The Olympic Games. The worldwide sporting phenomenon first held, in modern times, at the Panathenaic stadium, Athens in 1896 and since held every four years in a cycle known as an Olympiad, which is derived from the Ancient Greek time measurement, except in 1916, 1940 and 1944 when the Games were cancelled due to World Wars I and II. The Olympics are truly global, with 204 countries (including territories) and circa 10,500 athletes taking part, making the Games the ultimate sporting occasion.
Becoming an Olympian and representing your country is one of the highest accolades an athlete can achieve, save for actually ‘winning’ a coveted medal of course. Twenty years ago (*sigh*) I was fortunate enough to be selected for Great Britain to ride the Road Race at the Barcelona games. It was an experience like no other, the memories of which remain fresh to this day. I was 22 years of age, fresh faced and ‘mulleted’ of hair I quite simply had the time of my life. The only low point of the games for me back then was being wiped out in the last kilometre by a Frenchman. But that’s a story for another day.
Without dwelling too long on my Barcelona experience one of my abiding memories was of being sat in the ‘Great Britain Friends and Family’ enclosure (a temporary structure just outside the athlete’s village for sole use of GB athlete’s families who had travelled to the Games but were not allowed access to the village. This was staffed by a team of hostesses who plied said athletes/folk with Carlsberg lager and Ice Cream Mars bars, two of Team GB’s main sponsors. In short it was bloody brilliant.) next to a joyously inebriated Chris Boardman, fresh from Individual Pursuit glory astride his Lotus ‘superbike’, Gold medal around his neck and a Carlsberg lager bottle label stuck firmly to his forehead… My father, Des, was also on hand to join in the celebrations having ridden his bike across Spain just to be there. It was a memorable evening fuelled solely for me by ice cream Mars and Snickers bars and lager. Don’t frown, my event was done and dusted on day one.
The other week I dug out my Olympic tracksuit, accreditation, suit and road jersey just to remind myself pre ‘London’ what the Games actually meant to me. Not that I really needed to ‘remind’ myself more that I wanted to ‘feel’ what the Games meant. Needless to say the fondest of memories came flooding back. I even put my road jersey on, the old style white, with the full coloured Union Jack, last worn in the race itself before being washed and stored. Printed on the left breast of the chest were the words ‘GREAT BRITAIN BARCELONA 1992’ underneath the five Olympic rings. The warmth of welling up tears told me that the ‘feeling’ was still there.
Back in 2005 when it was announced that London was to host the 2012 Games I celebrated along with the rest of nation. Aside from wanting to ‘see’ the Olympics, I hoped I could be involved in some way given my previous experience. When the offer of a driving job in the road events came my way I jumped at the chance. I would have been a fool not to.
My role in the road races was to drive the UCI Technical Assistant and Road Cycling Manager Steve Peters about 30 seconds to a minute in front of the bunch, ensuring the smooth running of the race as it snaked through London and Surrey. We would be liaising regularly with Olympic Cycling Manger (and friend and teammate of mine in Barcelona) Simon Lillistone who would be an hour in front of the race, ensuring all was well from a safety perspective as well as making sure that the re-configuration of the Box Hill circuit was effectuated precisely and on time.
On the Friday before the races along with fellow drivers that included former Olympians John Herety and Neil Martin as well as cycling legends Allan Peiper, Dean Downing, Steve Joughin, Jonny Clay and Tim Harris, we proudly took delivery of our ‘rides’; brand new Olympic liveried BMW 3 Series. Clad in our purple and red ‘Games Maker’ uniforms we certainly cut a brightly coloured dash. (Well, that’s one way of putting it..)
As you know the Start/Finish location for both road races was on none other than The Mall in the shadow of Buckingham Palace. A more spectacularly fitting setting for a cycle race in London I’d challenge you to find. I thought we’d be in for quite a reception from the public given the resounding success of the test event last year won by Mark Cavendish, but what was to follow was something very different entirely.
On race day we arrived very early to allow time to pass through the rigorous security screening process, carried out by Army personnel in the most charmingly polite yet efficient manner. Our vehicles were already gleaming and in situ in convoy order from the afternoon before so once the race briefing was over I simply stood in awe on the Mall trying to somehow absorb the enormity of it all whilst sipping tea and trying to look nonchalant. Obviously, by furiously Tweeting and taking photos I failed on this front in quite spectacular fashion... I just hope not too many people noticed. By the way, don’t judge me… For Pete’s sake. It was the Olympics! In London! Outside the Queens house!
