This feature appeared in Procycling's Olympic special. Order your copy here.
The Olympic Road Race course has been the subject of much debate ever since it was announced. Procycling puts the conjecture aside and rides the route with two pros.
So you think the Olympic road race course is all about Box Hill? Think again. While all the talk has been about whether or not Mark Cavendish can survive nine ascents of Zig Zag Road, the reality is a lot more complicated. Every year in the run up to the world championships there’s a similar debate over who the course most suits and with the Olympics being extra-special, the route wholly new and the biggest teams numbering five rather than nine riders, the speculation is at fever pitch. The only thing to do was to rope in some expert opinion and go ride it for ourselves.
Rather than just take one pro along, we opted for two contrasting riders to give us different perspectives – a sprinter and a rouleur. Representing the former is a face (and set of calves) familiar to all Procycling readers – Marcel Wüst, winner of 14 sprint stages across all three Grand Tours and many other races besides. Although his career was cut short by injury in 2000, Wüst is still super-fit and is a regular pundit for the German media.
Our counterpoint comes from Erick Rowsell, a 21-year-old neo-pro with the Continental-level Endura racing team and graduate of British Cycling’s Olympic Academy. He describes himself as a “punchy rouleur” and backs that up with the superb first pro win that he took just five weeks into his debut season. On stage 5 of the UCI 2.2-ranked Tour de Normandie, he broke away with 7km to go, crossing the line alone and with his arms in the air. What Rowsell lacks to Wüst in racing experience, he more than makes up for with local knowledge. He lives in Cheam, Surrey, just 10km away from the Olympic road race course, and he rides the Box Hill circuit “most days when I’m not away racing”.
Although other options were discussed, it was near inevitable that the course would start and finish in central London to make it as iconic and landmark-packed as possible. The race will start from the Mall in front of huge crowds and head out along King’s Road, over Putney Bridge and through Richmond Park at 10km, by which time we expect an unthreatening break of smaller nations to have already taken its leave of the peloton, settling the racing for a short while.
They won’t be given too much time, though, for several reasons. First, at 15km (around 22 minutes per lap), the Box Hill circuit isn’t long and the peloton will get the hurry up if there’s any risk of the break lapping the field, causing potential chaos on the narrow roads.
At the Geelong Worlds in 2010 the gap between the break and peloton reached 23:30 and on the circuit the team cars were forced to drop back behind the breakaway.
Second, there’ll be no race radios, so the break will be kept a little closer to calm nerves. Third, the roads narrow after just 40km, as the race approaches the village of Pyrford, which is likely to get the favourites and their teams thinking about staying near the front. This always leads to a faster pace.
The first real challenge comes after 53km, when the route turns onto the narrow Staple Lane, a category 3 climb on the Tour of Britain route. It isn’t especially steep or long but it will raise heart rates, string out the bunch and maybe surprise some riders who only studied the circuit rather than rode it. The descent on the other side is a real danger point as it’s barely wide enough for two cars to pass, tree-covered and features a wickedly steep hairpin.
“There’ll be loads of crashes here,” says Wüst with the smile of someone who’s been there and can now appreciate the stress of racing into such a situation.
The route then joins the broad A25 but the peloton won’t be able to relax for long because the circuit is only 14 kilometres away, all of which are over gently rolling terrain.
After a number of roundabouts on the two-lane A24, the course turns off right, rises gently for about 300m and then turns sharp right onto Box Hill proper, Zig Zag Road. This is where the new surface has been laid and it’s far smoother than what the riders have ridden over so far. The gradient is just 4-5 percent up to the first hairpin, after which it rises to 6 percent and stays there through the second, much tighter hairpin, then eases slightly along the exposed section on the side of the hill into the wind.
If the peloton is faced with a similar headwind at this point, it’s bound to subdue any attacks. That’s also assuming anyone thinks they can make a real difference here, because the climb isn’t hard and the peloton will go up fast enough for drafting to be of benefit, keeping everything together. A ‘Muur’ it really isn’t.
That said, Rowsell thinks it will still require teams to be vigilant: “When you get to what looks like the top, it drags on for another few hundred metres. If the guys on the front ease off a bit there, it would be a good place for someone such as Thomas Voeckler to attack, just as everyone’s legs are feeling rubbery. You could get a gap and be out of sight.”
