Heart-in-your-mouth rock garden descents followed by brutal climbs. That's our abiding memory of the mountain bike course for the 2012 London Olympic Games, which BikeRadar was invited to ride for the first time today.
Hadleigh Farm in Essex sounded like an odd choice of venue when it was first announced, but on a sunny day, with the select few members of the bike press invited to today's launch strung out along the newly completed course, it began to make sense.
Spectator access is excellent – once they've got to the site (there'll be no public parking but park-and-rides and railway station shuttles will be set up). And the open nature of the course means both spectators and riders can see exactly how the race is progressing.
Okay, so there are no mountains. But eight laps of this course will see the male racers climb the equivalent of the height of Ben Nevis. And we're not talking fire roads – the singletrack ascents are littered with rock steps, tight corners and even mini rock gardens.
All the obstacles have a choice of lines to spice up the racing. Here Kenta Gallagher takes on the bigger 'A' line
However, it's the descents that are the real test. In addition to the rocky, rooty drops we were shown at the course preview in the autumn, Martin Seddon and his trailbuilding crew have added some even more testing sections, where racers are funneled into narrow corridors lined with jagged rocks.
Of course, there are 'B' options for those who don't want to take the risk, but these invariably involve a significant time penalty. Plenty of the 'A' routes would be black-graded if they were found at a trail centre. However, this is no trail centre.
While most manmade trails are designed with 'flow' in mind and there's often a chance to have a breather between technical sections, here there's no respite, with swooping downhills immediately followed by technical climbs that slow you to a crawl.
That's not to say the course is no fun though. One descent in particular (a competition is being run with local schools to name the different sections, although we hope 'Cardiac Climb' keeps its all-too-accurate nickname) is a joy to ride, with sweeping berms shooting you over two rocky drops before the inevitable climb back up begins.
Liam Killeen shows the form that won him fifth place at the Beijing Olympics
Based on what we've seen and experienced today, we finally feel satisfied that this venue can provide an Olympic mountain bike race to be proud of. It's time to put the controversy about the venue selection process behind us and look forward to some great racing.
A test event is due to be held at Hadleigh Farm later this year – we'll bring you more news on that as and when we get it. In the meantime, please don't be tempted to go and ride the course for yourself – it's off-limits to the public. However, there are big plans for the site after the Games – more on this below.
Heading out of the start/finish arena, you ride up a switchbacked climb broken up by a large pile of rocks with a choice of three lines. After climbing a little further there's a brief, natural wooded section which spits you out at the top of the main rock garden descent.
Here there's a choice of two lines, with the gnarlier 'A' option reputedly being over 10 seconds quicker. Next is a short section of woodwork, with the option of a gap jump over rocks, which spits you out into a field and down into an area of woodland.
David Fletcher shows how to tackle the main rock garden descent
After a quick blast through the trees, it's time to head back uphill. Just when you think the climb's over, there are some rocks to negotiate and the trail keeps heading inexorably upwards. You then find yourself at the bottom of another switchbacked ascent.
A brief downhill section then takes you to the oak tree drop, over the top of the tunnel and into the feed station. After some more climbing, there's a rocky drop with a blind entry to tackle, followed by another brief ascent and then a bermed descent.
Just when you feel like the end is in sight you have to tackle Cardiac Climb – a grassy toil that seems to go on for ever. When you finally make it to the top, there's a brilliant bermed descent to follow. Next is another lengthy climb before a steep chute shoots you tantalisingly close to the finish line. However, there's one more brief climb to tackle first.
As the TV crews and local news reporters left the site after the official launch of the completed track, it was time to don my riding gear, grab my Ghost AMR test bike and head over to the course to try it out for myself along with a handful of other bike journos.
The venue may be compact but the course designers have certainly made the most of the available space
We were joined by trail builder Martin Seddon, now fully Lycra'd up. His experience as a pro cross-country and cyclo-cross racer soon became evident as he took us around the track, pointing out different lines.
I've got a downhill bike at home so I'm no stranger to rock gardens and technical descents, but tackling some of these obstacles clipped in and with my seatpost at cross-country height was no picnic. At race pace and with your rivals breathing down your neck, it'll be quite a challenge.
I made it through the 'A' lines in one piece – with the exception of a woodwork gap jump over rocks, which I bottled – but not without clouting my pedals a few times and bottoming the rear suspension. The climbs, however, soon showed up my lack of fitness.
They're neither particularly long nor particularly steep. It's just that because the descents are so technical, there's no chance to relax and catch your breath before you're flung head first into another lung-busting effort. On top of that, every time you get into your stride there's a line of jagged rocks to hoist your front wheel over, or an off-camber grassy corner to negotiate.
The feed station will be in the foreground of this picture. At the back is the bermed descent, accessed via 'Cardiac Climb' up the hillside on the right
Ah yes, the grass. Several sections have been left 'natural', with no line dug into the hill or surfacing work being done. If the run-up to the Games is wet, these grass sections are likely to become slick and boggy, providing an extra, more 'old-school' challenge for the racers.
Overall, I thought the course was both challenging and enjoyable. Certain sections are all about power and fitness, others about picking the right line or gearing, and then there are some where you just have to point-and-shoot and hope you make it through unscathed.
I only did two 20-odd-minute laps and, frankly, that was enough. Come the Olympics, riders will have to ride for more than an hour-and-a-half. That's when we'll see mistakes starting to creep in. And there are sections of this course you really don't want to make mistakes on.
With a fifth place finish at the Beijing Olympics, Giant's Liam Killeen is probably the hottest-tipped home rider for the 2012 Games. He seemed impressed by the course, describing it as "pleasantly challenging".
Liam Killeen hopes to improve on his fifth place finish at the last Olympics
"It's a really compact course, with six or seven climbs within about 13 minutes at race pace," Killeen told BikeRadar. "It's fairly 'groomed' at the moment and riding very fast; it needs to be ridden in a bit to make it more 'mountain bikey'.
"The technical sections are riding well. The 'Cardiac Climb' is a little bit soft under tyre and quite tiring. There are a couple of rocky sections where there's not much room for manoeuvre. After a couple of laps, you know you're on a hard course."
Asked how he thought he'd fare in 2012, Killeen said: "I'd like to improve on fifth place. If you aim for gold and you get a medal... I'd be happy with that."
Course builder's view
Martin Seddon and his team have managed to complete the cross-country course on time and on budget, despite challenging weather conditions. "It's great," he told BikeRadar. "It's worked out just how we wanted it to. It's got completely different aspects all the way around – everything serves a purpose.
Martin Seddon, left, and his team of course builders show off their handiwork
"When I first arrived on site and looked over the ridge I thought what a spectacular site it would be for the Olympics. A few sections are going to need riding in, but hopefully the test event is going to achieve that for us.
"We've done a lot of visits to trail centres and things like that, but trail centres aren't race courses. It's a completely different thing to make a track raceable rather than just building singletrack all the time. For me, this course is very physically challenging – I'm not as fit as when I was racing!
Asked what would happen to the track after the Games, Martin said discussions were still ongoing. "The intention is for all of it to stay," he said, adding that he could forsee easier trails being built on site to attract a wider range of abilities.
Tickets for all the cycling events at the 2012 Games are on sale now. For more information, see BikeRadar's guide to the London 2012 Olympics.