Armchair Pundit

Box Hill triumphs as Brits fade

Alex Chick

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The peloton sweeps up Box Hill (photo Alex Chick)

Britain didn't get the result it wanted or expected, but Saturday at Box Hill provided stirring evidence of cycling's rude health in this country.

Tens of thousands, with and without tickets, flocked to this picturesque corner of the North Downs in Surrey to see the heart of the men's road race - nine circuits of the Box Hill climb - in a show of popular support for a sport that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Walking to the hill, I met a small group of Slovaks. I asked them about their rider Peter Sagan's chances, and was met with surprise that I knew who he was. Of course I know him, I thought. I'm British. Cycling is what we do. For the last four years, anyway.

You might understand foreigners' difficulty in comprehending the extraordinary explosion of cycling in this country.

The sport was perfectly happy for over 100 years with negligible British interest, and now here we are acting like we invented it.

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The cycling boom seems to have happened in reverse. Normally a sport accrues organic popularity, which leads to increased participation and investment, and ultimately success.

With cycling, the success came first - thanks to the extraordinary track team. Even going into Beijing it was far from high-profile. Eight golds from a possible 11 on the track in China changed all that.

Suddenly it was fun to like cycling. Somehow we were the best in the world. Then came Bradley Wiggins's switch to road cycling and Sky's hefty wodge of cash. Now it is in the sporting mainstream.

It has been a strange, sudden burst to prominence. No wonder the Slovaks tagged me as the cycling arriviste that I am, and not someone steeped in the sport.

Mark Cavendish, playing down the difficulty of the course beforehand, said: "It's not an Alpine pass."

He was referring to the size and steepness of the climbs, but it was more than just gradient that separated this from the ascent to Alpe d'Huez.

Take the draconian crowd control, with a particularly officious policeman in front of me barking at anyone in sight to take "all the limbs of your body" off the road.

There was plenty of subversive tittering at this ludicrous authority figure, but the spectators complied with his garbled demands.

On the Tour de France, spectators crowd the roads, often coming together with riders.

Here, we all meekly stood on the side, with barely a toenail on the tarmac, let alone the thumb tacks that enlivened this year's Tour.

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The only thing remotely French about the occasion was the vineyard en route from the station. For balance, positioned opposite was the most English scene you could imagine - a nice family selling cakes in front of their house.

The casual fans outnumbered the hardened cycling obsessives. A few people turned out in team colours, but mainly it was middle class families in search of a nice day out, and a chance to cheer on Wiggo and Cav at the Olympics.

What they lacked in expertise, they made up in enthusiasm. Everyone got a cheer. From the team cars, to the motorcycle cops to the press van, nobody went unapplauded.

And when the riders came round on the first few laps, the peleton did not get the loudest ovation. It was the stragglers from obscure nations who had dropped off the back.

The pack presented a blur of movement, difficult to pick out your favourites and still harder to work out what was going on.

The back-markers gave fans a picture of human agony, and so the stragglers from Eritrea, Uruguay and Syria got the largest roars of all.

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The sight of picnicking, Union Jack-clad families urging on beleaguered cyclists from far-flung nations sparked an unwelcome surge of cynicism in me.

Football fans like me sometimes scoff at 'niceness' in sport. The prim Wimbledon crowds offering polite encouragement; rugby players addressing the referee as 'Sir'; the golfing sap calling a penalty against himself.

Where's the passion? Where's the win-at-all-costs mentality? Where are the grown men hurling vile obscenities at each other?

Maybe there's nothing wrong with a bit of civilisation. Why belittle courtesy? Why mock somebody for knowing how to form an orderly queue? What's wrong with being nice?

Why would you follow a sport in which players speak to each other in the unpleasant manner which was revealed recently in court - sparking a year of fevered wrangling over the precise way in which an offensive phrase was said - as if the context really matters when the England captain uses the words he did?

Of course I am not going to stop liking football because of one day at a bike race, but I will ask myself whether the qualities supposedly lacking from occasions like this are really so desirable.

VENUE SCOREBOARD - BOX HILL

ACCESSIBILITY: 4/10 - Box Hill, as the name suggests, is at the top of a large climb that hardly suited the old or very young, and left plenty of punters red-faced. Nothing organisers could do about that, or the rocky footpath, but the lack of shuttle buses from Dorking's train stations to the base of the hill made it a two-and-a-half-mile trek. And the trains were absolutely rammed in the absence of extra services. Not the most family friendly.

VIEW: 8/10 - Though busy, the course allowed nearly everyone a good view of the action. Despite the overzealous crowd control, you got a tremendous, close view of the riders hauling their way up zig zag road.

SPECTACLE: 7/10 - My first cycling experience came when the Milk Race whooshed past my primary school. After hours of waiting, it was over in seconds. The laps of Box Hill meant fans had nine chances to try to identify Cavendish as he zoomed by, and it gave them a much better idea of the race's ebb and flow. Just a shame all those climbs sapped British legs.

FANS: 8/10 - As stated in the main piece, they came in number, they waved their flags and they cheered anything that moved. Also, when they left Great Britain were still in decent shape, so spirits stayed high in contrast to the demoralised Mall at the finish.

X-FACTOR: 8/10 - Box Hill certainly has something special. The tight, twisting roads up to the top and the gorgeous panorama of the Surrey countryside made it a fitting venue. Just 30??? Miles from London, this felt a world away from the capital and was all the better for it.

TOTAL: 35/50

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Sunday - I hit the Olympic Park with aquatics in my sights as I continue my tour of London 2012's venues.

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