The decision to let the notoriously flat county of Essex host the mountain bike racing at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games was a controversial one.
However, that decision has been made, and it's now up to the London Organising Committee (LOCOG) and their partners to provide a world-class course at Hadleigh Farm, near Benfleet.
On Thursday 28 October they unveiled the work done so far to the press, and course builder Martin Seddon has certainly made the most of the relatively small 550-acre plot of land allotted to him, especially considering he's had to create the course from scratch. The site was "pure grassland" before he started.
Officials were keen to stress that the elevation of the finished course – 70m – will be greater than that at the Beijing Olympics, and they described the open nature of the venue – the 5km track is essentially spread across two grassy hills – as a "new concept" for mountain biking.
The Olympic mountain bike course is spread across these two hills, with the Thames Estuary in the background. You can see some of the work done so far on the right-hand side
But the scarcity of trees and the rolling nature of the countryside means that, with no roots, rocky outcrops or other technical challenges provided by nature, Seddon must rely on clever line choice and a series of man-made obstacles and challenges to keep riders happy.
"We're trying to build, around the course, a series of technically and physically challenging elements," said Simon Lillistone, LOCOG's cycling manager. Seddon has shipped in boulders to create rock gardens, cut zig-zag climbs into the hillsides and made the most of the few rooty areas available.
There are a couple of potentially nasty drops, some strategically placed rock steps and some short but steep and still lung-busting climbs, along with plenty of potential passing places.
Pro rider Billy-Joe Whenman takes on the 'oak tree drop' – one of the first technical features completed on the Hadleigh Farm course
In the pre-tour briefing, officials were keen to stress the importance of TV coverage, which the wide open course with panoramic vistas of the Thames Estuary (marred to some extent by an oil refinery and power station) will be ideal for, spectator access, and the potential economic and social benefits for Essex.
They also said discussions were underway with landowners the Salvation Army about keeping Hadleigh Farm open as a mountain biking venue after the Games, which would be excellent news for local riders.
The suggestion is that an amended course (some of the more "challenging" features are likely to be removed, although chicken runs already exist) could be kept open under a 10-year lease. "All of us are committed to a lasting legacy for mountain biking after 2012," promised Essex county councillor Stephen Castle.
It's hoped the course will be kept open after the Olympics for local riders to use, although modifications will have to be made to some of the more challenging sections
We were shown key areas of the course, which is now 75 percent complete, including the ballsy Oak Tree Drop, a similar rock and root fest with a near-blind entry that has yet to be named, a zig-zag climb with a mix of tight and open corners, a challenging-looking rock garden descent which is still being built and a tunnel/rocky drop combination.
Maddie Horton (Team Certini-McCaulay's), one of the pro riders on hand to demonstrate the course's potential, said: "It's the first time I've been here and the bits we've seen are brilliant – challenging but rideable.
"I didn't know anything about this area so I thought it would be flat, but when I came over the brow of the hill [I was pleasantly surprised]... The track has similar technical challenges to Dalby [Forest] and other World Cup races. You expect to be a bit scared!"
Maddie Horton was impressed by the course's technical challenges. This rocky drop has a near-blind entry, although there is a slower chicken run to the right
It has also met the approval of UCI technical delegate Peter Van den Abeele, who during a recent visit to the site said: "We're confident that the combination of technical climbs and steep, rocky descents will provide a stunning, challenging course for mountain biking and that it'll be a great event in London 2012."
Seddon said there several key features still to be constructed, particularly on the hillside closer to the farm, where the plan is to have a natural climb (ie. one that more or less follows the existing path rather than having tight corners added) followed by a technical descent. A viewing area will be constructed at the top of the venue, along with a start/finish area in a "natural amphitheatre" on the hillside.
The course – which will cost around £800,000 to construct – is well on track to be finished on schedule on 1 March, so it can be ridden-in prior to the Olympic events on 11-12 August 2012. Spectator tickets will cost £20 or £45. We're hoping to visit Hadleigh Farm again next year to ride the track for ourselves.
The panoramic views will be good for the TV cameras – although we reckon they'll be trying to keep that oil refinery out of shot!
For our views on the track, see BikeRadar's latest blog. What do you think? Have your say in the comments box below. There are plenty more pictures of the course in the thumbnail gallery.