Much has been said about the Olympics XC course, but very little of that has actually come from the people that will be using it come race day. Lee Williams is an elite level cross country racer. Coming from South Wales, he’s sponsored by Wiggle and is currently the Welsh Champion as well as British Bronze medallist. He was invited to race the Hadleigh International part of the London Prepares 2012 and he offered us his take on what the weekend was like, as well as what it’s like to race on the Olympic course. Over to Lee…
After an early morning wakeup call and already covering the miles by 6am, we (me, wife, daughter, mam, dad, gran) headed for race HQ, a Holiday Inn ten miles outside the race venue in Basildon where signing on only confirmed what I already knew….this was a very important event. I’d always pencilled this event into my 2011 race calendar, but with it being an invitational event, there was always the possibility of not getting a ride.
Luckily back at round 3 of the British Mountain Bike Series, (Wasing Estate early June) I was approached by Martyn Salt, head organiser of the MTB discipline at the 2012 Olympics who informally asked me to ride. Since confirmation of a guaranteed place I’ve been excited ever since. I’ve signed on for some of the biggest races cross country has to offer but the sign on for this event was a little different.
Since confirmation of a guaranteed place I’ve been excited ever since.
Even at the World Cups it’s usually a case of checking your license, picking up a number and accreditation, but here we had to also have our kit checked by a UCI (Union Cycliste International) official, who checked for inappropriate corporate logos/sponsors as this event is National kit only and strictly NO team kit is allowed. After a kit check I moved onto the more familiar routines, where we then had/done everything needed to get into the event village and practise the course at Hadleigh.
Arriving at the course, there were officials everywhere and fences surrounding the whole venue which reminded me of going to watch a football match, and we were swiftly escorted to the athletes area and parking for the day. Quick check of the bike, through more security and I was on the course for my first of 3 laps practise.
I was lucky enough to be invited to test the course back in December last year, but the conditions were somewhat different back then with it being very moist because of a fall of snow whereas now it was bone dry. The first lap I simply followed the line choices I preferred back in December, but they didn’t seem to be working all that well and I found myself washing out and struggling for grip especially on the tight switchbacks.
However, a lot of riders found themselves having the same problem, so on that note I thought that tyre choice and pressures would play a big role come race day. The course has a very fast nature with 95% of it being man made with artificial rock gardens, so a fast rolling tyre is the obvious choice, but with the corners being so loose it’s very tempting at this point in practise to choose a slightly deeper treaded tyre for the extra grip to ride smooth. I ended up choosing the Maxxis Crossmarks as they have a very fast rolling vertical profile, with side walls resembling an intermediate/mud tyre giving the grip on the edges and running them at 25psi.
The course itself was quite elevated for London supplying sufficient climbs, which combined with the technical man-made features are clearly going to be a great challenge and by the end of the race there won’t be any riders saying that the course was too easy! By the end of my third lap I was satisfied with the course, so we headed back to the hotel for food and to put my feet up.
Awake and a continental breakfast later, we again headed to the course, as quite often it can change/ride differently overnight (more so when it’s a brand new course) through so many riders going over the same lines and the course simply bedding in. The course was very much the same as yesterday, but with a little less loose stones at the surface.
Only choosing to do two laps very easy today as my main focus for the two day practise was to get to know the course as best as I could, but at the same time recover from a circuit race Thursday evening. Next on the agenda for the day was the managers’ meeting (5pm), a projection presentation in one of the Holiday Inn’s conference suites showing once again their very professional set-up. The meeting confirmed all the procedures for the following day’s race (start loop, gridding pens, media protocol, timing chips, anti-doping, and race detail etc) as well as picking up our race number boards and feed zone passes.
Sunday (Race Day)
After a good night’s sleep I was in good spirit for the battle ahead. Arriving at Hadleigh Farm was extremely exciting as not only were there press helicopters hovering over the venue, but approaching the gates (before entering) you could see the thousands of spectators swarming the course watching the start of the women’s event…it was awesome!
