A question I hear far too often from members of the club and members of the public when I tell them of my involvement with the Hadleigh MTB Club and consequently the Hadleigh Farm Olympic Track. There are in-fact many reasons why this beautiful slab of Essex countryside, carved out with an equally beautiful yet brutally challenging MTB track is not open to the public yet so let's get just one of those on the table now.
ITS DANGEROUS !
If we forget the money needed to modify it, the lease negotiations on the land, the required coordination between council, government, local residents and the corporate sector to fulfil the promised Olympic legacy, the simple fact remains this is a Brutal and Dangerous place… This place has not been sitting quietly though, since the last Olympian crossed the finish line on the 12th August 2012, Hadleigh Farm has hosted many MTB races, the British Cycling Regional School of Racing's talent program, many, many coaching sessions and even the odd cross country running race. How many other Olympic venues have seen this much action since the games? Not that big stadium in London, that's for sure.
Let's get back to the danger… Since the Olympics finished, Essex council in coordination with British Cycling have been running guided sessions of the course with 2 professional mountain bikers offering a taste of what it was like for Absalon, Killen et al…. Each of the technical sections of the track are talked through, demonstrated and then, for the willing and brave participants, ridden. Out of the several hundred people who have been through one of these sessions, the injury count is high to both people and bikes. Broken shoulders, arms, collar bones, forks, frames, bars, wheels, the list goes on… All of these people consider themselves "good" mountain bikers and all were assessed before even going near the track. Yet it still bites and when it bites it bites hard.. Our own Olympic MTB Star Liam Killen broke his ankle here on the first lap of the race ending his Olympic dream and he, Mr & Mrs Public, is a better biker than you!
Where am I going with all of this? Well I want to tell you about 51such people who are members of the Hadleigh MTB Club and after some hard work, time and a lot of paperwork were able to book themselves onto and then attend one of the 7 FREE coaching sessions put on by Club Committee members and British Cycling coaches, Jez Vince, Steve McWhinnie and myself. I, more than anyone, am acutely aware that everyone wants to ride the track, I am also aware of the reasons why this can't happen yet so working with Jez, Steve and Essex council we did all the paperwork and the sessions were booked.
Jez had been helping out with the aforementioned paid sessions at the track so we decided to mirror the format of those as it was a tried and tested formula and did it's best to 'ease' people into the more technical features with a few warm up sections before tackling anything too taxing. With Jez as lead coach and myself as support we first needed to asses the riders, this was done in the car park using a few cones a pallet and a stick, hardly the scary rock fest that awaited us but incredibly important for gauging rider's grasp of the core skills necessary for what the day had in store. Anyone told about 'diving for a header' now knows how to do a rear wheel lift and only one person went over the bars whilst attempting the endo (you know who you are) What was great however was that some riders were already learning new skills and we were still in the car park. This was great to see and only helped with confidence later in the day.
Shall we do a lap then?
Before we do, it's important to understand a bit of history. Both Jez and myself have been biking in some form or another since the age of 5. Jez was a professional BMX racer at a young age and raced at international level before taking up Mountain Biking and has a long history with 2 wheeled human powered machines. I also BMX'd, not professionally, however freestyle was my thing and then moved onto MTB racing for many years primarily in the Forest of Dean before the days of trail centres and even suspension forks (i'm older than I look). We both did British Cycling's level 2 coaching qualification and then Jez additionally did the level 2 MTB specific course required to teach the skills needed to successfully navigate the Hadleigh Farm Track (I'm doing mine soon). The reason for saying this is not to blow one's trumpet but to answer the question I was asked more than once of "How do you get the confidence to do this?" Confidence is a funny thing and the Hadleigh Farm track is designed specifically to play with your mind. Even the easiest sections look challenging. Knowing, however that you have the skills to get you round goes a long way. Many tussle with the "I know I can do it" but "I don't want to get hurt" or "It looks easy but you have done it loads of times" Our job then was to talk riders through the sections, demo them as many times as riders wanted and then to help each rider through each section they wanted to tackle.
