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Monday, 15 August 2011

Olympic Test Race comes to Box Hill

After months of consultation, the long awaited Olympic Road Cycling Test Race (otherwise known as the London Surrey Cycle Classic) finally took place, on Sunday 14th August. The first sign of activity around the Hill was around 2 weeks ago, when a large crane appeared in the National Trust members car park with what appeared to be a TV aerial attached to it. This later turned out to be a mast which was used to test the communications equipment for the Marshalls and other race officials. The mast was quickly followed by a team of security guards. Their presence went a long way towards reducing the criminal element among local teenagers who like to visit the Hill during the summer evenings and at the same time, a significant increase in parking revenue!

The preparations though began in earnest 10 days before the event. The ZigZag was closed over several nights much to the consternation of residents, and red circles were very much in evidence along Boxhill Road. The National Trust car park was turned into a makeshift storage depot for the hundreds of barriers which were gradually placed at various points around the Box Hill loop towards Dorking and Leatherhead town centres and along the A25. Once the barriers were erected, the storage area became the medical centre with first aiders and ambulance crews in attendance. It was difficult to imagine the scale of the event until we saw the infrastructure actually being set up, and it was only at that point that it began to seem real.

As Editor and (unofficial) Asistant Editor of the Box Hill News, Coran and I were lucky enough to secure media passes giving access to the restricted areas, so as to photograph the event. There were three such positions available, one immediately opposite the wristband area, one at the first hairpin bend along the Zig Zag, just past the National Trust car park, and one up at the Donkey Green. We had originally intended that Coran would stay near the hairpin with me at Lodge Hill for the first lap, swapping over for the second, but on the morning of the race after a particularly bad night, Coran did not have the energy for the three mile walk down the ZigZag and so I covered both of these areas while he stayed around the Donkey Green and the village. I was a little concerned as to whether I would have the time to swap between the two areas in between laps, but in the end it worked out well, and we got some great pictures which I hope will be more than adequate for our needs.

We left home shortly after 7am in order to get to the bottom of the ZigZag by 8am, the time alloted for the media gates to open. Walking through the village at this early hour, large amounts of people were already starting to make their way down the Hill. There were groups of marshalls stationed at various points throughout the village manning the crossing patrols and making sure the road remained free of traffic, other than offical vehicles used for testing the route, and ferrying essential personnel back and forth (the roads were closed to the public shortly after 6am and did not re-open until 1.30pm). The Neighbourhood Council and a large team of volunteers were busy at the Village Hall serving drinks and bacon butties, while a few enterprising villagers were doing the same from their front gardens.

I left Coran at the Village Hall and made my way down Burford Spur to the media entrance shortly after 8.15am to be greeted by large amounts of spectators who were waiting patiently for their own entrance to be opened. Most of the media personnel opted to walk to their positions, but having already walked down once, I had no intention of walking back up, so gratefully accepted the lift that was offered. We finally made it to our position opposite the wristband area by about 8.45am. We then to wait what seemed like eternity for the race to begin.

I spent the time walking up and down, watching and photographing the crowds and chatting to the Marshalls and Police Officers, most of whom seemed unaware that Box Hill News even existed. The rest of the media seemed very impressed when I told them that I lived on the Hill, and I soon became enrolled as an informal advisor, letting them know about the geography of the Hill and more about the importance of protecting the natural beauty and wildlife. I stationed myself slightly away from the other photographers to ensure that they did not step in front of me while I shot my own footage, and chose to stay on the left bank opposite the spectators,. This ensured a clear view of the road below and also meant that I had a view of the crowd in the background.

Announcements were made every so often as to where the riders were so that we knew approximately how long we would have to wait, with the crowd becoming more and more excited the closer they got. When the announcement was made that the riders were approaching Dorking, I telephoned Coran to let him know so that he could get into position and be prepared and I set my own camera to burst mode to take a series of shots in quick succession one after the other.

When the lead car arrived shortly after 10.30am, we were informed that Kristian House from the Rapha Condor Sharp team was leading by 6 minutes and 7 seconds.
My position opposite the spectator area provided an excellent vantage point and a bird’s eye view of the riders as they approached around that first hairpin bend. House was the first to appear, closely followed by three others, with the main peloton several minutes behind. A big cheer went up from the crowd, with everyone waving their flags, with the last of the riders receiving the biggest cheer of all.

For the second lap, I hotfooted it down a very steep slope to the photographer’s area at the first hairpin bend. Once again, I chose to stay slightly apart from the other photographers for an uninterrupted view. I had a hairy moment when I thought my camera had frozen, but it later turned out that I had been unable to hear it firing over the noise of the support cars and Police escorts.

With the second lap over, I made my way back to the spectator area at Lodge Hill, and joined the throng for the walk back to the National Trust Centre at the top. Coran met me halfway up and so we walked back up together, feeling very important in our media bibs and beaming with satisfaction for what we had seen and achieved. We handed in our passes before grabbing a bite to eat and a much deserved cup of tea, and then the long walk home.

We had been told to advance to expect crowds of anywhere up to 35,000 but the total was probably less than 10 percent of that figure. The turnout for the stall holders was then very disappointing. Issues with communuication no doubt played a huge role, as all the websites and printed literature advised people to avoid Box Hill as it was retsricted access, and instead watch the race from other parts of the route. This was not strictly true, as it was only the wristband area which was restricted, with the rest of the Hill, from the National Trust centre onwards open and available for all. The organisers in their infinite wisdom failed to differentiate between the different parts of the Hill, assuming that people would know what they meant, which of course they did not, and as a result, people took them at their word and stayed away.

There are many lessons to be learnt from this, and I am sure that meetings will be held in the coming weeks to discuss all these issues and many more. From the point of Box Hill, despite the inconvenience, and the gripes of a small but nevertheless singificant minority, it remains a once in a lifetime opportunity that we have to embrace. No matter how much a small minority might complain, the real race next year will happen and nothing can change that, so we have to embrace it and go with the flow. I for one felt honoured and priviliged to have the opportunity to watch it from this beautiful spot.

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