At 11am temperatures were already well above 20’c and with there not being a cloud in the sky, it was set to be not only a battle from a demanding course, but a battle against the heat! Me and a couple of fellow Brit competitors went for a spin over to the start finish arena for some pre-race banter and watch some of the women’s race and it was clear the British riders were going to get a lot of support from the 5,000 man strong crowd. To imagine what 20,000 spectators would be like come race day August 12th 2012 will be unreal! They were clearly enjoying the weather and getting into the spirit of the event and at one point I recall getting goose bumps up my arm. It was a good feeling!
When I returned to the athlete area 2hrs before our 2pm start time, I remember feeling quite relaxed, not as nervous as I was expecting to be and even fell asleep for a 20min power nap before kitting up. When it was time to start thinking about a warm up I headed over to the Team Orange Monkey’s easy-up which was base camp for all the GB invitational riders for the day and there were no less than nine turbo trainers already buzzing away. Normally the turbo trainer would be part of my traditional warm up routine, but with the temperature now creeping above 25C I choose to keep my warm up as short as possible as the heat would give me all the warm up I needed and I didn’t want to risk doing too much before the race.
Before I knew it I was onto the parade loop for the spectators and lined up at the start line. Now if I’m being totally honest, to say I wasn’t nervous at that point would be a complete lie! One minute before the start the sound of the music over the PA system (not your typical chart toppers, more like the deep tense instrumentals you get in action films), only served to get your heart beating that few beats more. The PA system turned off and whether it was just me not hearing anything or it actually was the case, everything seemed silent!
BANG! The music blasted back on, gears crunched all around me combining with the spectators and the two commentators screaming at the cloud of dust caused by the very loose start loop just fed the adrenaline. Gridded 29 on the grid I held my own in the frenzied chaos until we hit the first singletrack where everything slowed up again as we filtered out. Through the single track section there wasn’t much you could do apart from follow the wheel in front of you and half way round the first lap where the course opened out a little for a few climbs I started to move up. Picking off a rider whenever I could I found myself sitting just outside the top 20 (good position) crossing the start/finish for the first time.
Coming into this event I wasn’t sure as to how my form would be or where I would finish, but to be honest anything inside the top 30 riders would be a great result as the competition was pretty hot. I continued to press on and by the end of the second lap I was starting to loosen up and feeling pretty good. I’d moved up into 18th place with a continuous line of riders to catch in front. Not realising it at the time, but the next lap would be my best part of the race actually gaining time on the race leaders. I’d moved up from 18th to 15th and at the back of a five man group knowing I was going to pass and chase for that top ten ride.
However, despite being on course to riding my way into a career best, the race took a turn coming into Dean’s Drop where my front wheel dug into a gap between two rocks and sent me over the bars and down heavily on the rocky ground. Getting straight back on the bike and back on my way, the crash left me struggling to ride at all, let alone fast. I continued to push through the pain in the hope that it would ease and to my surprise it did! However, by that time I’d lost at least 3mins on where I was through riding slowly and trying to get some strength to feed back into my hands and legs.
With only 2 laps to go I didn’t have long to kick back and needed to put the pressure on. Now in 26th I pushed hard and managed to get myself back into the top 20 which was still a very pleasing result as I still managed to cross the line as best Brit. Despite the bad crash mid-way through the race, I was very happy with my performance, knowing that when things do go right I can scare some faces.
After numerous TV interviews through the media zones, I found myself signing autographs for a lot of youngsters as I made my way back to the athletes’ area to get cleaned up. If it wasn’t for the buzz and absolutely awesome atmosphere of the event I’m pretty sure I’d have been hurting a little more than I actually was as my excitement seemed to act as a natural painkiller. Shame I couldn’t say the same thing when I woke up the following morning!
Before the race there was a lot of criticism about the course not being hard enough and it being too narrow for an event like the Olympics. But, I saw completely snapped frames and lots of battered bodies after the race and nearly every rider (including myself) I talked to said that it raced ten times better than riding it in practise.
As for the organisation, it seemed to me to be flawless, whether that was the case behind closed doors I don’t know, but I’ve been to many races since I started back in 1999 and that was my favourite event to date…