Ask a road cycling fan if they have a significant pre-Olympics gripe, and it’s unlikely they’ll cite spiralling costs, a surface-to-air missile on the roof terrace or even Duran Duran. What’s likely to get them hot under the collar is being asked to pay money to watch a sport that is, by tradition, free.
Following the many controversies surrounding the 2012 ticketing system, cycling fans always had the consolation of being able to watch the road race. After all, with the men’s course totalling about 150 miles and not far short of 100 miles for the women, there would be space for everyone to watch Mark Cavendish, Lizzie Armistead et al whizz past. A prime spectating spot traditionally is Box Hill, a National Trust-owned area of special scientific interest in the North Downs, just outside London. It is the toughest part of the course due to its relatively brief but intense climbs, and this is where riders will not only be moving slowly enough to properly gawp at, but also where potential gold medal-winning breakaways could be hatched.
It was long assumed that space for spectators on that spot would be limited, in part to avoid the scenes common in Tour de France mountains stages where well-refreshed, sunburned fans dressed either in elaborate costumes or with little on but a flag chase grim-faced riders up the hill, shouting beer-fumed encouragement. But this week and for the first time, the Olympic organisers decided to charge spectators – adult tickets range from £10 to £15.
To many, this might seem perfectly fair. After all, those attending mountain biking events had to pay out anything up to £45, while tickets at the BMX track went up to £125. If you were one of the few to get track cycling tickets, top prices were £325. Others were not so happy: in comparison, 12 million-plus spectators a year can bag any prime spot for free at the Tour de France (provided they get there ahead of time). The general assumption had been that, aside from in temporary grandstands at the finish in the Mall in central London, road cycling fans would be spared the lottery of tickets. British Cycling, the domestic sport’s governing body, certainly thought so: its president, Brian Cookson, argued long and hard for free access. An official statement after the charges were confirmed noted only that the organisation “understands the challenges that the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games face around restricted areas like Box Hill”.
Personally, I’m disappointed. Cycling is undergoing something of a sustained boom in Britain, albeit from a pathetically low base by the standards of continental neighbours. For the first time in decades, the UK has both men’s and women’s road teams with realistic chances of medals. It’s one thing for a young fan to watch the peleton swoosh elegantly past at speed, but being up close as they grind up a hilly course could get them hooked for life. Above all, it would have been nice to emphasise that for all the occasional geek-ery about carbon fibre frames and aerodynamic wheels, cycling remains one of the more democratic of pursuits: all you need is any old bike, a stretch of road and knowing how far and hard you want to push yourself.
There is one consolation: by the standard of these Olympics, a maximum ticket price of £15 is pretty cheap. Now, all you need to do is get one …
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