Racing News

Olympic road race course preview: riding the route

Our group of 20 or so riders is strung out on the A25 to Dorking when the soft whirr of tyre buzzing on tarmac is interrupted: beep beep beep, beep beep, beep beep beeeeeeeep. Welcome to Surrey.

Hollywood-style Olympic rings overlook the Surrey countryside from Box Hill (© Surrey County Council)

But the noise isn’t from the horn of a frustrated and impatient motorist waiting to pass. Instead, a motor scooter whizzes past, two cyclists on its wheel, decked head to toe in the unmistakable orange of the Dutch national team. This is Surrey, less than 48 hours before the Olympic road race. The centre of the cycling world for just a few short days.

I’m on a ride to preview the course, organised by Sigma Sport, a cycling shop whose Hampton Wick store overlooks the course, and led by IG-Sigma Sport pro Wouter Sybrandy, who lives up the road in Twickenham and who knows these roads, his training ground, like the back of his hand.

Mark Cavendish starts Saturday’s 250km men’s race as favourite, supported by Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, David Millar and Ian Stannard.

Our ride picks up the route from Hampton Wick, missing the opening section from The Mall, and through central London and Richmond Park, before following the course on the fast and largely flat roads of Walton-on-Thames, Weybridge and West Byfleet, by which time Sybrandy expects the day’s breakaway to have formed.

Hostilities should start on Staple Lane; not the 1.6-mile climb, which rises, almost dead straight, in a trio of steep ramps which leave club riders in these parts gasping for breath, but on the steep descent off the copse, barely wide enough for two cars and with a tight right-hand hairpin.

The descent leads on to the A25 for the rolling ride to Dorking for the first of nine laps of a 15.5km Box Hill circuit – the key battleground for the men’s race (although Sunday’s 140km women’s event only takes in two laps, increasing the likelihood of a bunch sprint).

Cavendish training on the Box Hill loop (© Surrey County Council)

“The circuit isn’t quite hard enough for there to be a proper selection of climbers,” said Sybrandy, “but because there’s nine laps, as soon as they hit the circuit  there will be people constantly going out of the back.”

The Box Hill loop isn’t much of a challenge in its own right and the main climb, 1.6 miles at an average gradient of five per cent, is a mere pimple for riders who have just come out of the Tour de France, but the physical effort of the accumulative climbing (more than 200m per lap, nine times), and the psychological challenge of a tight, twisting circuit will take its toll.

“The circuit is good for a break, because you’re out of sight,” said Sybrandy. “Some people have called it dangerous but it’s not any more dangerous than Amstel Gold Race or any other Classic, especially in the dry, when it will be absolutely fine. It’s a good racing circuit.”

With Cavendish and Germany’s Andre Greipel the stand-out sprinters, having each claimed a hat-trick of stage wins at the Tour de France, Box Hill provides the opportunity for other nations to animate the race and test the sprinters’ legs.

“I would imagine Great Britain and Germany will work together a lot, but it’s up for the other teams on to make it so hard on Box Hill that GB and Germany are having to wait for Cavendish or Greipel, and they’re left at the back of the bunch,” added Sybrandy.

“Teams like Spain, Holland and France – teams who don’t have a sprinter – will want to make the race hard.”

The Olympic road race is Cavendish’s primary target in 2012 and the world champion has adapted his training as a result, losing weight and focussing on climbing; a change in strategy which saw the Manx Missile record his first overall victory at the lumpy ZLM Toer.

The 27-year-old has also made regular trips to Box Hill, completing nine laps of the circuit at race pace, and culminating with a 115km training ride, including two laps, on Thursday, when the loop closed to traffic and open only to Olympians, with our ride forced to double-back and re-join the circuit on the descent off the climb.

Cavendish has called the course one for “resilience sprinters” and, having won last year’s test event, which took place over just two laps of Box Hill, expects the race to play out like a Classic, and Sybrandy agrees.

“On every lap about ten riders will end up getting dropped, so there will only be about 30 or 40 guys contesting the finish,” he said. “Teams like Belgium will want to make the race so hard that, even if they’re at the finish, the main sprinters are so tired that someone like Tom Boonen is the best sprinter.”

Bradley Wiggins and David Millar recce the 15.5km Box Hill circuit (© Surrey County Council)

Is there room for an opportunist attack? Unlikely. The run-in from Box Hill back to The Mall is on fast, wide roads (our group was comfortably tapping along at 20mph+ before arriving back at Sigma Sport) – perfect for a chase to setup a sprint, even if it is from a select group.

“The big shame is that it’s 50km back to Buckingham Palace, but I can understand why they want the landmark finish,” said Sybrandy. “If it was at Hampton Court [like the time trial] then it would have been a good, tight finish.

“[A break] would need a big gap coming off the last circuit. With five-man teams, there’s probably only going to be two or three teams completely committed to a sprint – GB, Germany, possibly USA or Australia – but if they don’t have anybody in the break you could have, say, 12 guys committed to bringing it back together.

“If any of those teams have a man in the break as a safety net then they’re not going to work. Great Britain won’t be able to control the race like they did at the test event, when Cavendish had both the GB and England team working for him.

“But Cavendish is still the man to beat. A lot depends on how the race develops but on paper he’s the favourite.”

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