The riders took to the start line, the public came out to line the route, drivers found themselves caught in lines of traffic jams; after years of being encouraged to ‘Back the Bid’, Sunday’s London-Surrey Classic gave Londoners and its neighbours a first taste of what it might be like to play host to the Olympics next year.
As the enthusiastic bidding by the British public for bad seats at esoteric events had indicated, we have a massive appetite for large sporting events in this country – for many yesterday this would have been their first experience of watching a road race. Brought out by curiosity perhaps, interested to see what all the fuss was about. Or possibly eager to get the 2012 Olympics started early. The crowds came out to watch a handful of top pros contest a slightly unexciting race, on an unchallenging course over a shortened distance. But any shortcomings in the racing didn’t detract from the enthusiasm from those on the road side.
Neither did the restricted access to key points in the race. Even though the organisers have seemingly done everything in their power to make watching any part of this Olympics as awkward as possible, there were still plenty of points on the course on which to take in the atmosphere and feel a part of the proceedings. It was even possible to watch the bunch lazily meander through Richmond Park during the opening kilometres and then ride down to catch the race on its two laps of the Box Hill circuit (although managing to do this next year may well prove tricky as the crowds are likely to be even larger).
Cavendish was a shoe-in for the win. There seemed little competition if the finish came down to a bunch gallop – something which seemed inevitable considering the tameness of Box Hill (a climb of just 4% where drafting still has a significant effect), and both a GB team and so-called England team working for a home win. After Cav’s main sprint rival Farrar was first held up by a puncture and then caught behind a crash within the final kilometres, the finish became a formality. It’s unlikely to be so straightforward next year in the race proper, but there’s surely a question mark as to whether this course is befitting of an event of this stature. Freeing the race from the restrictions of a central London finish may have opened up to the organisers a wider search for challenging climbs – and climbs the public could actually spectate on too.
As the bunch whizzed past for their second and final circuit and before the roads were again reopened to traffic, we jumped on our bikes and rode the route back towards London. Some of the crowds lingered by the roadside, perhaps not realising the race was now gone for good or just enjoying a rare moment of a car-free countryside. It was the first time I’ve been clapped and cheered just for riding my bike – just a week ago on the same roads motorists were trying to bully us into the ditch and shouting obscenities from wound-down windows.
Of course there’s been the expected grumblings from inconvenienced motorists who were the victims of lengthy and wide ranging road closures, but let’s hope they remain in the minority and bear no lingering grudges. If this race – and next year’s Olympics – instils a wider respect and acceptance of cycling in this country, then it will have a been a resounding success regardless of whose national anthem is played during the medals ceremony. But my money’s already on Cav to bring home gold.