Following the Olympians
The lottery for Olympic tickets is optional: the men’s and women’s road races are two events that you can watch for free as they head out from London into the leafy lanes of Surrey on 28 and 29 July. You can even ride the route yourself in the days, weeks, and months after the pros have packed up and gone home. It’s a nice road loop, and riding it will put those Olympic battles on Box Hill into context.
The men’s and women’s routes are the same, except that the men’s does more loops of a circuit around Box Hill to make it longer. The Olympic route starts and finishes on The Mall, then heads southwest through Westminster, Kensington, Chelsea, Hammersmith, Fulham and Putney to reach Richmond Park. If you plan to ride the route recreationally, this is the place to start: you skip eight miles each way of London streets, so you’ll see less traffic.
Parks, kings, and priories
Richmond Park is deservedly popular with cyclists and you may want to explore it a little. When you’re ready to begin the ride proper, head to Ham Gate and down the hill, past the lake and out of the park. Take a slight detour north into Richmond and cross Richmond Road bridge over the Thames.
Head south towards Bushy Park. These were once Henry VIII’s hunting grounds, being adjacent to Hampton Court Palace. You won’t be in the park for long as it’s a straight short ride down the main road and around the newly refurbished Diana Fountain. Just as in Richmond Park, you should be on the look out for deer alongside or crossing the road.
From Hampton Court, you follow the roundabout-heavy road along the river for at least the next hour. You ride into Walton, descend into Weybridge, which can be busy, and West Byfleet, where traffic starts to lighten up. The next highlight is on the approach to Ripley, as you pass through farmland on winding roads. Heading south on Newark Lane, you’ll see Newark Priory off to your left. It is an imposing set of ruins, listed as a Grade I Ancient Monument.
Climbing the Zig Zag
There’s no shortage of refreshment stops on the route, if you fancy something more appetising than energy gels. When Patrick Trainor and I rode the route, we stopped at The Bakery in Ripley for cakes, sandwiches and drinks.
After relatively quiet lanes, you end up on a much busier road, the A246, which you follow to the west. You’re not on it for long, however, soon turning off onto Staple Lane. Shere Road was pencilled in on prospective route maps but Staple Lane is a better choice. It’s a significant climb, the only one of note other than Box Hill. It’s only a mile long and starts out very gently but gets more difficult nearer the top. At the end of this road, be prepared for the steepest descent of the day. Combe Bottom has seen many cyclists crash due to its 20% tight, blind turns and slippery surface.
The next stretch is on the wide-open A25, taking you into Gomshall and then Dorking. For those living or staying south of the route, a picturesque place to stop is The Gomshall Mill inn, an 11th century pub and restaurant.
At the end of Dorking High Street, turn left at the Silver Cockerel roundabout and onto the A24 heading north. You are just a few minutes from Box Hill now. There is an option to take the bike path most of the way on this A-road. There is also a tunnel to cross the road just before the Box Hill roundabout.
The Zig Zag road up Box Hill is less than two miles long and averages 5%. You are guaranteed to see a mix of cyclists here."
The Zig Zag road up is less than two miles long and averages 5%. You are guaranteed to see a mix of cyclists here. The sheer volume of cyclists since the announcement of the Olympic event – several hundreds per hour on Sunday mornings – prompted a police review of cycle use here last year.
When we rode it, the only signs of improvement to the surface were filled-in potholes and rut patches from last year. By May, the Zig Zag road will be fully resurfaced so should be in its best shape for years.
Home from Box Hill
We skipped the National Trust café at the top and went on to Cycles Dauphin in the small row of shops on the right a mile further on. It’s a well-known and friendly bike shop. A new feature here is the tea, coffee and cakes on offer while you sit and admire the Italian framesets and bikes from Colnago and De Rosa. Their workshop is top notch as well.
The test event last summer proved how technical this road is. The professionals had crashes on both laps."
Back on for the road north towards London, get ready to descend for a good while. The test event last summer proved just how technical this road is. The professionals had crashes on both laps. Be careful through here and give yourself plenty of time to brake, especially on the tight left-hander before Headley Common. Leatherhead is next with the last punchy climbs of the day on the way up to Oxshott.
The final 10 miles is the run into Esher, past Claremont Gardens, then back past Hampton Court and Bushy Park and into Kingston. Head over the bridge and around the one-way system, then go up to the Kingston Gate entrance of Richmond Park. The Olympic cyclists will carry on into London for – hopefully – a sprint finish on The Mall. For the rest of us, for whom the roads won’t be closed, Richmond Park is a less frenetic place to stop.
Spectator tickets for Box Hill go on sale on 29 May, priced £10-£15 for adults. Visit http://tickets.london2012.com
This was first published in the June / July 2012 edition of CTC's Cycle magazine.