Riding The Olympic Course

by 47

Singletrack reader Mark Bonnes got the job of heading over to the new Olympic course in Essex to ride it for the first time and bring back his impressions on it.


Yesterday, I got to go down to the Grand Opening of the 2012 Olympic XC course at Hadleigh Farm near Benfleet in Essex, on behalf of Singletrack, to see what has happened, meet those involved with the course, hear a few words from Lord Coe himself and all importantly, to ride the course itself. So here goes.

Before going into anything else, I’d like to just mention getting there. My car dying on me the night before meant I was catching the train, so as I was in London at a friends house I hot footed it up to Fenchurch St. Station to catch the train to Benfleet Station. There are trains almost every 10 minutes to Benfleet, and it takes only around 40 minutes to get there. And the good news is that when you arrive there, it’s only a short ride or walk to the course itself. Small things admittedly, but considering the crowds of over 20,000 spectators that they are hoping to draw to the Olympic event, they all help. For those driving to the area, there are going to be Park & Ride services provided to get to the Course. There will be no parking at the course itself for spectators.

Spot the 'local paper photo-call'


OK, can we ride now?


Lord Coe surveying the newly-completed course.


A plummet that'll be visible to thousands during the race.


Martyn Salt in trademark gilet ready for the riders to take on his course.


The view from the top of the course is promising, spectators will be able to see a large proportion of the course at any one time if they are viewing from the Start/Finish area. Also, the furthest part of the course is only about 300 metres away, so a different viewpoint is only a few minutes walk away at any point. The whole area is a bit of a natural amphitheatre, it is not difficult to find good vantage points. With there being a number of key technical elements to the track this should prove to be a big bonus.

Lord Coe and his entourage arrived, and it was time to kick the days proceedings off. After a short time spent meeting and greeting people from the Salvation Army (who own Hadleigh Farm), he came down to chat to the MTB press about the course, and his hopes for the Olympics. By this point I was already itching to get to see the interesting bits of the course and to ride it, so to be honest hearing a well rehearsed speech about why the Olympics was going to be great for the local area, and why they had chosen Hadleigh Farm, was just prolonging the pain. Let us not forget though, that Lord Coe has spearheaded the whole Olympic effort and is part of the reason we have an Olympics to look forward to in the UK in 2012 in the first place.

This bit is pretty unchanged since we last went. The flat bit on the left will be the tech-pits


A beautiful view of Canvey Island


Presentation over, off we set to take in various aspects of the course, with our Olympic hopefuls riding them. Much hype has been talked about the course, particularly on whether or not it will provide much of a challenge to the athletes. I can state that whilst there is a lot of wide, smooth surfaces covering the track in places, there are also a number of very technically challenging elements. So with the pro riders primed and ready to ride some of them, out came the camera again.

Each of the technical challenges has 2 or sometimes 3 lines, where as you would expect, the hardest route is the quickest route. In each case, these “A-Lines” as they are referred to are very steep and technical indeed. 45 degree slopes on loose surfaces, rock drops, a gap jump, step ups and a rock garden or two may not get the world’s most extreme freeriders scared, but they would not look out of place on many of the UK’s more challenging “Black” graded routes. Come race day, with riders taking risks in the heat of competition, I can see there being a few broken wheels and shredded tyres as riders look to gain vital seconds by going faster and faster through these sections. I should also note though, that in each case the “B-lines” though being easier, are quite technically challenging in their own right. Sharp switchbacks, and rock gardens still being the name of the game, whilst also being longer than the A-Lines.

With the riders having finished riding sections of the course for photos, we got the opportunity to ask those who had designed and built the course some questions. According to Martyn Salt, course designer, it’s 5.1km in length, and has a staggering 170m of climbing per lap! Yes really… Just think about that for a moment. There may only be a maximum elevation of approximately 70m from the bottom to top of the course, but with Olympic riders being expected to do sub 13 minute laps, meaning the men could possibly do 8 laps of the course on race day, they will be gaining more altitude than climbing to the top of Ben Nevis in around 1hr 45 minutes! This course is going to make the athletes really earn that Gold Medal.

