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Todd Wells on the Olympic XC Course

What does two-time Olympian Wells think of the London venue?

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Cross-country mountain bike racing has changed quite a bit over the years.

What started as long laps up and down ski resorts with huge climbs has evolved into short five-kilometer loops through towns that generally take between 12 to 15 minutes. The longest sustained climb now lasts about six minutes and instead of being totally self sufficient, there are two tech zones where you can take assistance.

Todd Wells racing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. File photo

London 2012 will mark the fifth time cross-country mountain bike racing will be part of the summer Olympics. I have been lucky enough to represent the USA in both the Athens and Beijing games. As a mountain bike racer the Olympics are certainly the biggest stage for our sport. When I started racing I never thought I would walk in an Olympic ceremony or eat lunch in an Olympic village, but it’s funny where life takes you.

The weekend of May 21-23 was the second round of the 2011 UCI World Cup in Dalby Forest, U.K. Since most of the top mountain bike racers in the world were competing at the event organizers of the London Olympics decided to have a training day on the new, specially built Olympic XC course after the World Cup.

This was not only a chance for riders to have a look at the course but also for promoters to get some feedback about the course before the games.

I thought the event was going to be pretty low key since organizers are having an official test race on the course on July 31. I was planning on seeing mostly North Americans and other non-Europeans that don’t want to make another trip to Europe later in the season.

I was way off, as tons of Euros were checking out the course. There was a catered food tent, an announcer and tons of school kids on hand for the event. I should have known, the Olympics are a whole different level of professional that we rarely see in our sport.

The course itself is about 30km from London in the grassy fields of Essex. There are no mountains nearby but the venue slopes down to the estuary below the town. The course is a five-and-half-kilometer loop that had been completely buffed out before the training day. Crews laid a crushed stone mixture of dirt down and rolled it smooth with a roller. They also brought in tons of big rocks to give the grassy fields a technical component. There are probably five rocky down hills with optional “A”, “B” and “C” lines. “A” is the fastest but most technical, “C” is the slowest but also the easiest. They added rocks to the climbs as well to increase the difficulty.

The organization is planning on leaving the course as it is now so the London weather will hopefully make it rougher, overgrown and more like a normal mountain bike trail.

The course in general is very fast with short climbs and even shorter down hills. There is no sustained recovery out there since you might only climb for a minute or two but you never descend for more then fifteen to twenty seconds. The UCI has been trying to make the racing tighter and I think this Olympic course will do just that and you’ll be able to see a good portion of the race from a single location. It also makes it easier to film as I heard the mountain bike event was the most expensive event to film at the last Olympics.

I don’t know that it’s possible to create an Olympic racecourse comparable to your favorite singletrack that’s easy to film, good for racing and spectator friendly. I think the Olympic course is comparable to most of our World Cup courses in 2011.

The racers make the race and I’m sure this course will allow the fastest mountain bike racers on the planet a good battleground to fight for those medals. The 2012 Games should be a great spectacle.

Specialized Racing’s Todd Wells is the reigning national champion in cross-country, short-track XC and cyclocross. Check out his blog here.