We start on a part of the track called Swoopy Descent, this is primarily to get the riders warmed up for what is to come and also because it has a few simple rock sections allowing us to see how the riders are doing and for them to gain a bit of confidence. Immediately it's interesting to me that many of the riders I ride with regularly and who's skills I know are clearly really nervous of a few berms, a simple, roll off, 10" drop and a ride over a couple of rocks. This place is intimidating… (Casualty Count: 1 pair of Carbon Bars snapped, One hurt shoulder, several cuts and bruises)
Next up after a few runs down Swoopy is back to the start loop and up the first climb to my favourite and one of the most intimidating parts of the course, Triple Trouble. There are 3 lines through triple trouble A,B and C which are designed to be the fastest to the slowest in that order. The intimidating bit of Triple Trouble however is that the feature is made entirely of rocks and the 'A' line features a 12" drop to a steep rocky descent that drops the rider over 12' in the blink of an eye. Ironically this is actually not only the fastest but also the easiest line. This track is designed to play with your mind and it certainly does that. All three lines demoed by us (Jez and I take it in turns for 'B' and 'C' but always both do 'A' as its the most fun) and then we let people have a go on the lines they are comfortable with. Almost everyone does the 'C' line and a few have a go at the rock surrounded 'B' line, the 'A' line however is a different story. Some were confident to give it a go, the majority said "No way" and a fair few who spent far tool long analysing it eventually found their mojo and did it. Almost all of the latter group then proclaimed "I don't know what all the fuss is about" As I said, its the fastest and the easiest, it just messes with your mind.. (Casualty count: 1 rear disc, 1 smashed little finger (surgery needed), 1 grazed face, several cuts and bruises, several bruised egos)
Just around the corner from Triple Trouble is Monument Drop, another section made entirely of rocks and with three lines however Monument is MUCH less intimidating as most of it seems somehow nearer the ground. Monument is also the only feature of the track that will be removed when the works begin as a result if it being built right on top of, well, a monument. Only the 'B' and 'C' lines are really useable here as he 'A' line is just slow, bumpy and a bit pointless so those are the ones we use. The 'B' line is a dead straight ride over a number of flat rocks and kind of reminds me of riding over the back of a dinosaur and down it's tail (not that I have ever done that but you know what I mean). The 'C' line actually looks harder as the rocks are all at an angle however it is the simplest part of the whole course and could easily be ridden on a road bike. Telling 8 nervous riders that seems to have no calming effect whatsoever, they do all however have a go and I think we had almost a 100% success rate. The 'B' line is intimidating because of, again, being surrounded by big rocks and although most attempted it, many were put off and stuck with the easier 'C' (Casualty count: A few bruises and 1 embarrassed Vogl)
Next up is one of the bigger rock sections, Deans Drop. Imagine a water slide with high narrow sides, that twists and turns and drops….. But made of rocks. That is what the 'A' line of Deans Drop is like, well the top bit anyway. The whole top section is a tricky, narrow, technical rock chute finishing with a mini version of Triple Trouble 'A' Line then onto some berms, a couple of big steps down and then finishing with an Olympic Rings emblazoned rock berm. The 'B' line however is a completely different story, after a tricky entrance turning sharp off some rocks its pretty much corners and berms all the way down, the problem being the surface is now so ruined from the rain and use that it is REALLY slippery, embarrassing many people who had slow speed falls when front wheels washed out (including one coach, not me). After a couple of demos with Jez and I fighting over the 'A' line (the 'B' line sucks), everyone, I think, attempted the 'B' and most made it to the bottom without falling off, some the first time, some after a few attempts. Few tackled the 'A' line but those that did were well rewarded with the feeling it gives when you nail it. (Casualty count: 1 chain, a few cuts and bruises, a few scratched frames and 1 embarrassed coach)
Remember the stick we asked you to bunny hop in the warmup? That's the skill you need for the 'A' line of the next feature. The Gap Jump. Quite simply here we have 2 lines, the right or 'B' line is a simple ride down and round a section of north shore wooden track and the left or 'A' line is similar but has an 8' gap jump in it full of rocks. We don't even bother demoing the 'B' line here as, if you can ride a bike, you'll be fine. We always however talk through and then demo the 'A' line, always both of us, one of us showing off (taken in turns), often in a train, once with Duncan along for good measure. Jumping is fun! (unless you don't like jumping, then it's scary, especially if someone fills an 8' gap with rocks). This feature saw the riders divided, few jumped straight in (pun intended) and just did it but I knew before we even started who they would be. The others were probably split 50/50 between those that just said "No way" and those that really wanted to do it but were not confident. That group was further split 50/50 with those who eventually plucked up the courage to do it (with mixed results I must say) and those that decided it was not for them after all. There were a few crashes here, some pure unlucky and top marks for giving it a go, others which could have been avoided but thankfully no one was really hurt and 'most' people left smiling. (Casualty count: 1 rear wheel, several bruises and grazes)
A bit further round the track from the Gap Jump is a feature that I do not think has a name however it is what looks like a really simple, shallow climb up some mostly flat rocks. The climb angle is only a few degrees and there are 2 lanes/lines to chose from, left and right. Most people arrive at this section and think it's a downhill section, remarking "Well that looks easy", after telling them it's uphill however people start to look at it a little more intently. This section is only put in to our coaching sessions as a bit of fun and in every session we did there was much hilarity. It's much harder than it looks and even demoing it is a bit hit and miss as no matter how skilled you are, it's easy to get wrong. The entrance to the feature is slippy and on a corner so sitting or at least weight right back needed, as soon as you hit the rocks however you need to be up and out of the saddle powering on the pedals to get you up to the top end. During the sessions I adopted the stance of: Demo it, Nail both lines then SIT DOWN, something I did not do every time bit it's satisfying when you do. One particular session had one of the more skilled riders we had complaining about his long travel full sus bike and how it was much harder for him. "Do it on my bike then" came the challenge to me. A challenge which I duly rose to, and having never ridden the bike before rode straight up the feature much to the displeasure of said rider (you know who you are). Little pleasures, I know, but I enjoyed the gloat… (Casualty count: a couple of chainring teeth)
