Hadleigh Olympic mountain biking course in Essex has had a troubled start in life. It has taken an age to open. Critics have called it boring, not mountain biking and to be fair it has been a white elephant of the Olympic legacy. Now open the owners/partners hope that the venue will breath life into the local and national scene. We all hope it does too. In this piece local rider Matt Vanders puts his spin on the recent opening and the future of the site.
After London had been announced as the host city a suitable site to stage the mountain biking had to be found. With a wealth of trail centers dotted along the country it was a huge surprise that Essex was chosen. Not known as a particularly hilly area officials had a job on their hands. The first site to be considered was Weald country park but was deemed insufficiently challenging by the UCI and in the end the site at Hadleigh was chosen.
The venue covers a 550-acre site and is owned by the Salvation Army and the local council. The terrain is hilly with open grass land covered by low shrubbery. The site offers some fantastic gradients for mountain biking, great viewing opportunities for spectators, and is set against the backdrop of the 700-year-old ruins of Hadleigh Castle and the Thames estuary. The original plan was always to have the course as a temporary feature to the land scape but after much demand it was decided to keep it open as part of the Olympic legacy (which did cause just as much demand from locals to return it back, but that’s another story). The internet forums were awash with slagging off the decision for the course to be built on site, saying “how can you have mountain biking but without the mountains”, even when the first picture and films of the course finally emerged the views roundly insulted the lack of technical features. Come the tester day of the course, a lot of the critics were silenced with most of the riders saying how technical and challenging it was, there was no room for recovery from the steep ups as you soon zoomed down to the valley floor ready for the next up. With a few changes to the track to make it even harder but better suited to racing it was ready for the 2012 London Olympic games.
The games have now come and gone, with a turnout of 40,000 spectators to see the world’s best racers compete against each other. The riders continued to say how difficult it was, the spectators commented on how great it was to see three or four parts of the track all from one location and the camera footage showed a continues view of all the racing action. It was a huge success, even without a British rider standing on any of the steps of the podium the spectators had cheers every single rider around to a hero’s reception, the TV coverage showed an action packed and exciting race to the wider audience other than mountain biking community. As the gates closed that night no one had expected the Olympic legacy to take 3 year before it reopened to the public but it did…
Don't be mistaken. This is no walk in the park.
After 3 years of being closed and talk both online and in print of “making it safer” I and a lot of others were worried that a lot of the technical feature would have been completely removed come opening day but I needn’t have worried! Instead the course was more adjusted for different abilities. Take ‘Triple trouble’ for example, previously it had been made up of three lines going in to a bomb hole, one with a blind drop off, another with a very rocky rock garden and lastly a smoother but longer rock garden, each getting easier but taking in a longer line. All of this was engulfed in more jagged rocks to make a visually impressive feature with no room for putting a foot wrong. The biggest difference from when this was a race course is the removal of the jagged rocks at the side, making it easier to see the three different lines. The other difference was to make the easiest route of the three completely smooth and in to the chicken line. After trying all three it’s clear that the middle rock garden is the most difficult to ride (surprisingly), with the drop off just being about confidence!
It's not all groomed trail, there is something to test even the most capable.
One of the next features, and highlight of the Olympic race, is ‘Deans drop’, a tight steep rock garden than ends with another drop off. Like the previous feature there is a chicken line to the side and the removal of a lot of the rock from the edges of the trail. This is where Liam Killeen came off and broke his ankle, so how hard can it be? Thankfully like the previous feature (and it turns out like the rest of the trails) it looks worse than it actually is, still difficult and line choice is critical, but do-able. No more worse than anything you would find on a red/black trail in the Welsh mountains. Although I can imagine that at race speeds on a xc carbon race machine with your gentleman’s area only an inch from the saddle the course would start to be more difficult very quickly.
Linking all of these features together is what can only really be described as ‘the yellow brick road’, it’s not single track and only widens enough in a few places to overtake in a handful of areas. Made up of crushed, hard packed sandstone it is still very loose. On the first downhill sections that lead into the dual slalom I slide out on almost every corner, one minute the trail wants you to pump the course for extra speed but then the next its making you brake to get around the corner. It's fun but there is no flow in it and it feels like a waste of elevation that you once had. Some work on those turns would be much appreciated!
The remaining climbs are unexpectedly grippy and there are a number of rock steps and small uphill rock gardens to overcome to keep you interested. The climbs are steep enough but manageable, they are technical and not the fire roads that it appeared they were on the TV.
One of the last stand out features was the huge rock garden that descended the whole of the hill side (it had camera sliding down rails giving amazing view of the action at the Olympics). There are three main line choices here but none of them are marked out. They progress from being easy and going around the side or just straight lining the inside line and thus varies from larger, smooth rock formations to drop offs and step downs that are really for a competent rider and would take most a walk to work out the exact route. Again maybe not one to repeat on expensive wheels unless you’re in a hurry for a reason!
Tough climbs and techy sections make for a good day out
Now it’s fully open it is always busy with a mixed bag of riders; families out to see just what it like, xc racers practicing parts before the next race round at the weekend and trail riders wanting a technical ride linked up with other local woods. It’s good to see people using it, it’s still needs a bit more work done to improve it like extra signage leading from the trail hub to the track and around the track itself [I’ve certainly had one near death experience with someone coming up and descent and why do people not always wear helmets??!!- ed] ,but then Rome was not built in a day, or three years...
Can you all please wear a helmet!!
My final impression of Hadleigh is that it's a bit of a mixed bag, it’s good but after three years it could have had some refinement. The technical features are difficult enough to do but they soon end and a winding bridle way path rapidly takes you up and moves you on to the next climb for the next feature. The surface is a stonily, slippery hard pack mix that would benefit hugely if there were some more berms added to carry your speed through the otherwise flat corners (maybe the builders could have a lap at Swinley Forest). If you view it as a trail centre you will be extremely disappointed, it’s too short a route (30 minute a lap at best), in my opinion it just does not have the same buzz as whizzing through single track in a forest. But, and this is the big but, it was never meant to be a trail center, it was and still is a xc race track. Treat your day there as a skills day to practice and improve yourself (with a quick fast lap thrown in for good measure) and you will love it! It’s a place where you can go in the middle of winter and won’t get too muddy. I don’t know what the sites future holds but I know it will be a bright one especially if the people in charge look at parts of the track that could use a tweak and maybe add more trails to the network that is currently there. Only time will tell.
Matt Vanders is a part of the EssexHertsMTB club and forum. Local rider and sugar based sweetheart.
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