More than 200 spectators – many in cycling gear – squeezed into Old Street venue Look Mum No Hands to cheer on Team GB and gold medal hope Mark Cavendish in the 250km race. But despite the result – a magnificent breakaway win for Kazakh veteran Alexandre Vinokourov – spirits were not dampened.
Cycling buddies Olly Goldborn and Matthew Sykes from Bethnal Green, east London, arrived at the cafe at 9.30am to snare seats and order breakfast before the race's 10am start on The Mall.
"It's a great place to watch the cycling here. It's not like football with the tribal and aggressive atmosphere. It's more about good coffee than booze," said Matthew (before heading to the bar for a round of beers). "A mate of ours had tickets to the Equestrian Dressage in Greenwich this morning. He lasted 10 minutes and is now on his way here," added Olly, as the riders completed the third of nine laps on Box Hill (and shortly before the boys ordered two burgers from the alfresco BBQ).
Local Farringdon resident Mark Bradshaw had also left another Olympic event in order to follow the race at Look Mum No Hands. "I took my daughter to the fencing this morning but there was no way I was going to miss this race," he said.
"But it's okay: we have tickets to 24 events in total. As a family we decided not to take a holiday this summer. Instead we're going to do the Olympics. It's such a fun time for London and we want to make the most of it."
With a giant screen showing all the action and a giant cardboard figure of Britain's first ever Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins grinning down from the wall, Look Mum No Hands proved a ideal venue for the road race. Earlier in July the cafe was used as a filming location for Eurosport's live studio coverage of the Tour on three occasions, earning the place a reputation as a key fan destination for the Olympics.
Avid rider Will Fitzgerald watched the start of the race at The Mall with friends Mike and Andy before all three rode across central London to pick up the race at the cafe. "We knew it would be busy and hot beside the road and on Box Hill so we came here," said Will. "I wouldn't usually watch cycling on TV but I got into it recently when I bought my first bike," said Mike.
Nick Dodgson and his girlfriend Claire Anderson popped in to follow the race after watching an early gymnastics session at North Greenwich Arena. "We're here en route to the beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade," said sports-mad Nick.
In the past 12 months, the couple have travelled around Europe to watch three Grand Tours, the cycling world championships in Copenhagen and the indoor athletics championships in Istanbul. "We've also seen the Hong Kong Sevens, the darts at Ally Pally, the Open Golf last week and quite a few Sheffield Wednesday games," said Nick with pride.
"What's great about Look Mum No Hands is that the crowd is both patriotic and knowledgeable," he explained after Vinokourov rode to glory. "It's not just the Brits who get cheered, but the other riders too, and that certainly added to the experience of watching the Olympics here today. It built on the spectacle and it wasn't just about Team GB."
Of course, for some people a cafe – even one as cycling crazy as Look Mum No Hands – is just not enough. Brothers Alex and Mungo Lowe met up with their brother-in-law Gavin Nolan at 7am at Trafalgar Square to ride the 25 miles to Box Hill before the Olympic road race got under way.
"It was a great thing to have done and we met loads of funny cyclists – from keen riders in full kit powering along wheel-to-wheel to more relaxed people like us who were happy to take it easy and chat," said Mungo.
"The Brad Wiggins factor is clear to be seen," said Alex. "There was an astonishing amount of people riding in replica Team Sky kit and all the chat on Box Hill was about Wiggins' win in the Tour."
Once the Olympic riders had completed the nine laps of Box Hill, fans gathered on Donkey Meadow near the summit to watch the race finale on a giant screen. Although the result was not the one most British fans wanted, it did not really matter according to Alex, "because it was a real international crowd, with people from all over the world. It's what you expect seeing how cosmopolitan London is."
On the ride back to London, the brothers met a Welsh fan called Rhys before stopping for a well-deserved cold pint of shandy in a pub near Clapham Common.
"Rhys had hedged his bets well by wearing a full Union Flag cycling jersey but with a pair of turquoise shorts worn by Vinokourov's Astana team," said Alex. "Everyone kept on coming up to him and saying how he had picked his wardrobe to a tee."
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- Alexandre Vinokourov