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Olympic cross-country mountain bike preview: the course, the contenders and the bikes

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The cross-country mountain bike season comes to a head this weekend at the Olympic Games. We take a look at the course, the contenders and the bikes they’ll ride on the Hadleigh Farm track in Essex.

Julien Absalon

Twenty thousand spectators will pack into Hadleigh Farm for the Olympic mountain bike races

Schedule

Saturday August 11, 12:30pm – women’s race
Sunday August 12, 1:30pm – men’s race

Where to watch?
Twenty thousand spectators will pack into Hadleigh Farm on both days – but, needless to say, it’s sold out.
BBC One’s coverage of Saturday’s women’s race will run from 12:15pm to 2:30pm, while the men’s race on Sunday will be broadcast on BBC Two between 1:15pm and 3:35pm (subject to change). And, of course, you can read all about both races here on Bikemagic.

Course

London 2012 Olympic mountain bike course map

Course map

Television audiences are key to a sport’s success at the Olympics and, after the 2008 Games in Beijing, mountain biking – a sport where the field can be spread over a great distance, on a heavily wooded course – faced the possibility of being removed from the Olympic programme.

The sport remains, however, and organisers of London’s event have taken advantage of the natural amphitheatre that is Hadleigh Farm, land privately owned by the Salvation Army in Essex, to build a course designed with spectators and tv audiences in mind. The steeply-sloped terrain allows spectators to view large sections of the course and its man-made but visually appealing technical features from a number of vantage points on the hillside.

“The majority of the course sits in a natural amphitheatre, allowing spectators superb views of the majority of the course, ensuring they have a fantastic day and media coverage is maximised.

“I really do think more courses like this can only help bring spectators and potentially sponsors to the sport,” said Simon Ernest after racing the test event. Mission accomplished, then.

Essex, a county not renowned for its gradients, may not seem the obvious choice for a cross-country mountain bike course but there’s little flat land on the Hadleigh Farm track, with 172m of climbing per 4.7km lap. The men’s race will cover seven laps and the women’s event six, with both races expected to last about one-and-a-half hours on what is set to be a super-fast circuit, with technical sections which can be taken at speed, lots of overtaking opportunities and the added factor of the wind whipping in off Thames Estuary.

Work began on the course in July 2010 and was completed nine months later, although the course was updated earlier this year to make it “higher, wider and higher” following rider feedback from last summer’s test event, the Hadleigh Farm international, with the addition of new climbs, technical features and key overtaking areas.

The start/finish area leads straight on to a climb in order to avoid a bottleneck and then zig-zags its way across the farmland, and up and down the hillside, via a number of climbs and technical features, including Triple Trouble (a rock garden with three lines, the steepest being the quickest), Leap of Faith (a steep, wooded drop-off) and The Rock Garden (a new feature added after the test event).

You can see more of the original course (before it was updated) in this video of the test event from British Cycling:

Want to ride the course? The Olympic course will remain after the dust has settled on London 2012 but it will be adapted – tamed – to make it more suitable for wider use. Last week we brought you the news that Castle Point Borough Council has voted to allow a planning application to construct two biking tracks, a bike skills area, a visitor centre and other facilities on land at Hadleigh Country Park.

Hadleigh Farm

The course has 172m of climbing per lap

Contenders

Men

Julien Absalon
Nationality: France
Age: 31
Pedigree: Absalon became the first man to win back-to-back Olympic titles with victory in Beijing, having previously won in Athens, and continue France’s domination of the event after Miguel Martinez won the Sydney 2000 race. The Netherlands is the only other nation to have claimed gold in the men’s race after Bart Brentjens won the inaugural event in 1996. Four-time world champion Absalon, who won one World Cup this season, also dominated the test event, leading from start to finish.

Nino Schurter
Age: 26
Nationality: Swiss
Pedigree: Schurter took Olympic bronze in the 2008 race and is the form rider in 2012 having won the overall World Cup series. The Swiss rider  claimed three victories en-route to his second overall title, including a win at the final round of the campaign in Val d’Isere, France, on July 28.

Jaroslav Kulhavy
Age: 27
Nationality: Czech
Pedigree: Kulhavy hasn’t enjoyed the same dominance in 2012 as he did last year, when the Czech rider won the overall World Cup series and the World Championships, but the 27-year-old has been in the mix throughout the season, registering three podium finishes at the World Cup to finish third overall. That’s enough to make him the bookies’ favourite (you can see the latest odds here).

Liam Killeen will represent Great Britain at the Olympics for the third time

The Brit – Liam Killeen
Age: 30
Pedigree: Great Britain qualified one rider for the Olympic Games, with Killeen taking that spot. The 30-year-old will line-up at his third Olympic having finished fifth and seventh in Athens and Beijing respectively. Killeen’s best World Cup result this season was a 19th place finish at the Nove Mesto Na Morave round and the five-time British national champion is unlikely to be in the medal mix this time round.

Women

Catharine Pendrel
Age: 31
Nationality: Canadian
Pedigree: Pendrel has called the Olympics “the ultimate race” and described the World Cup season as the perfect springboard for success at the Games. The 2011 world champion will head to Essex as favourite, then, having won the overall World Cup series after notching up four individual victories.

Gunn Rita Dahle Flesjaa
Age: 39
Nationality: Norwegian
Pedigree: Dahle Flesjaa knows what it takes to succeed at the Olympic Games having won gold in 2004 and the veteran goes into the 30th Olympiad in fine form having won the final World Cup event of the season.

Julie Bresset
Age: 23
Nationality: French
Pedigree: London 2012 will be Bresset’s first Olympic Games and the young Frenchwoman has made gold her number one target this year. The 23-year-old won the under-23 World Championships and senior World Cup title in 2011.

Annie Last

Annie Last is the first female British mountain biker to qualify for the Olympics since 2000

The Brit – Annie Last
Age: 21
Pedigree: Team GB has a genuine outside shot at the medal in Last, who is the first female British mountain biker to qualify for the Olympics since Caroline Alexander and Louise Robinson in 2000. The 21-year-old Last, ranked fifth in the world behind Pendrel, Dahle Flesjaa, Bresset and the injured Maja Wloszczowska, has consistently registered top ten finishes in 2012 and is coming into form with perfect timing having earned her first World Cup podium finish in Val d’Isere.

Bikes

The smooth track, with technical sections which are fast but not too challenging, will suit a hardtail, according to course designer Martin Seddon.

“Most of the riders will be on hardtails but obviously they’re trying to figure out whether they should be on a 26-inch wheel or a 29er – or whether they’re going to do anything different altogether,” Seddon told us earlier this year.

Hardtails dominated the test event and we scoped out some of the pro’s bikes for this feature.

Great Britain’s Killeen will run 29-inch wheels in Essex: “A 29er suits the Olympic course,” Killeen told Bikemagic after previewing the course in April. “The bigger wheels roll over some of the rocks nicely and it feels good round here.”

Fine weather is forecast for the weekend but, should the heavens open, British Cycling have coated Last and Killeen’s bikes in a mud-resistant P2i nano-coating. Read more about that here.

  1. paulhaysom

    Jose Hermida could also put in serious contention – he is racing isn’t he?

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