It’s fair to say that the Olympic mountain bike venue and the race course itself haven’t had the warmest of receptions on the Singletrack forum with arguments and comments ranging from “it’s not technical” to “it’s not Dalby/Fort William/Glentress”. But how would it actually hold up in practice?
Test events are held for each of the Olympic disciplines to trial everything from the venue to the infrastructure and ensure that things are up to scratch before it goes out on live TV to a billion people across the globe. Hadleigh Farm, out near Canvey Island, Essex is the venue for the 2012 MTB racing and on July 31st, the world’s best racers, many of whom would be competing in 2012, along with 5000 spectators got their first taste of a full-on race there. Everything from the Park & Ride facilities, the miles of temporary steel trackway laid to get vehicles to the venue, the racing, the course and the general event logistics were under scrutiny on this roughly 1/5th scale event. Summer had finally come to Essex and it was a blazing hot day as 5000 spectators wended their way from Park & Ride to the buses to the venue and into the arena itself, all efficiently directed by what seemed like hundreds of marshals.
The courses itself has to comply with strict rules from both the UCI and the IOC about length, amount of climbing per lap, number of technical features, amount of singletrack, doubletrack and “open” terrain while still catering to the needs of the media and spectators. In this respect, the course is fantastic, set in a natural amphitheatre with views over two-thirds of the course from a single viewpoint and the whole place accessible with just a few hundred metres of walking required. Even the views over the Thames Estuary and the ruined Hadleigh Castle aren’t bad, even if they don’t live up to the optimistic “breathtaking” adjective given to them by Essex Tourist Board!
Still, this is the first time there’s been any proper racing on it and, with riders underway, the whole course and atmosphere changed. Seeing the change from the initial fairly sterile images of an empty course, brand new with no weathering in or greenery to a hillside crowded with spectators, riders thrashing round with dust flying was incredible. The riders themselves were having a hard time of it, the heat, the unrelenting toughness of the course, the sheer speed of it was really telling and there were plenty of pain-etched faces. Even one small fatigue induced error on the technical sections could be costly as Welsh National Champion Lee Williams found out, going down hard on the descent of Deane’s Drop although he recovered to claim 20th place as the highest GB finisher.
What was more interesting was seeing how the athletes coped with it in terms of using it as a test for the real thing in a year’s time. There was a roughly 50:50 split of 26er and 29ers with the vast majority of women using hardtails. The Men’s race had a slightly higher percentage of full suspension bikes in the field and almost everyone was running 2×10 although the convincing winner of the Men’s race, double Olympic Champion Julian Absalon was running a 1×10 setup. You’ve never seen such a gathering of Shimano XTR and SRAM XX!
So where do things go from here? Well the course is once again shut down while final repairs and some minor alterations are made to the course and the rest of the event infrastructure is brought in. But from what we’ve seen here, 2012 should provide a top-notch mountain bike race on a well thought out course and hopefully (on-going legal wrangles notwithstanding), there should be a great post-event MTB facility in place in Essex too.
Thanks to Crazylegs for the report and photos.