5.1km in length, and has a staggering 170m of climbing per lap! Yes really… Just think about that for a moment. There may only be a maximum elevation of approximately 70m from the bottom to top of the course, but with Olympic riders being expected to do sub 13 minute laps, meaning the men could possibly do 8 laps of the course on race day, they will be gaining more altitude than climbing to the top of Ben Nevis in around 1hr 45 minutes! This course is going to make the athletes really earn that Gold Medal.
Martin Seddon, the man in charge of the team who built the course (and the ex XC racer who would later show us all up on a guided lap) made the point that the course has been designed to provide a number of significant technical challenges as well as provide plenty of overtaking opportunities. Unlike your average trail centre, which is designed to reward riders with flowing sections that make you feel like you have really mastered the trail, this course has been designed to be as tough as possible. Olympic Athletes should really be up to the challenge after all.
So then, the Olympic XC Mountain Bike course. What’s it like to ride?
After a quick snack provided by the Salvation army (and very gratefully received), we got on our bikes for a guided lap from Martin Seddon who as course builder, knows it better than anyone. I should just state at this point, I am not, and never have had any claim to being either an XC racer or technically gifted. I am Mr. Average, both skills and fitness wise, so I shall try to be as objective about the course as possible as it is not aimed at me but at the best of the best.
After a short climb, a descent through a boulder field with three separate lines, and another short climb, you get to the first significantly technical section. Martin is an experienced and skilled XC racer in his own right, and it showed when he capably rode the first A-Line with us all watching. I’ll admit, that at this point with perhaps a dozen other people around to see me hurt myself if I came off, I was a little nervous, but I leaned back and managed to clean through the first one OK with my dignity intact. Off to the next challenge…
Which was a gap jump of all things, on an XC course. OK, we’re only talking a gap of perhaps 7 or 8 feet in length here, but it was a gap nonetheless. There is another line down the side of this section too, which most of us took at this stage. One of those “I’ll try it perhaps when nobody else is watching” sections for most of us.
Moving on, through a short winding wooded section before bursting out onto a short, sharp, technical climb littered with rock step ups. Like most climbs on this course, not particularly long, but long enough to get your lungs working, and technical enough to have you out of the saddle for most of it, when you get to the top, and round the corner a bit more climbing before descending some bermed corners and into a switchback climb. You then descend briefly before getting to the Oak Tree drop, where again there are 2 separate lines (again, I chose the easy option this time) and over the top of the tunnel, where heaven forbid if you forget the correct line choice as you approach it at speed, without being able to see over it, but as you crest the top there is a massive rock justting out on the right hand side that will have anybody forgetting about it flying over the handlebars.
From the tunnel, you go into the feed station area, another short sharp climb, before descending through some more berms, braking for a technical rock step down at the bottom, then up a lung burning climb just as you’ve lost all your speed. See what I mean about it being built to be tough on the athletes. No conservation of momentum whatsoever is built into this course.
Once at the top of the Lung Buster, you’re rewarded with a brilliant descent. Certainly the most fun section of the course, you go through a series of bermed corners at the top, picking up some real speed before launching off a rock drop, followed by a bit of a kicker that you really have to check your speed going into otherwise you might as well call 999 whilst you’re in the air, before rounding a corner at the bottom of the section to be greeted by… The most technical climb of the course! How sadistic can you be? Ok, it’s only 15 metres long maybe, but just as you’ve built up lots of speed, you are greeted with a horrid rock garden of a climb that I shall admit I didn’t make it up, and had to walk some of it.
One more brief switchback climb, before descending a big steep natural chute (one of very few natural features on the course) that you gain real speed from, over a slight hump which you can’t help but get a little air over, and into the massive start finish area once more.
After a debriefing with Martin and Martyn, and signing a waver, we were allowed to ride the course again on our own. Hooray, nobody watching to see me make a prat of myself if I came off! Well, I say nobody, I ended up riding round in tandem with James C-W from Bikeradar as we had got chatting earlier.
Second lap done, and more of the technical sections cleared (I hate audiences as you may have gathered), I can state the course is definitely a grower. After my initial lap I was left with a feeling that the course was tough for the sake of being tough, but with not much inbetween the sections. Second time round, and with less stopping, and having cleaned all but one of the several technical A-Lines still with seatpost at full height, I felt a lot happier with the course. Martin had mentioned to me that the course had been designed to reward those who learnt the lines well on it, and I would definitely agree.
So, what would I say about it in summary? A short, sharp, challenging course with many features not out of place on Black runs on UK trail centres. Designed to reward those who take the time to learn it, it doesn’t naturally reward the average rider but requires skill to ride well. A few too many wide open flat areas for my liking, but I like Singletrack riding and these I was assured were put in place to make sure the fastest riders have ample overtaking opportunities, something that needs to be taken into account as this is an Olympic XC course not a trail centre. But on the whole, a very spectator friendly course with significant technical challenges to the riders to make it reward those with skill as well as the fitness. Not somewhere you’d go as an average trail rider to get your jollies day in day out (which you won’t be able to anyway as it’s closed off to the public), but as an XC race course it should provide exactly what’s required.
To see our initial preview of the course, click here: http://www.singletrackworld.com/2010/10/london-2012-olympic-mountain-bike-course-preview/