by Tom Goldsmith
Before I arrived at Hadleigh Farm, Essex, I had already formed ideas what the XC course
would be, and the technical level of the riders. My understanding and opinions of XC are
based on my own racing experience when I was a bit younger. I used to relish the
technical descents, but skill counted for nothing once a climb appeared around the corner
and the super fit roadie shot past. When the venue for the competition was announced,
there were many doubts and controversies. I had imagined fire track with a few rocks
thrown in where the cameras were; censored descents with all dangerous obstacles
removed, and that the most suitable bike for the course would have drop handlebars, and
700C wheels. I am happy to say that I eat my words.
In my opinion, the course was plenty technical enough. There were no climbs for a mile at
a time where riders could keep their heads down and grit their teeth like a roadie. Climbs
were steep switchbacks, sometimes with technical rocks to be challenged just beyond the
apex of the corner. One climb, the Breathtaker, is straight up, steep and narrow; but not for
long before hitting a bermed sweeping downhill. I wouldn’t like to be holding someone off
my back wheel there!
The descents had me longing for my bike. Admittedly short, the builders definitely made
the most of what they had. Deane’s Drop was a technical rocky descent which saw several
riders off their machines, and reminded me of some of the riding I was guiding on in the
Basque Country. I didn’t see any rider use the alternative “chicken” line there.
A short northshore section had a reasonable gap to be cleared which most riders rode, and the
alternative line here looked just as fun; an off camber contour around a tree. The rock
garden had been well spoken about before the race, and I normally find that artificial rock
gardens disappoint. Not today! It was steep, with multiple lines and marble-like rocks made
braking between steep sections difficult. It was no way pruned to perfection, rocks were
still dotted about to distract from desirable lines.
The course was very spectator friendly. This was another criticism before the race previous
reports claimed that this had been achieved at the expense of the riding. I would
argue that spectator friendliness is hugely important, especially if the games do indeed
hope to “inspire a generation”. Throughout the race I went to points all around the track,
and usually saw riders several times a lap.
If the course hadn’t shocked me enough, the riders did. Once more, my prejudice of XC
riders was shattered by these girls with grit! No backing out of those rocky sections, or lack
of dynamics once on them. The first few laps were ridden with the best technique, no
locked back wheels, not much crashing (but still enough to make it evident that Olympic
MTBers are hardcore) and carrying good speed where necessary. As the race went on and
the girls got tired, some technique was dropped, but they were riding the whole course at a
pace which would have me on my knees within a lap. I refuse to allow myself to criticize
the odd rear wheel skid, locked knee or lack of speed in the rock garden for that reason. I
don’t know anyone who could guarantee perfect technique at that level of fatigue.
In all, I can only praise the Olympic girls, the course designers, and of course, the Games
Makers, (those guys were great!). I can’t wait until Hadleigh Farm opens to the public, and
I hope that they don’t tone down the course too much. Clearly for public access of all
abilities, alternative routes are needed, but I believe that if this generation is to be inspired,
they need some technical riding to aspire too; not just another country park circuit. At
present Hadleigh Farm fits the bill.