Can Essex provide a truly world-class venue?
By James Costley-White, in Bath, England | Friday, October 29, 2010 11.50am
Billy-Joe Whenman (Whyte) and Paul Beales (Cannondale) tackle the zig-zag climb at the Olympic mountain bike course under construction in Essex James Costley-White/BikeRadar
So, have Essex pulled it off? Is Hadleigh Farm looking like a worthy venue for the mountain bike races at the London 2012 Games? Course builder Martin Seddon has certainly done some great work and it looks like it'll be a fun track to blast around with your mates once the Games are over.
However, with lap times set to be as low as 12 minutes and a fast-rolling, hardpacked stony surface for most of the course more akin to a big BMX track – although we're assured this will wear in by 2012 to provide a much more natural feel – we're not sure how much of a challenge it'll pose elite racers.
Having said that, the three pros present at the launch – Maddie Horton (Team Certini-McCaulay's), Billie-Joe Whenman (Whyte Bikes) and Paul Beales (Cannondale) – all seemed impressed, and said that what Hadleigh Farm lacked in size, elevation and natural obstacles it more than made up for with physical challenges like short, steep climbs hot on the heels of fast descents.
The open nature of the course from the viewpoint at the top, as much as 70 percent of the track can be seen, means riders will have a good idea of where they lie in the race and how their rivals are doing, which could make for some exciting racing. The clear view of the action and panoramic views are also likely to be a hit with the 20,000 spectators and TV audiences across the world.
The short length of the course (5km) should mean plenty of neck-and-neck racing; here Paul Beales and Billy-Joe Whenman take on the tunnel after the 'oak tree drop'
It's not just the course that has to be built, though. The main entrance route to the site is currently via residential streets and a narrow drive, and although there are plans to widen both this and a secondary entrance, concerns remain about how accessible the venue will be. While the big Winnebagos used at World Cup races won't be present (because riders will be representing national federations rather than trade teams), the pits area is extremely limited.
Apparently teams will have to drop off equipment at the venue and then park elsewhere, which could cause all sorts of problems. There's also the question of how spectators are going to get to the event. Organisers are expecting the "vast majority" of visitors to come by train, but they'll still need to be bussed to the venue from nearby Leigh-On-Sea, and this assumes that there are no hold-ups on the railways.
Before touring the site, we were played a video message from LOCOG chariman Seb Coe in which he described mountain biking as "a gateway to road and track cycling". Call me cynical, but this seems to sum up the official attitude to the sport: it's seen as a sideshow to the main events.
You can see Hadleigh Farm in the background of this picture of some of the assembled officials and riders. It's just that, a farm, and it's unclear how it'll be turned into a world-class sporting venue
This vastly overlooks the potential of a sport at which Britons are particularly good (albeit with greater success in the non-Olympic discipline of downhill racing – but throw the same amount of money at cross-country as is ploughed into road cycling, and success would almost inevitably follow), not to mention the vast number of people who ride mountain bikes on a regular basis.
If this all sounds negative, don't get me wrong: the course is shaping up to be far better than many (including us) had expected. It's not the venue we'd have chosen, but it is fairly close to the Olympic Village. Olympics organisers have missed a chance to showcase the amazing riding that Britain has to offer, but at least riders in the South East look likely to benefit in the long-run.
If the Hadleigh Farm course encourages a new generation of young people in the area to get into mountain biking, that can only be a good thing. And the racing should provide a good spectacle on TV – which again may encourage more people to give mountain biking a go, and that can only be a good thing for the progression and profile of the sport.
The wide open nature of the course should be ideal for film crews, and if plans to create an Olympic legacy for Essex come to fruition, the Hadleigh Farm track will provide a much-needed facility for local riders
What do you think? Have your say in the comments box below.
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