Just to make the climb harder...


Three line choices. 'Gnarr!', 'Hard' and 'Journo'


Martin Seddon, the man in charge of the team who built the course (and the ex XC racer who would later show us all up on a guided lap) made the point that the course has been designed to provide a number of significant technical challenges as well as provide plenty of overtaking opportunities. Unlike your average trail centre, which is designed to reward riders with flowing sections that make you feel like you have really mastered the trail, this course has been designed to be as tough as possible. Olympic Athletes should really be up to the challenge after all.

So then, the Olympic XC Mountain Bike course. What’s it like to ride?

After a quick snack provided by the Salvation army (and very gratefully received), we got on our bikes for a guided lap from Martin Seddon who as course builder, knows it better than anyone. I should just state at this point, I am not, and never have had any claim to being either an XC racer or technically gifted. I am Mr. Average, both skills and fitness wise, so I shall try to be as objective about the course as possible as it is not aimed at me but at the best of the best.

XC riders DO get air, see?


We hear they're working on their flip-whips for the Games themselves.


Big berm with a nice 'dis-flow' kicker in the middle.


After a short climb, a descent through a boulder field with three separate lines, and another short climb, you get to the first significantly technical section. Martin is an experienced and skilled XC racer in his own right, and it showed when he capably rode the first A-Line with us all watching. I’ll admit, that at this point with perhaps a dozen other people around to see me hurt myself if I came off, I was a little nervous, but I leaned back and managed to clean through the first one OK with my dignity intact. Off to the next challenge…

Which was a gap jump of all things, on an XC course. OK, we’re only talking a gap of perhaps 7 or 8 feet in length here, but it was a gap nonetheless. There is another line down the side of this section too, which most of us took at this stage. One of those “I’ll try it perhaps when nobody else is watching” sections for most of us.

On the left a bit of boardwalk. On the right, boardwalk with a 7ft gap in it!


It won't make it into 'Kranked 18' but it's pretty impressive for XC


Your builders...


Moving on, through a short winding wooded section before bursting out onto a short, sharp, technical climb littered with rock step ups. Like most climbs on this course, not particularly long, but long enough to get your lungs working, and technical enough to have you out of the saddle for most of it, when you get to the top, and round the corner a bit more climbing before descending some bermed corners and into a switchback climb. You then descend briefly before getting to the Oak Tree drop, where again there are 2 separate lines (again, I chose the easy option this time) and over the top of the tunnel, where heaven forbid if you forget the correct line choice as you approach it at speed, without being able to see over it, but as you crest the top there is a massive rock justting out on the right hand side that will have anybody forgetting about it flying over the handlebars.

From the tunnel, you go into the feed station area, another short sharp climb, before descending through some more berms, braking for a technical rock step down at the bottom, then up a lung burning climb just as you’ve lost all your speed. See what I mean about it being built to be tough on the athletes. No conservation of momentum whatsoever is built into this course.

Once at the top of the Lung Buster, you’re rewarded with a brilliant descent. Certainly the most fun section of the course, you go through a series of bermed corners at the top, picking up some real speed before launching off a rock drop, followed by a bit of a kicker that you really have to check your speed going into otherwise you might as well call 999 whilst you’re in the air, before rounding a corner at the bottom of the section to be greeted by… The most technical climb of the course! How sadistic can you be? Ok, it’s only 15 metres long maybe, but just as you’ve built up lots of speed, you are greeted with a horrid rock garden of a climb that I shall admit I didn’t make it up, and had to walk some of it.

One more brief switchback climb, before descending a big steep natural chute (one of very few natural features on the course) that you gain real speed from, over a slight hump which you can’t help but get a little air over, and into the massive start finish area once more.

After a debriefing with Martin and Martyn, and signing a waver, we were allowed to ride the course again on our own. Hooray, nobody watching to see me make a prat of myself if I came off! Well, I say nobody, I ended up riding round in tandem with James C-W from Bikeradar as we had got chatting earlier.

