I still can’t quite believe that the road cycling courses at the London Olympics go through all the places where I grew up. I’d have been able to watch the peloton in this weekend’s road races from my high-school classroom or college dorm, or from the front doors of places where I once worked. Our family used to hike up Box Hill at the weekend, I climbed Zigzag Road on training rides, and raced in time trials on the Portsmouth Road—where Fabian Cancellara and Kristin Armstrong will be defending their Olympic titles on Wednesday.
But what’s most astounding to me is that the roads from Central London, through the city’s southwest suburbs and around the beautiful Surrey countryside are being completely closed to traffic. I know that they’ve always done things like this in Paris for the Tour, but I never expected to see the day when it would happen in the most congested part of England.
Because of traffic considerations, the maximum size for an English road-race field when I raced in the 1960s was only 40 riders, and there were only a couple of road circuits we were allowed to race on. As a result, one of the jobs I took on as a committee member of the cycling federation’s Southwest London & Surrey Division was to research and map a dozen new courses, six of which gained police approval. I even looked at getting a circuit over Box Hill—but that was shot down early in the process.
Obviously, the International Olympic Committee has a little more sway than we did. Even so, it was a brave decision by UCI president Pat McQuaid to ditch the London Olympic organizers’ plan to hold the road race on a circuit based in Regent’s Park and opt for the current one that takes a big loop into the Surrey countryside to make nine laps of the Box Hill circuit before retuning to finish outside The Queen’s Buckingham Palace. It’s a course that includes such sites as the Thames below Richmond Hill and King Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace to show off London to a worldwide audience. And, for Americans, this is the first time that NBC will broadcast live the Olympic road races (and time trials) from start to finish.
So what can we expect? It would be my dream for a breakaway to form in the Surrey back roads I used to ride, maybe up Staple Lane to the crest of the North Downs, or along the twisting road past the watercress beds of Shere Road and beneath the blacksmith on the Abinger Hammer clock tower that bears the inscription: “By me you know how fast to go!” That break will speed through my hometown of Dorking, past the overhanging antique stores of narrow West Street and over the low rise into the wide High Street where farmers brought livestock to market in earlier centuries.
My sister and her husband plan to see the race in town then hike to the chalky summit of Box Hill to watch the action, and walk back home to see the finish on TV. What a splendid way to spend the day! Not much has been said about the extreme narrowness of the Box Hill climb and the nine laps that include another narrow uphill past the 16th-century Running Horses pub in Mickleham. These small country lanes will allow breakaways to get quickly out of sight…and make them hard to catch because of the twisty nature of the roads back into the city.
In theory, if the sprinters’ teams organize themselves well enough and have the stamina to chase for 250 kilometers (or 140 kilometers for the women), the gold medalists to succeed Beijing champs Samuel Sanchez and Nicole Cooke should be Mark Cavendish and Marianne Vos. But my bet is that a (probably large) group will stay away and that a different type of sprinter (maybe a Peter Sagan or a Lizzie Armistead) will win, or even a time trialist such as Cancellara or Armstrong will go clear racing down Constitution Hill in the final kilometer.
Those would all be exciting results to races that should attract the largest crowds for any event in Olympic history—a million or more spectators are expected over the weekend. And though some fans have to pay to watch up the road races’ main climb, they won’t be pinned behind cage-like barriers as they were on the Great Wall of China four years ago.
As for the time trials (44 kilometers for men, 29 kilometers for women), they’re being held on courses that mirror the traditions of road time trialing—a branch of the sport that was invented by Englishman F.T. Bidlake in 1895. Starting and finishing at Hampton Court, the courses feature long, undulating stretches and few sharp turns, just like the ones I grew up with.
The men’s favorites are past world champs Cancellara and Tony Martin, though the man most used to riding the “rolling English roads” that Chesterton once wrote about is Britain’s latest superstar, Brad Wiggins, who’ll be hard to beat on his home roads. But don’t rule out other medal contenders such as Boulder’s own Taylor Phinney, Australia’s Cadel Evans and Italy’s Marco Pinotti. The U.S. team’s Armstrong is favored to repeat in the women’s time trial, though she’ll have to fight hard against Germany’s world champ Judith Arndt, Britain’s Emma Pooley, Canada’s Clara Hughes and New Zealand’s Linda Villumsen.
The Olympic cycling program is due to start out on a warm, sunny Saturday for the men’s road race, but the weather turns “English” after that, with a high chance of rain and temperatures in the 60s for the women on Sunday. By Wednesday, for the time trials, light rain and southerly winds are in the forecast. And if it doesn’t rain then it’s not a true English summer.
Olympic road champions since pros were first accepted into the Games
1996 Atlanta Pascal Richard (Swi) / Jeannie Longo (F)
2000 Sydney Jan Ullrich (G) / Leontien Van Moorsel (Nl)
2004 Athens Paolo Bettini (I) / Sara Carrigan (Aus)
2008 Beijing Samuel Sanchez (Sp) / Nicole Cooke (GB)
1996 Atlanta Miguel Induráin (Sp) / Zulfia Zabirova (Rus)
2000 Sydney Viatcheslav Ekimov (Rus) / Leontien Van Moorsel (Nl)
2004 Athens Tyler Hamilton (USA) / Leontien Van Moorsel (Nl)
2008 Beijing Fabian Cancellara (Swi) / Kristin Armstrong (USA)
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