So what is the route of the London 2012 Olympic road race going to be like? Well, there’s only one way to find out, so with a rough idea of the route before the official announcement today, we (Richard, George and I) cleared a day in our diaries and, with enough food for a day’s riding, set out for a recce.
While you can read about the course, and indeed see the route we rode and see some great photos of Team RCUK in action, I just wanted to share some of my thoughts on the course. When it was first revealed that the course would start in London and its featured highlights would consist of Richmond Park and Surrey’s Box Hill, there was plenty of criticism and mocking and no doubt the course will continue to draw much criticism in the run up to the event next July.
Having ridden the course it’s easier to get a real sense of what the racing could be like on the day.
Sure, there are no mountains in Surrey but the course designers have worked around this obvious shortfall to create a course that should provide for an open and exciting race. It favours neither sprinters nor breakaway specialists, with it easy to imagine the race going either way.
Once out of London and south of the M25, the route really comes alive. Into narrow and quiet country lanes the early climbs like Staples Lane will cause some explosive racing, and the roll into Dorking via the A25 is a lumpy old slog. Another factor to consider is the road surface; in general it’s appalling and we noted only a few short sections of sublime new Tarmac. But rather than being a negative and something else to criticise, the road surface if it’s not repaired will add to the demanding nature of the route. It’s rough and in places really drags, and there are millions of potholes. We rode the route on steel winter bikes; I can only imagine what a carbon race bike with deep section rims will feel like on these roads. Not nice, I feel the answer is.
Then there’s the nine ascents of Box Hill. Not a big climb but taking into consideration the ascent to Headley and the combined 2400m of climbing that the nine laps add up to, all ridden on the same rough and slow roads and extremely narrow in places, and it, I reckon, could be the ideal place for a breakaway. It’s hard to see the bunch controlling proceedings around this repeated section.
And, once the succession of Box Hill loops are over, it’s anything but an easy ride to the finish. Here, the route planners really have picked a good route for ensuring that the race potentially causes fireworks in the last 60-odd kilometres.
Once out of Leatherhead it’s generally a downhill and fast route run on wider roads, but there are a few rises to consider, and in places there’s little shelter from the wind. If a group of six or eight riders are still intact along here they’ll need a decent cushion of time over the peloton, as they’ll be really hurting by now.
One thing is for sure, it’s going to be one hell of a finish. The route offers easy access all the way through London and around Surrey, with spectacular views around Dorking, Box Hill and Richmond Park in particular – the sight of the peloton roaring over Putney Bridge will be some sight indeed.
How the race will be won is a difficult one to put forth an opinion. As Richard points out, most of the press are pointing at a bunch sprint, but I don’t think that will be the case. I just feel the challenging and tough Box Hill circuit will be too much for the sprinters to stay in contact, and it’ll be tough for a team like HTC-Highroad to control.
Instead, I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that the winner will come from a solo breakaway. From a racing cyclist’s perspective, a breakaway win will be scintillating to watch on roads that I know so well. A rider like Phillipe Gilbert, with his aggressive attacking style that won him the Omloop Het Volk in 2008 could be a prime candidate, the course could really suit his style.
If there’s one thing having ridden the course has taught me, it’s that it’s too easy to judge a course and the possible outcome without having ridden. Only having ridden it can I get a feel for how it really rides, the challenges it’ll offer the pros and how the race could possible pan out. The mainstream might stick to the Mark Cavendish victory song for the next 18 months, but the route is perfectly setup for an open, thrilling, exciting race that no one will forget for a long time.