There’s less than two years before the start of the London Olympics 2012. While the Olympic park is really taking shape, there’s not been much mention of the mountain bike venue.
So yesterday, on a slightly overcast day with the wind whipping in off the Thames Estuary, we were given a guided tour of the venue and the course that is currently being built.
The choosing of Hadfield Farm, Essex caused some controversy when it was announced in 2008, with many critics citing the location as unfit for a world class mountain bike event. So there being only one way to find out what’s what, we pulled on some sturdy boots, dug out a winter jacket and took to the fields of Hadfield where work is currently underway on building the course.
The site sits on the grassland and woodland of Hadleigh Farm along with some Salvation Army owned land plus the adjoining Hadleigh Castle Country Park. The course will be 5.1km when completed, and is laid out over two major hills, which together offer a surprising degree of climbing – certainly more than might be expected if you look at a map of the area.
It’s only been under construction for 14 weeks but despite this short period of time, much has been done, as these photos show. About 60% of the course has been carved out of the land, and several of the technical sections fully completed. The terrain follows the contours of the land, with a mix of grass tracks to manufactured stone paths. In places are large sections of rocks, there’s plans for some wooden boarding and there’s even a tunnel to allow the course to loop back on itself.
What most amazed us about the venue is that it isn’t flat. Far from it, the organisers have managed to find a surprisingly lumpy area on which a seriously testing course has been laid out. From our inspection, there appears to be very little chance for respite for the riders, the course either twisting tortuously up the incline or rushing down over a series of jagged rocky outcrops.
From the top of the hill there are superb views of several sections of the course as it weaves into the woodland and out of view over the next hill. This is a new direction for Olympic mountain bike events, moving away from the forested woodland trails to courses that are held on open land, a move which on paper looks a bit odd until you realise how improved the spectating opportunities are – instead of a brief glimpse of the racers as they speed past you should be able to see the action unfold around you on the hillside. And with 40,000 spectators expected over the two days, that seems a smart choice.
And before you say that the course won’t offer a technical challenge to the riders, don’t be so sure. Some of the work that has been completed includes several rocky drops that should pose demanding for the racers. There’s another rock drop that is still to be completed that looks like it should raise a few eyebrows when it’s finished. We can’t help feeling that this should be a fun course to race on.
And that’s the crux of it; we came away thinking how much fun the course looks like to ride (let alone race). That’s not something we were expecting to come away feeling earlier that morning on our train journey to Essex. Maybe, just maybe, the organisers have developed a course that will not only provide great spectacle come 2012 but also deliver up a challenging test for the riders.
The legacy plan is still being decided but with the post-Olympic success key to the overall strategy and winning of the Olympic bid in the first place, we could be looking at an exciting attraction for mountain bikers based in and around the Essex area.
Could it be the best Olympic mountain bike event to date? Based on what we’ve seen so far, it just could be. We came away impressed, it bodes well for the London Olympics.