Second lap done, and more of the technical sections cleared (I hate audiences as you may have gathered), I can state the course is definitely a grower. After my initial lap I was left with a feeling that the course was tough for the sake of being tough, but with not much inbetween the sections. Second time round, and with less stopping, and having cleaned all but one of the several technical A-Lines still with seatpost at full height, I felt a lot happier with the course. Martin had mentioned to me that the course had been designed to reward those who learnt the lines well on it, and I would definitely agree.

So, what would I say about it in summary? A short, sharp, challenging course with many features not out of place on Black runs on UK trail centres. Designed to reward those who take the time to learn it, it doesn’t naturally reward the average rider but requires skill to ride well. A few too many wide open flat areas for my liking, but I like Singletrack riding and these I was assured were put in place to make sure the fastest riders have ample overtaking opportunities, something that needs to be taken into account as this is an Olympic XC course not a trail centre. But on the whole, a very spectator friendly course with significant technical challenges to the riders to make it reward those with skill as well as the fitness. Not somewhere you’d go as an average trail rider to get your jollies day in day out (which you won’t be able to anyway as it’s closed off to the public), but as an XC race course it should provide exactly what’s required.


To see our initial preview of the course, click here: http://www.singletrackworld.com/2010/10/london-2012-olympic-mountain-bike-course-preview/

Chipps Chippendale

Singletrackworld's Editor At Large

With 23 years as Editor of Singletrack World Magazine, Chipps is the longest-running mountain bike magazine editor in the world. He started in the bike trade in 1990 and became a full time mountain bike journalist at the start of 1994. Over the last 30 years as a bike writer and photographer, he has seen mountain bike culture flourish, strengthen and diversify and bike technology go from rigid steel frames to fully suspended carbon fibre (and sometimes back to rigid steel as well.)

More posts from Chipps

Comments (47)

    so how many people will get off and run over the gap then?

    You don’t need to get off and run over the gap, if you don’t want to ride it, you take the other line instead. It’s a second, maybe two longer, thats all…

    Looks good looking forward to the racing any idea on what the test event will be??

    Will the course be levelled after the olympic’s or will it be opened to the public? IIRC the original site was to be levelled, but can’t remember hearing about what will happen here.

    Looks like there is more than 2 different lines on the one where it looks like theres a rock drop onto a 45 degree rock?

    Great article. The course looks perfect, lots of viewing, line choices and technical enough to let the top riders show off their bike handling skills. I wonder if anyone will run an uppy/downy post for this course, it would surely be a big advantage on some of those lines.

    Great write up, give the man a job!

    There are 3 lines on the one rocky section indeed, on every other technical section there is 2.

    About the uppy downy post comment, I joked to James from Bike Radar that I wish I’d put mine on the bike I took with me. Quite honestly the mere mortal would genuinely gain a big advantage, perhaps 15-20 seconds a lap, by running an uppy-downy post. BUT… The guys that are going to be racing it are in general, better bike handlers than average as well as super fit, I suspect they’d not gain anything like the advantage and the extra weight would be a disadvantage to them over many laps.

    Good write up mate, very jealous. Just one point:

    “A beautiful view of Canvey Island”

    Is not a sentence that should be allowed to exist in the english language in any other form than:

    “I had a beautiful view of Canvey Island disappearing in my rear view mirror, as I sped away from the only place in the UK worse than Hull”

    Well, who’d a thought, Mark can string a sentence together 🙂

    Well done, great article.

    Looks great, fingers crossed for tickets now!

    Thanks for write-up.

    well done mboy! did you ask the pro’s if they will be riding 29ers for this course? the top xc boys will make good work of the course. their skills are top.

    Good work

    LOL @ RichPenny

    The only thing I can say is I sent Chipps the photos separately to the article, and he has added his own captions… 😉

    Great bit of work there Mark, that’s as good a description of a course that I haven’t seen as I’ve read. Not just a description of the route but the actual riding of it brought to life.
    Be interestng to see how the course ‘beds in’ and weathers during the time between now and the big event; from the photos it looks as if there’s still a bit of work to be done.

    richpenny beat me to it as someone who has to go to canvey island every so often(work) it really is a special kind of **** hole full of plastic cockneys.

