With exactly one year until the peloton rolls out of London for the Olympic road race, we look back at our recce ride from when the route was announced in February.
Starting and finishing on The Mall and heading out into the hills and lanes of Surrey, the 2012 Olympic road race course will surely receive the blessing of the cyclists of London and its south western suburbs. Yet it is not obviously challenging, with few obstacles barring the climb of Box Hill’s Zig-Zag and a long, flat run back into London from the top. Commentators seem to feel that it will favour a bunch sprint and, in particular, GB fast man Mark Cavendish.
But will it? RCUK took a spin around the route, or as close to it as we could get given the information available, to get a feel for how the riders might feel as they head back into the Smoke. We started in Richmond Park, several miles from the official start in sight of Buckingham Palace and a favourite with south London cyclists. The speed limit of 20mph will no doubt be lifted for the competitors, who will also no doubt exceed it comfortably on the long drag from Roehampton Gate up to Richmond Gate.
Leaving the park via this gate, the route will probably drop straight down to Richmond Bridge rather than avoid the one-way street by taking a circuitous one way system, but in any case it runs through Twickenham and Teddington before entering Bushey Park. Out the other side, it turns right, crosses Hampton Bridge and goes right again along the south side of the river through Walton on Thames, skirting Weybridge and crossing the M25 orbital motorway at Byfleet.
So far, so grim. With the exception of Richmond and Bushey Parks, this leg’s scenery is unlikely to prompt much enthusiasm from commentators. Beyond West Byfleet, however, things rapidly improve, with a short, spiralling descent from Pyrford to the watermeadows of the Wey, past the ruins of Newark Priory and on through Ripley into the lanes of the North Downs dip slope.
The slope rises steadily and so too does the route, threading through East Clandon before tackling the short, stiff rise of Staple Lane. With its long false flat to the top of the ridge and steep, technical descent to the A25 at Shere, this little brute may well provide the springboard for an early exploratory break. If so, its members will have to work hard along the main road into Dorking, which heralds the start of the day’s real entertainment.
South London cyclists will need no introduction to the Zig-Zag, Box Hill’s serpentine ascent. Come race day it will be packed with spectators several rows deep and, owned by the National Trust, probably feel like a genteel version of the Alpe d’Huez. It is approached the first time from the south along a fast dual carriageway with a tight roundabout to negotiate. There follows 2.5km of roughly 5% climbing on a mostly rough, laggy surface, its three hairpin bends adding a touch of Continental glamour.
Any competitor hoping that the view out over Dorking and Leith Hill marks the summit, however, is in for a nasty surprise, for the road continues to climb gently to Box Hill village. A short descent precedes yet another draggy stretch, this time to Headley and on a faster surface, before the twisting descent through what is known locally as Little Switzerland. Whether this will inspire Swiss time trial legend Fabian Cancellara is yet to be decided, but the short, sharp rise that follows will tell on tired legs after just a few of the slated nine laps.
A long, fast descent brings riders to the A24 and the section of road that was, until numerous vehicle crashes caused it to be narrowed to a single carriageway, known simply as “the Deceptives”. Turning left through Mickleham, the route quickly arrives once again at the foot of the Zig-Zag, this time from the opposite direction.
Anyone wondering just how hard this section of the race will be might like to consider the 2400m of climbing it will entail for the men on narrow, rough, twisty and downright challenging roads. Our feeling is that it will be difficult to control the race in favour of the sprinters, assuming that the fastest of them are still in touch as the race leaves the circuit and heads back through Leatherhead towards the capital.
Once out of the town, the route regains its composure with a series of long, flat, straight roads through Oxshott, Esher, Hampton and Kingston, entering Richmond Park through Kingston Gate and taking the long drag to Richmond Gate before turning right and exiting as it entered several hours earlier through Roehampton.
This drag is the last real opportunity to drop anyone looking tired, for the last leg of the race across Putney Bridge and up the Fulham Road only offers potholes as obstacles. Full chat through Knightsbridge and past the terracotta facade of Harrods takes the race to Hyde Park Corner and the descent of Constitution Hill. Anyone who can recall Cancellara’s speed through the Corner during the 2007 Tour prologue will rate his chances of making it from here to the finish line on The Mall, assuming he is on his own or manages one of his trademark last kilo attacks. Should the bunch have come back together, it will instead be a sprinter’s bonanza on a road that might have been designed for the finale of the Olympic road race.