After climbing snake hill and over the top we arrive at Oak Tree Drop, probably named because it is below the biggest oak tree for miles and it's a drop. 2 lines here again, the 'B' line which is a bit of single track that snakes around the tree which apart from being very tight is not in any way difficult and therefore we point it out but don't bother with a demo unless specifically asked. The 'A' line however is another one of those intimidating rock descents which, from the top at lease looks VERY steep. The mental trick Martin Seddon (the designer of the track) is playing on us here is that the last 2 rocks are ever so slightly steeper than the rest of the feature making it look like the bottom 3 feet of the drop is near vertical (the penultimate one bearing the engraved Olympic rings, a recurring feature round this track) Demos done and it's time for the riders to have a go. This is actually one of the easier features of the track but as mentioned before looks scary. Most of the riders who attempt it are successful at getting down Oak Tree drop with only 1 or 2 'over the bars' moments. (Casualty count: Some bruises)
Over the rabbit hole, down a few rock steps, round the berm, back through the rabbit hole (a tunnel) and off up the hill we arrive at one of the most intimidating parts of the track, The Rock Garden. Intimidating because its basically made up of about a 100m run of seemingly randomly placed boulders with no obvious lines round through or over them. There are in fact 2 main lines here, one down the left and one down the right with infinitely more lines made up of a combination of the 2 or anywhere you like (or gravity and physics take you) down the middle. We spend a bit of time each session talking through the rock garden, from the bottom up and then demo the left and right lines. Jez always preferring to do the right line as my bike just seems to traverse the middle section of the left line much better. Demoing the lines here is more for peoples comfort than it is to show them where to go because your line changes almost every time through until you are used to all the rocks (and there are a lot of them). Some riders flat refused to try the rock garden and I understand why, the interesting thing I found however was that a couple of people who did not want to attempt it before hand, did so and loved it. It went from least favourite to one of their favourite features. (Casualty count: Several chainring teeth, a few cuts and bruises, one mouthful of track)
Leaving the Rock Garden behind there is a fun 3' drop in the middle of the track and we make all riders aware of as it's a definite danger spot, ride it slowly and it's fine, launch off the top with a manual and it's fine as long as you can land it. Anything in-between and you could be over the bars.. Launching off is of course the most fun and does it's best to bottom out the suspension on landing. Following the track back up towards the feed area and onwards to Final Descent we come across possibly the hardest part of the whole track. Like the section with no name earlier, it's an uphill rock section, some 12' long but this time around a corner and the first 6' comprises 3 steps which are almost perfectly one bike length apart making this VERY tough. (impossible was said by many who tried it) We have a bit of fun here and in the 10 or so times I tried it, I only made it once, likewise Jez. We were the only 2. (Casualty count: 0)
At the top of the hill after the feed area is the last feature on the track, Final Descent, named because, well, it's the final descent on the track and takes you back out onto the start finish loop. This is one of the more natural features of the track, no rocks here, just a long, relatively steep chute down the side of the hill. The trick here is to keep the weight back, the wheels rolling and don't lock up. Locking up the wheels will cause the bike to loose control and when that happens, it or you are going to end up hitting the side of the chute and coming off. I was always the demo'er for this feature, leaving Jez at the top to talk people in and placing me at the bottom, incase of any incidents. There were 2 memorable moments from this feature over the 7 sessions we did, the first was an absolutely perfect display of remembering and putting into practice everything you had been told all day, the second was just funny. One rider who had amazingly ridden most of the course's features on a 17 year old fully ridged bike was about a third of the way down the chute, locked up rear, slipping front and about to come off when (and I saw this happen) he remembered what we had been drumming into the riders all day "get off the brakes, let it roll" In a moment of clarity he did just that, the bike sat up straight and rolled him straight down the chute and out of the feature. By my reckoning he had about 1/2 second to make that decision before he was off.. A great save. The second memorable moment, I only know about through folk law as it was on the one session I could not attend. Someone who will remain nameless missed the berm at the bottom of Final Descent and ended up on his back in a big pile of nettles dancing like a madman to try and not get stung.. How I wish I had seen, or better filmed that… (Casualty count: A couple of nettle stings)
So that's the lap.. Not quite the same as the Olympians did as there is one out of bounds feature 'Leap of Faith' and we missed a few of the joining sections. The plan however was to take all those club members who wanted to ride the track and give them a full on taste of it in the most controlled environment we could provide. We provided 'expert' coaching for free and managed to complete all the sessions mostly without serious injury.
So, back to the original question, "When will it be open"
Since I started writing this, (it's taken a few weeks) work has begun on the benfleet downs and we are now officially on the path to building what will be one of the best facilities for mountain biking in the south east. We have also had 2 national events take place at the track and are seeing more and more interest in the club on a daily basis. Works are scheduled to be complete in early 2015 when the whole facility will be open to the public however….. and here's the good bit…… The track will remain accessible to the club for organised coaching sessions and events throughout the works (as much as possible) and club members will be involved in testing the new trails and features as they are developed.
This is GREAT NEWS and I for one am proud to be a part of the club that will ultimately be custodians of this amazing slice of Essex countryside!