Comment: London 2012 organisers miss golden opportunity by restricting Box Hill access

It had all the ingredients to be one of the highlights of London 2012. The opening weekend of the Games, just six days after the end of the Tour de France, an iconic vantage point in Box Hill and, in home favourite Mark Cavendish, a chance for Great Britain to kick-start its medal rush less than 24 hour after the opening ceremony.

Box Hill’s hairpins add a touch of Continental glamour

But plans to restrict access to Box Hill to just 3,400 spectators with wristbands, leading to Mark Cavendish to call for a public petition to force a rethink,  has cast a shadow over the race with the Olympic Games still a year away.

London 2012 organisers Locog have imposed the restrictions after completing a series of ecological surveys on the National Trust land, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation.

The London-Surrey Cycle Classic, the official test event on August 14, will be run under the restrictions, after which Locog will explore with the National Trust and National England whether the 3,400 capacity can be reconsidered.

Don’t hold your breathe. Both conservation groups are well within their rights to stand their ground. After all, their concern is the wildlife on the hill, not 145 lycra-clad cyclists and the flag-waving fans there to support them.

The 2.5km climb could provide the launch pad for an attack

Along with the sprint finish in front of Buckingham Palace on The Mall, which has been ticket-only from the outset, Box Hill was billed by Locog as the race’s key battleground when the route was revealed at its summit in February.

Ok, this is not the Col du Tourmalet but the nine laps of the 15.5km circuit, which includes 2.5km of roughly five per cent climbing on a rough, laggy surface could provide the perfect launch pad for an attack, while testing the sprinters’ legs before the run-in to London.

That’s what made Box Hill such a great spot. The unpredictability of its position in the race, the chance to see the peloton climbing on each lap, stunning views across the Mole Valley and three hairpins that add a touch of Continental glamour.

So why devise a route with Box Hill as its centrepiece when, six months later, almost all hopes of watching the race from its slopes are dashed? Or were Locog left panic-striken when they were yet to announce the route with less than a year-and-a-half until the starting pistol was fired?

Because the road race has been dogged by problems since London was awarded the Games in 2005. Only in 2009 was the original route, starting and finishing in Regent’s Park with 14 laps of a circuit taking in Highgate West Hill and Hampstead Heath, scrapped after the UCI didn’t deem it challenging enough.

Tour de France green jersey winner Mark Cavendish has urged organisers to rethink

Now they have their course, but without the spectators – eliminating the very spirit of road cycling, where fans on the roadside, standing inches from their heroes, can see the pain etched across the riders’ faces, sweating pouring from their brows. Just look at the electric atmosphere on the 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez during stage 19 of this year’s Tour.

And, from a straw poll on Twitter, Locog’s decision has left a sour taste in the mouths of cycling fans, who were first shut out of the velodrome, where every session in the 6,000 capacity venue was heavily oversubscribed, and who have now been distanced from the road race.

“Yet again the British public will struggle to see an Olympic sport,” wrote dav01onamission. “From excited anticipation to having to tell my son that he will not be able to see any of the sports he wanted to,” tweeted Gathercole. “Box Hill is a perfect place to watch, but did the organisers not think about spectator numbers and any issues before now?” asked StuartUnited. And that’s just a flavour of the responses.

So who will have a wristband for the test event on August 14? Locog allocated Surrey councils along the route and Surrey Police with 1,400 wristbands, while British Cycling have distributed a number to their members. Details on wristband distribution for both the men’s and women’s road races will be finalised after the test event has been completed.

But if tickets for the velodrome were like gold dust, expect Box Hill to be cycling’s Bermuda Triangle.

While campervans and tents may line the Tour de France’s iconic ascents, with fans fighting it out for the best spot days in advance of the race passing through, Locog will settle for a sterile atmosphere on Box Hill, missing a golden opportunity to engage a population that finally has cycling at the forefront of its mind.

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