At the top the new tarmac runs out, giving way to a surface that’s heavy and very bumpy, even by the low standards of British roads. It’s so jarring that just taking a drink is stressful and that’s without being in a tightly packed bunch.
Wüst isn’t impressed: “It’s shit,” he summarises, very concisely.
There’s some fast and technical, if brief, descending on the loop. In our small group of three it’s fun and we hit 68kph – it’s likely to be a fair bit faster and more concentrated come July 28. The second fast descent is straighter, but still rougher than the morning after the night before, and leads back to the A24 trunk road for a 3km stretch. It’s a dull section that at least will provide an opportunity for large numbers of spectators to get close to the course, something sorely missing around most of the loop.
“There’s just no room for crowds,” notes Wüst, “and that’s a real shame. You want it to be a big festival.”
The circuit is completed by taking the Old London Road through Mickleham. Again, it’s narrow and bumpy, though it does feature one of the very best spectator spots on the whole course – the tables set out in front of the Running Horses pub. On the day, it’s going to be standing room only there.
Zig Zag Road is approached with a short uphill stretch that will be ridden hard to secure a good position, followed by a decline to the turn onto the hill which is much tighter when approaching it from this direction. There’s a big risk of crashes in the bunch, which probably wouldn’t hurt because of the low speed but which could block the narrow road and instantly cause a split that would be hard to close up. That consideration will make positioning even more important and the approach even more hard fought.
Having made a stop for photographs on our first lap, we decide to ride a continuous second lap somewhat more purposefully, both to gain more understanding of what it’s like to race this course rather than simply ride it and because we’re now wearing GoPro video cameras.
This time, the climb hurts more but we’re doing 25kph. The race could go up here at 30kph every lap, in which case they’ll be braking for the hairpins.
What strikes us the most about the rest of the lap, which is hard going, is that the poor surface, narrow roads and handful of tight corners will all make it really hard for teams to chase down escapees. “They’ll have to settle for controlling the gap to any break,” says Rowsell, “and leave the real chasing until the run-in to the finish.”
Wüst agrees and adds, “It’s a really nasty little course. It’s tight, narrow and bumpy. You’ve got to stay in front all the time and that’s hard, physically and psychologically too. There are a couple of dangerous points, given the speed the race will be run at, particularly the turn onto the climb.”
We cruise into London, all too aware that the roads certainly aren’t closed for us and thinking how huge they’d feel if they were. When we arrive on the Mall, it’s a thrill to see that it’s still lined with huge Union Jacks after the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations the week before.
This really is London’s Champs-Élysées and, looking at it, we can’t imagine the race finishing anywhere else.
So, what do Rowsell and Wüst think of the course? “The roads are too big and fast for one rider to stay clear from the last lap, even for someone like Cancellara,” says Rowsell.
Wüst agrees: “If you attack from the bottom of the hill, it’s 55km to the finish. that’s a really long time to try to stay away on flat roads.”
Does that mean they agree with the bookies that Mark Cavendish, delivered by dedicated teammates, is the current favourite? Not necessarily. “For a sprinter to get round that circuit nine times and stay in touch will be hard,” says Wüst.
“He could still be there at the end but too tired to be at his best.”
We ask Wüst if he could have stayed in touch on this course. “Phew, I don’t know. It would be really hard. Cavendish’s problem is that he’s too good. No one will help the British team pull back a break if they have a rider in there. But the Olympics are too special for teams to sit back if their leader has a chance and says he feels good. It’s going to be interesting because the teams are so small.”
Taking that idea further, Rowsell suggests an alternative tactic: “It will be interesting to see Team GB’s tactics with a smaller team than their Worlds win, whether they commit everyone to Cav or put someone in the break to take the pressure off and give him one less guy. Geraint Thomas would have been ideal for that role if he wasn’t focusing on the track.”
Wüst sees it ending up as a war of attrition, like a true Classic. “You could end up with a group of 30 going into London with no real sprinters,” he says.
“A strong group, with the right teams represented, could stay away if it leaves the circuit with as little 40 seconds’ advantage. Then you’re looking for someone strong to go at 3-8km out, like Alessandro Ballan did to win the Worlds in Varese in 2008.”
Rowsell offers one more point on which we’re all definitely agreed: “This should be one of the most entertaining races of the year.