With the sun casting a soft glow upon the Thames Estuary and the mercury nudging towards 20 degress, it could easily have been August 2012 at Hadleigh Farm.
But instead, with just under 500 days until London 2012 kick’s off, a small group of journalists gathered in a quiet corner of Essex to cast judgement over the now complete Olympic mountain bike course.
We first visited in October, when many of the key features were already in place and the same theme continues across the whole 5km circuit. Rocky, root-strewn drop-offs, tight, singletrack ascents and lightning-fast, swooping berms assembled by course designer Martin Seddon and his four-strong team.
Feedback from the four British riders – Liam Killeen, David Fletcher, Kenta Gallagher and Lily Matthews – given a sneak preview is positive – despite, of course, no mountains in this part of the world and just 170m of ascent per lap.
“When you’re told about a mountain bike course in Essex then it’s hard to imagine it,” said Killeen, seventh at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
“But, while it’s not super-hilly, there’s no rest on this course. It’s got fast descents into steep climbs.”
Tickets, on sale now through www.tickets.london2012.com, are among the cheapest available during the Games, ranging between £20 and £45, and guarantee a gold medal performance, with the women’s race taking place on August 11 and the men’s event 24 hours later.
The open countryside allows for multiple vantage points, drawing spectators to different sections of the course – an important consideration for the organisers, seeking to increase the sport’s television profile and accessibility.
While there is no public parking available – access is restricted to a tight farm lane – park and ride facilities will shuttle the 20,000 spectators, arriving by road and rail, in from nearby Leigh-on-Sea comes Games time.
And the course will be put through its paces on July 31 in the Hadleigh Farm International, which will see the world’s top 100 riders invited.
“The nations that come [to the test event] will be the nations who are, at this stage, qualified for the Games,” said London 2012 mountain bike manager Martyn Salt. “At the moment we’re looking to invite 40-45 countries.
“We’ve had a lot of interest. Everyone will want to ride it because it’s a new venue.”
That will give 5,000 mountain bike fans the chance to preview the course, with tickets expected to go on sale at the end of May.
But, despite London hosting the Games for the first time since 1948, Salt insists British riders will not be given preferential treatment to train on the course.
“I don’t think there are any plans to give the British team an advantage,” he added. “We need to give everyone a fair opportunity to access the course.
“There will be structured training sessions for all the qualified nations to take part in and we’re here to give everyone an equal opportunity.”
So what about once the curtain has fallen in 2012? Legacy was the key buzzword throughout London’s bid and continues to plague organisers, with the Olympic Stadium now in the hands of Premier League football club West Ham United post-Games.
But the long-term future of Hadleigh Farm looks secure, despite a legacy solution still in the planning stages and the course lodged on land owned partly by a working farm and partly by the Salvation Army.
Hadleigh Farm has met the approval of the UCI, who seek a challenge worthy of Olympic status, putting the course firmly beyond the skills of most weekend riders. But riding an Olympic race track will be a draw for those with enough experience to tackle the key A-routes, leaving the development of lower grade alternative trails a viable option.
“This will all remain for legacy after the Games and Essex Council are working on a plan for the addition of other trails in the area to attract a full range of abilities,” said course designer Seddon.
“I don’t know how they’ll grade it [the Olympic course after the Games] but the intention is for it to stay. My brief was not to worry about the legacy but to build a course that is fit for the Olympics.”
And it’s mission accomplished as far as Seddon is concerned, leaving everyone else chomping at the bit to take to two wheels and see Hadleigh Farm for themselves.