With the race getting underway at 10am the riders were in place on the start line at about 9.50 - giving plenty of time for Prince Charles and Camilla to shake a few serf hands under the escort of UCI President Pat McQuaid. Not intimidated by the presence of royalty discussing a bike race starting on what was essentially their driveway, I mingled a bit and shook hands with the GB squad as they calmly sat astride their stealthy matte black steeds as the minutes and seconds to kick off ticked by. Not having spoken to Sir Bradley of Wiggins for a fair while I introduced myself whilst proffering an outstretched hand. As cool as you like, in typical laconic fashion whilst shaking my hand he replied, “I know who you are Matt, do you think you’re in disguise or something?” Ever so slightly caught off guard I struggled to find an appropriate retort but came back with the stingingly sharp, “So, Brad. Are you a bit tired after the Tour or what?” Immediately, just as the ‘what’ tripped off my tongue and the face of the ‘me’ speaking my inner monologue screwed up with embarrassment I thought, ‘what a lame question, why didn’t you just ask him what his favorite colour was and be done with it?!.’ But rather than being shot down in flames like I expected/deserved he shrugged and simply replied, “Not really…” A reply which brought smiles from Dave Millar and Chris Froome who were flanking the ‘Tour Champ’..
After wishing the boys well I jogged over to my car, fired her up and pulled away to cheering and flag waving on a scale so grand it’s difficult to find appropriate superlatives for. Suffice to say that most of you reading this will have either ‘been there’ or seen it on TV. If you fall into the former category you’ll know what I mean but to see it mile after mile after mile was something to truly behold and that I’m quite confident I’ll never experience again in my lifetime. Through the streets of Knightsbridge and beyond the crowd was so densely thick it seemed to take on a life of its own. From my view, primarily looking directly ahead, it was as if there were no individuals, just a solid seething mass of red white and blue that stretched as far as my eyes could see. Goosebumps covered my arms and I was genuinely fighting back tears as I tried to take in what I was seeing. The three of us in the car kept exchanging looks of sheer childlike wonder whilst simply pointing in silence…
There was never a point on the outward journey that didn’t surprise me. Every single vantage point was taken and only stretches of road that couldn’t facilitate a person standing were left empty. When we approached the Box Hill circuit things just got plain crazy. Crowds 6-8 people deep lined the roads approaching the circuit and the cheering was so loud we wound up the windows to stop our ears from ringing. The police motorcycle outrider in front of us kept slowing down as she gave endless ‘high fives’ to the masses of outstretched palms as she rode by..
Onto the circuit itself we were faced by a road blocked by a veritable sea of people, only parting as we got within an agonising few feet before closing again behind us as people craned for the best view of the approaching peloton. At times I was reduced to driving at walking pace so as not to risk making contact with someone. The phrase ‘the atmosphere was electric’ is a well worn cliché but for virtually the entire Box Hill circuit, save for a short 400 metre stretch closed off by the National Trust, the atmosphere positively crackled with electricity and a wall of sound that Phil Spector would have been chuffed with.
For those not convinced I’ll try and put it into perspective; Ex pro Tim Harris was driving a guest car behind the race with one of his passengers being none other than the living legend that is Le ‘Cannibal,’ Eddy Merckx. During the race he declared that he had never before in his life seen crowds quite like the ones he was witnessing on the roads of London and Surrey.
The run back into the City was quite surreal, we sped ahead of the race so I could drop off my passengers in good time for the finish. It was like playing a High Definition video game on a 360 screen; speeding through a locked down London with an audience of literally millions of people cheering me on. No traffic lights or junctions to hinder my progress, my only concern was undertaking the police outriders who waved me through, sirens wailing whilst I looked for the smoothest racing line as the iconic landmarks of our capital city sped by in an alchemic haze of red, white and blue… Ok. It was fast and fun.
As we drove across the finish line under the giant purple gantry I briefly let go of the steering wheel with both hands and did a mini victory salute whilst letting out a rather reserved ‘whoop’. The type that we all do when driving past a town sign in the car, in lieu, I guess, of not actually being able to ‘sprint’ on the bike for said sign. C’mon people, you would have done the same wouldn’t you.. Wouldn’t you?