    Canvey also has a decent smattering of gangsters as well, lock, stock and 2 barrels country!

    If the sailing is taking place in Weymouth, why can’t the MTB race be held on a decent natural course up in the bleak north……just think…..a Lake District course.
    They could have saved fortunes shipping all those rocks to a featureless a field.

    top report, nice one.
    Perfect day for it as well.
    What camera you got?

    ginsterdz, the point has been laboured over and over about its location. It’s not gonna change! You have to also consider that they are trying to make the event as accessible to as many people as possible, and whether you or I like it or not, that means holding it in the South East… It also needs to be TV friendly, and honestly I’ve not come across many places that are perhaps so naturally “TV friendly”, and this is perhaps the most important aspect of all. Besides, it might not have been cheap shipping rocks down from a Lancashire quarry, but probably a darned sight cheaper than shipping 100 or so athletes, and all their entourages, from London to the Lake District and back etc.

    Hornet600, just borrowed my mates Canon 450D with a 28-105 lens on it. Don’t have one myself. Think the good weather really did help me out getting some shots though.

    If the Olympic course had a loop onto canvey it’d end up as a duathlon after the bikes got nicked 😉

    Ginsterdrz, not sure why the sailing is at Weymouth, more reliable conditions. Having sailed a bit around the estuary and up the east coast, it’s a bit flat too often probably.

    The course seems to fit the requirements very well. I think it would be tough to find something natural in the Lakes that hits all the right spots. And it’ll be raining 😉 I like to think this will be a lot of fun for the locals if it stays put. I don’t know how well the built trails are used in the lakes, given the competition with natural stuff, but here I think it would get a lot of use.

    Still say it should of been in Dalby! best xc course in the world last year!!

    I believe the rock has been shipped from somewhere in the south, not from Lancashire. And is the same rock as has been imported to Dalby.

    It is after all the LONDON Olympics, not the English, or even the British. No sailing in London, or mountain biking, so its in the nearest possible venue.
    I agree, the best mtb-ing in GB is not in London, or even the south east, and before anyone starts ranting about South Wales, or even the North Downs, there’s nowhere suitable for 20,000 spectators and with good perspective for TV cameras, let alone space. Essex coastline looks like a pretty damn good compromise to me. And anyone who thinks its too flat, have a look at Hadleigh on an OS map. There’s a good smattering of contour lines there.
    Looking forward to watching the race, and having a go on the course at some point. Good report Mboy, thanks.

    The rock is from “somewhere near Manchester”, words straight from Martin Seddon’s mouth to me yesterday ir bandito…

    Cheers to all for the kind words!

    sorry, great reporting mboy.

    so, will we ever be able to ride it?
    I work near Fenchurch station so could go for an evening ride in the summer…
    I thought they’d needed riders to help bed it in?

    great job mark

    all that climbing but loks like lots of recovery time on that smooth track though, my commute to work is more hazardous with the pot holes, but i guess it’s fitness more than anything that will win this race, not technical skill, but a good effort alll the same, i’ve seen much worse courses

    and LOL @ the rock on the berm! i’d like to see that at a trail centre!

    Great write up – thanks. Course looks really good too – perfect for it’s intended use I would say. Just hope they open it up to the public after the games or it’s a bit of a waste.

    great report & pictures. best one I’ve read and one that actually shows the technical challenges.

    People kept reporting about it being difficult etc, but it felt like they were made/asked to say it, as it just didn’t look it.

    Should be good.

    Looks like a pretty gnarr course with all those rocks and step chutes.

    I’ll be wrecked by the olympics though. What with all ‘trail elves’ who like to change things.

