London 2012 Olympic Mountain Biking Preview

The Olympic MTB course should make for fast and furious racing. Click to zoom

The Salvation Army is used to helping people, but we’re not sure it ever thought it would be coming to the rescue of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But when the Union Cycliste Internationale decided the proposed mountain bike venue at Weald Park wasn’t gnarly enough, that’s exactly what happened. Step forward the Salvation Army and its Hadleigh Farm estate on the Thames Estuary. Originally purchased in 1891 by General Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) as a kind of rural refuge for the poor and destitute of the capital, the site still undertakes a therapeutic role for groups of underprivileged youngsters today.

As an Olympic mountain biking venue, Hadleigh Farm was chosen predominantly for its spectator access and amphitheatre-like topography that reveals around 70% of the course from a couple of key vantage points. But it’s also characterised by a lack of level ground; most of the site is steeply sloping, making it relatively easy to notch up the kind of elevation change required by a mountain bike track.

It’s a distinctly artificial course, a quality epitomised by the crowd-pleasing technical sections. These are predominantly jagged stone staircases embedded in the grass, often offering multiple options where the most challenging lines save several seconds over the smoother routes. Much of the track is surfaced with a kind of fine all-weather gravel, but other areas are left natural; numerous tyre tracks will eventually wear through the grass to the dirt below. If it rains, these sections could be very slippery.

In the dry, expect laps times around the 4.7km track to be less than 13-minutes. The numerous ups and downs add up to 172m of climbing per lap; that’s 1200m in total over the seven lap men’s race.