Mark Cavendish, fresh from his green-jersey triumph in the Tour de France, will lead the British team tomorrow in a test for the Olympic cycling road race. But a row between London 2012 organisers and cycling fans threatens to sour the event.
Elite cyclists will ride the route planned for the Olympics, which starts and finishes on The Mall in London, and includes Hampton Court Palace. In Surrey, the course takes in two laps of Box Hill, a protected beauty spot and a climb relished every Sunday by scores of amateur cyclists.
But unlike the Tour de France, where thousands of fans are free to line the route and get close to the riders, many fans will not be able to cheer the cyclists as they tackle the hill tomorrow, or at the Olympics next year.
"Keep out" signs and large metal fences have appeared in the areas surrounding the route, and access to the best vantage point and the steepest part of the race – the "Zig-Zag Road" – is restricted.
The restrictions stem from Box Hill's status as a protected SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). The discovery of a new species of butterfly and the protection of orchids in the area has led to limitations on the numbers of people in specific areas to be imposed by Natural England, the government's advisor on the natural environment.
Cycling fans have criticised the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) for not checking with landowners before planning the route, leaving many disappointed that they will not be able to take up a position on the best part of the race.
"In Europe, you just turn up and stand at the side of the road all day and watch the race," said Simon Richardson, deputy editor of Cycling Weekly. "The issue is that [LOCOG] didn't check with the landowners before planning the route. The road race is the big free event at the Olympics. Box Hill is the main part and they've restricted it. Lots of people can't go and watch in the prime spot," he added.
Only a limited number of fans will be allowed, with just 3,400 granted access to a specially constructed enclosure.
Mr Richardson added: "The Olympic Road Race, the event that offers the first medal of the Games in 2012, could set a tone of exclusion and resentment."
LOCOG said that only a small part of Box Hill will be restricted and that efforts have been made to ensure these seats go to cycling fans.
An allocation of tickets will be distributed through cycling magazines and through British Cycling – the national governing body for the sport.
A spokesperson said: "The 140km route is a challenging route which will produce an exciting race for spectators to watch for free.
"One area in Box Hill, specifically the Zig-Zag Road, will have restricted access, as it is heavily protected by the National Trust. The wider Box Hill area will have spectator access.
"We encourage people to watch this great international sporting event which is a dress rehearsal for the 2012 games."Reuse content