We don’t have a deeply embedded cycle racing culture so often people have no idea what they might be seeing, but there is a combination of curiosity and that feeling that “they have brought it to us so we must go” that turns out the numbers. And it is a sport that has been on TV on and off for 20 years now, even if only one event, the tour. For many people who missed out on Olympic tickets this was their only chance to see an Olympic event. And then uniquely in 2012 we have genuine star quality – someone famous to cheer for, at least in the mens.
The organisers for the road cycling races also made some interesting choices about the routes. The games themselves are supposed to be all about a regeneration and legacy for the deprived East End of London. But the road races headed out to the swanky southwest and into Surrey, the most affluent county in the country. King Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court, the banks of the Thames, the rolling hills and millionaire’s houses by the river. We rode out to the time trial past the sort of places that play polo every week, as if this is just normal round here. Might as well have been a suburban tennis club.
However even this turns out to be a really smart choice. Because whenever you plot a map of cycle use in London it is these same southwest suburbs that continually come out on top. Richmond Park is a recreational cycling hot spot but also today cycling in the UK is pretty much a middle class activity, both as transport and leisure. Good call in Surrey too to organise the independent Surrey Road Race Festival with its big screen in the grounds of Denbies Vineyard and estate, where else could the middle classes feel more at home? Unless it was watching from the foyer of John Lewis department store in Kingston – the very last place on earth I could imagine drawing a cycling crowd.
So this really is as natural an audience for cycling as you are going to get in the UK, blended with fans from all over the country and the international supporters out for their teams. I mean it wouldn’t be cycling without Belgians. Dutch and Basques would it?
Of course the club cyclists who were deprived of quality mass start cycling for nearly a century are in heaven – “all this for us?” and we ponce about in our club colours revelling in our elevated status explaining in gentle parental tones to the uninitiated how the race will unfold and who the big stars are. Huddled round our smart phones and watches we were the ones actually caring about the time gaps and intervals – never has “Wiggins up, Cancellara down” been shouted so much by so few.
So the audiences for Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday (Men’s RR, Women’s RR and Time Trials) were a curious mix of fandom, celebrity-spotting and inquisitiveness, all to a backdrop of essential Englishness.
And they cheered everyone gleefully come rain and shine. There was a crescendo of noise accompanying every rider and special cheers for the backmarkers in the road races who battled along in front of the broomwagen for hours. In true Olympic spirit this audience had a soft spot for all the minor nations, it was not just a patriotic fervour. Our government might regard Iran as an evil empire, but our spectators know a competitive underdog when they see one and cheered their rider on every lap.
But of course there is always someone who doesn’t get it. Great anecdote in this week’s Cycling Weekly magazine from Dr Hutch, (Michael Hutchinson).
“Wednesday last, we had a sort of time trial do. 300,000 people came along, as is normal with British TTs now. Sky News were camped on a verge outside a house, complete with satellite truck, presenters, cameras, microphones on big sticks and all the accoutrements of the modern high definition broadcaster.
Out of the house emerged a middle-aged woman, who assessed the milling crowds, the banners, the helicopters and the Sky crew. She marched over and said “Have you come to cover the planning application?”
Ah well, can’t separate the middle classes from their normal obsessions after all.