Mountain biking as an Olympic sport is relatively new, only making its debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games. That year saw the inclusion of men’s and women’s cross-country races, a programme that has remained unchanged ever since.
For London 2012, the venue is Hadleigh Farm in Essex, a choice that wasn’t universally popular when it was announced in 2008. The original choice, Weald Country Park – also in Essex – was deemed by the International Cycling Union as being too undemanding, but even in Hadleigh Farm, many believed that staging such as important cross-country race in a notoriously flat county was wrong.
But course builder Martin Seddon and his team were determined to make it work and transformed the 550 acre site into a course that he hoped would test the skills of the best and most hardened racers on the planet, accommodate thousands of spectators and be suitable for TV coverage.
To the right of this picture is the course’s fastest descent, accessed via a grassy ascent nicknamed ‘cardiac climb’:James Costley-White/BikeRadar.com
The open course is a vital ingredient in making it a televisual spectacle
In March 2011, a select band of the world‘s cycling media was invited to check out the finished article and BikeRadar was keen to see first hand what was in store for the Olympians. Our abiding memory was one of heart-in-your-mouth rock gardens followed by brutal climbs.
Obviously there are no mountains, but with the site elevation measuring 70 metres from top to bottom and cyclists covering seven laps (six for women) – the equivalent of the height of Ben Nevis – race pace should dictate they’re in for a tough day in the saddle.
As it was a totally new course, when we first tested it out it was obvious it needed to to be raced on and, in the words of British medal prospect Liam Killeen, make it more “mountain bikey.”
Last August, the Olympic test event did just that, with over 4,000 spectators turning out to see a world class field in action. Reigning Olympic champion Julien Absalon (France) and Catharine Pendrel (Canada) proved to be the strongest riders on the day, taking solo victories in both the men’s (seven 4.6km laps) and women’s (six laps) races.
Reigning olympic champion julien absalon (france) wins the olympic test event: reigning olympic champion julien absalon (france) wins the olympic test eventRob Jones
Reigning Olympic Champion Julien Absalon (France) made a solo break on the first of seven laps and extended his lead until the end
“You appreciate the hardness of the climbs in race conditions,” said Pendrel after the race. “I think it races well; it’s a hard course, a fast course, I think it’s anyone’s course. A lot of the Europeans were training through this, I think, preparing for the European championships next week, so this result is not indicative of what we will see [at the Olympics].”
While the event provided some fantastic racing, it was more important for the designers to use feedback from the riders to make any changes or improvements to the course. Some complained that it was flat and narrow, so organisers went back to the drawing board to include more passing room, technical features and climbing.
The major players
Only last week, the guys and girls gunning for gold in London were putting the final touches to their preparation in the final round of the World Cup in Val d’Isere. Swiss rider Nino Schurter wrapped up his fourth win of the season – and the overall World Cup win – to cement his position as the man to beat in London.
Absalon will be keen to defend the title he won in Beijing, while Burry Stander (South Africa), Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) and Jose Hermida (Spain) are all likely to feature in the final shake-up. Britain’s best hope for a medal is 30-year-old four-time national champion Killeen, who will be keen to go at least two better than his fifth place four years ago.
Liam killeen:James Costley-White/BikeRadar.com
Liam Killeen is a cross-country Commonwealth champion, winning in Melbourne in 2006
In the women’s event, Pendrel will be looking to repeat her win in last year’s test event. She’ll be confident too, having won the overall World Cup series. World number two Gunn Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Norway) will enter the race in fine form having won in Val d’Isere last weekend, while Julie Bresset (France) will have designs on gold.
Annie last:PA Wire
Annie Last was the 2011 British National Cross-Country Champion
Britain’s best hope is world number six and two-time national champion Annie Last who at 22 is the youngest in the world’s top 10. The Debyshire star has enjoyed a fine season, with top ten cross-country finishes in four World Cup rounds. She also took victory in the first XC Eliminator series at the World Cup in Houffalize, Belgium in April, a new explosive addition to the UCI World Cup.
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Annie Last on the Hadleigh Farm course
Both men’s and women’s events will be one-off races. The women are first up on Saturday 11 August (12.30pm) with the men lining up the following day at 13.30pm. They are mass start events, with riders seeded on a starting grid according to their world ranking. Both races are expected to take around 90 minutes, with Absalon and Pendrel winning in 1hr 31mins and 1hr 32mins respectively last August. You can read Cyclingnews’ in-depth look at the format of both races here.