    I live about 2 mins from this site and it forms part of our local loop (incidentally they have cut off some of the better parts we used to ride to make the Oak tree drop)

    Will be really interested to see what, if any of this is left after the games. The test in the latest bulletin we got from the organizing committee states that the course is not safe for use in non-race conditions. There is a short questionnaire being published to discuss legacy arrangements. This will be available in April from the following link:


    If you have any thoughts about wanting to give the course a go or happen to live in the area I strongly urge you to log on and make your opinions known. Us local riders are already facing a backlash from the local walking community!

    All help gratefully received.

    rocketdog, trust me, there is nowhere to relax/recover. The smooth bits are over in seconds, and they’re usually going uphill anyway!

    The rock on the berm is a pretty cool feature, it looks nastier than it actually is as it kicks you up in a very smooth manner, but means airtime is guaranteed which will look good on TV. And those berms are big too, big enough for 2, perhaps 3 abreast almost when racing, so expect to see plenty of balls out overetaking manouvres down what is easily the fastest part of the course.

    singletracksurfer, put it this way, I’d not been before, but chatted to a few other MTB press guys who had, and were very sceptical whether it was going to be any good or not, or provide a challenge as to be honest, when you get there, before you see or ride the technical bits, it does look tame. I think everyone was in agreement after riding it that it does pose plenty of technical challenges to riders of pretty much any level.

    Tickets booked (or whatever it is that you do) for the men’s XC. I’m looking forward to this a lot.

    Tickets booked (or whatever it is that you do) for the men’s XC. I’m looking forward to this a lot.

    PS – excellent write up that.

    Looks better than I expected. I think when it’s worn in a bit and doesn’t look so much like ornamental parkland it’ll be o.k.
    I reckon they made a decent job with what they had. Should be spectator / TV friendly enough, too.


    Great article and pictures, you have alleviated my fear that a field I Essex wasn’t the right venue for a world class XC race course

    Just hope I win a ticket or two in the ticket lottery

    PS, hope your reward from Singletrack Towers was substantial for an excellent piece of journalism

    Will do that Country Gent, maybe make a thread on the forum to support this?

    Looks loose and sketchey as heck on all that loose gravel! Go Kenta Gallagher! (young Scottish rider from just along the road) He’s the one on the rock drop getting air with his simple fitness and lack of other skills and all… I do hope you were trolling RD.
    Anyway, he cut his teeth on Fort William DH, so a few rocks shouldn’t faze him.

    The course looks much better than i feared it would be! Even looks like its worth a ride! well if i didn’t have to travel down through Scotland, past the 7 stanes, through Yorkshire, peak district … if i didnt have to drive through much better biking terrain to get to it, then it would be worth a scoot.
    I will watch it on the telly tho.

    This is Mountain Biking???

    jonzo said: On March 25, 2011
    This is Mountain Biking???

    Not as ‘we’ know it. It’s Olympic XC mountainbiking…. These boys (and girls) could whip most all the STW massive, up AND down any hill you care to point them at… WITH their seats up their jackseys!

    Thanks RichPenny,

    I think I will wait until the survey is live and then set something up on the forum. Maybe Chips or Mark would even put a note on the “News” section of the site to get more attention

    good article,course has ‘promise’,have run a couple of races, (one mans good course can always be pants to another)
    any chance of nick craig,frischy and tomes have a run at it
    i would love to hear their views!

    that looks like a banger of a course

    nice work on the essay – B+

    some vids if you like that kinda thing

    (why is this guy skidding all the way down?)

    (bbc report – plus extra stroke recovery story bonus)

    “Quite honestly the mere mortal would genuinely gain a big advantage, perhaps 15-20 seconds a lap, by running an uppy-downy post.”

    Thats funny.

    Nice article. I’ve read a few about Hadleigh but its good to read one from a normal rider. I live just round the corner and have been watching this develop from the train and on my sunday ride. Your photos are great as they really show how challenging some parts are. Lets just hope they keep as much of this course as possible.
    I’m not sure why walkers are moaning as most of the course is on private farm land anyway. Then again I’d have the hump if someone rode past me with a grin on their face while I’m trying to wipe dog poo off my shoes.

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