With my passengers deposited I parked up at the far end of The Mall before hot footing it back to take up a position stood just behind the press corps 40 metres or so after the finish line. My iPhone poised in readiness…
The rest, as you know, is Olympic history. Alexandre Vinokourov took the sprint at a canter from his breakaway compatriot Rigoberto Uran Uran to take the Olympic title back to Kazakhstan and in doing so dashing the hopes of the host nation desperate for a victory from Mark Cavendish and the boys. It simply wasn’t to be, the tactics of which would be dissected in the following days, but the sense of disappointment in the British camp at the finish was distinctly palpable.
Following a scowling Mark Cavendish and out of the back of the main chasing bunch rolled firstly the newly crowned National Road Champion Ian Stannard, followed by Brad a just under a minute later, both utterly spent from their fruitless efforts chasing. Dave Millar trundled home a further eight minutes back with Tour dauphin Chris Froome the penultimate rider to cross the line at eleven minutes. As Froome circled back towards the press area he cut a lonely, solitary figure. As I approached him he came to a stop, holding himself up on the railing whilst still clipped into the pedals. His dark blue skin suit dappled with salt. No one else was near us. I asked him simply how things had gone. He smiled warmly, almost disarmingly, which for a guy who had just ridden himself into the ground only a week after finishing runner up in the ‘Greatest Bike Race On Earth. TM’ came as a bit of a surprise. He paused, then shrugged saying, “We tried to pull it back but couldn’t. That’s the way it is.” It was as simple as that. Over the next minute or so that we talked, he seemed more than happy to. I didn’t want to keep him from getting back and wasn’t there in a role as a journalist, I was just an ex rider who wanted to show his appreciation. Before he rode off I asked if it was ok to take a photo of his matte black ‘prototypesque’ steed to which he cheerily replied, “Snap away.” What a thoroughly pleasant bloke I thought to myself.
After the warm and sunny conditions that the men’s race was run under the women’s race the following was a far different affair. At midday the field of 60 riders rolled away from the start under blackened skies, which rapidly precipitated into an absolute deluge. From the comfort of my BMW, my wipers going full bore, I glanced back through my rear view mirror, just about able to discern the peloton through the murk and glare of the various car and moto headlights.
Yet again the public at the roadside were present in their masses. Perhaps not quite as many as for the men’s event but still a far bigger crowd than I had ever experienced at any cycle race up until the day before. What struck me the most was the display of fortitude and British stoicism on the grandest of scales. Despite the absolutely dreadful conditions there they stood. In shorts and T-shirts. As the rain quite literally poured on them. Waving their Union Jacks with a fervour so genuine it nearly brought me to tears on several occasions. It made me proud.
What made me prouder were the battling performances of our ladies team. When I heard over race radio that Lizzie Armistead had made the move with 40km to go I punched the air with spontaneous delight, my heart well and truly visible on my sleeve. By this time the sky had darkened, the rain become heavier and thunder boomed overhead giving the denouement of the race a truly apocalyptic feel. When the four leaders became three it was clear that, barring accidents, Lizzie was going to bring home Great Britain’s first cycling medal of the ‘home’ Games.
At we passed the ten kilometre to go board I was instructed to drive ahead as per the men’s race. This proved to be interesting, as we essentially aquaplaned through the city streets passing the thousands of cheering souls who, it seemed, were oblivious to the atrocious conditions. As I took the final kilometre into The Mall, knocking a few kph off into the sweeping corners (‘OLYMPIC COP IN MALL SMASH’ is not a headline I wanted to see) the rain continued unabated, worse still; the outside temperature had fallen to a chilly 12 degrees…
Across the line and in situ as the day before, I waited. Tucked in behind the press pack. ‘C’mon Lizzie…’ The three leaders then came into view, delineated in the murk by the blue lights of the police motorbikes, adding to the sense of drama. Craning for a better view through the gloom I watched as the sprint for Gold began.. Despite Lizzie being seemingly carried on a patriotic wave of sound in the last 250 metres it was Holland’s Marianne Vos who prevailed in the sprint to take the title, screaming with emotion as she crossed the line before being mobbed in a sea of orange. Lizzie Armistead finished, just a few lengths adrift and totally spent, for the silver to make up for the disappointment of the men’s race. The first cycling medal of London 2012… She had done herself and the nation proud, as had the rest of the team.
For me and the rest of the Cycling ’Games Makers’ it was time for a day off prior to the Time Trials…
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