Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I Can See For Miles (A Day At The Races)

The morning after the Transvision Vamp - a beautifully executed Dark Satanic Mills Ceremony of Mordor night before - has dawned slightly earlier than my weary (yet excited) mind (body) is ready for. The shrill of the ‘phone-alarm reveals its all of 5.45 am; drat. Yet there is a long-awaited appointment with the curb-side of a Surrey lane to be kept.

Tiggles B, having prepared wayside sustenance, pilots me to the train. She, at least, can grab another few hours under the duvet unless the Psycho-Killers’ bloodlust gains momentum. This has seen the body count of late include two medium-sized sparrows, a frog, a baby blackbird, mice various and a full-grown pigeon all deposited (and dealt with, cat-style) in various parts of Bearwood Hall.

How the hell they got a size 10 pigeon through two cat-flaps prior to slaughtering it is beyond me. Maybe one pushed and the other tugged? Sleepily, as we trundle toward the railhead, I wonder if they sell cat-scan-cameras anywhere local?

Incredibly, the 6.49 to the metrop is jam-packed and equal in the incredulous stakes is the inescapable fact the ‘phone-howlers are already out in force. Don’t these people sleep?

The one diagonally opposite takes out her Olympic Aquatic-centre tickets and starts photographing them. “I’ll just put these up on me FaceBook” she loudly and excitedly tells her heavily-tattooed girlfriend, sat next to me. The elderly gentleman across from me looks quizzical; I tend to think he has no Social Network presence. (Or knowledge thereof). And… is probably headed to the Dressage event.

“Hello Mum… Yeah… I’m on the train. What’s that you say, I can’t ‘ear ya… I’m on a train. Yeah… on a TRAIN innit. Ahhh shit, I ain’t got no signal”. I point to the sign on the window that illuminates the fact we’ve all chosen seats in the quiet carriage. “Yeah… so?” hisses the Lady of the Estuary. I just love going through tunnels. And… there are quite a few coming up. Plus, as a just-in-case, I’ve come equipped with industrial-strength noise-abatement headphones.

Overground, underground I Womble free into the bowels of Waterloo, by way of a much required goblet of caffeine, purchase of The Thunderer (The Times of London) and onto Platform One suitably refreshed and energised; destination Leatherhead.

On arrival, Leatherhead was, to all intents and purposes curled up under the blankets but about to get a rude awakening, as thousands upon thousands descended on what is otherwise fairly described as a sleepy market town.

Big screens are being set up, market-stalls are being readied; pubs are opening early and the roads barriered throughout make progress painfully slow along the pavements with room for one only in any direction. Pity the poor mother with a push-chair as whoever had laid out said barriers clearly hadn’t figured on either families attending or the sheer volume that were starting to arrive. The invalid on his mobility-scooter out to collect his Daily Telegraph got stuck; executing a three-point turn became an exercise in minimizing the twists on the handlebars to double-digits.

A gentle one-mile tramp to the south leads on to the main Box Hill circuit. Roadside space is already, even at this early hour, at a premium – the race itself is yet to even begin from The Mall. The scent of coffee from flasks hangs heavy in the air, one man barbecuing breakfast bacon on the verge has drawn a sizeable crowd.

There was a quote I’d found earlier in the week from one of the local councilors who’d queried the anticipated volume of people, wondering ‘What will we do with 250,000 people?’ Well… the answer was becoming obvious. No… this wasn’t a people-deluge aka Woodstock but, if this early-morning influx was replicated around the entire 15k circuit, by high noon the good people who run the Mole Valley District Council were going to have a good half-million on their doorsteps. At least.

Were they ready, ready with the laughing gas?

Turn the corner off the big road and up onto the Old London Road – my heavily Googled and long-planned ‘spot’ is a few hundred metres ahead. But, it seems that I’m not the only one who’s had this bright idea: also walking up the road is a sea of humankind… there are crowds gathering that one’d only otherwise see on Tour de France stages. And… this is Surrey. Home counties, leafy… suburban… Surrey.

The two policemen stationed just beyond this intersection are already and clearly in trouble. Both are on their respective radios urgently asking HQ what to do. Fairly obviously, they’ve not been briefed in how to deal with this volume of people. Plus, they’re trying to stop the hundreds of cyclists going any further; the thin blue line resembles Canute and tide. Ultimately, they see sense, step aside and the river of humanity flows steadily uphill.

Past the pub that’s going to have its busiest weekend since… goodness only knows when… and finally, just below the brow of the hill, on the edge of the dappled shade, underneath a high-brick wall behind which black sheep contentedly graze, the green backpack is heaved to the ground. X marks the spot.

Settle down to wait.

Check Twitter feeds to see where the race is and what’s going on. A break of twelve with some relatively heavy-hitters have scarpered up the road and established a 5 minute plus advantage, the bunch are riding tempo with Team Sky (whoops, GB) on the front and they’re about an hour away. Relay same to fellow spectators within earshot as everyone nearby is eager for news.

Munch sandwich and wait a bit more.

A few moments later, the first of the security posse amble by – two young women police constables. Both are wearing flak jackets… what are they expecting to be assaulted by? Cucumber sandwiches?

Because they’ve been told this is what they have to do (and probably because they have nothing better to do), they ask that we all stand on the pavement. As they move off the request is ignored.

With so many handcuffs and other jangly police-type paraphernalia attached to her belt, the slimmer of the two clanks her way downhill; the other is more amply proportioned, with a posterior encased in black serge that is roughly the diameter of Guatemala. As the disappear from view, sundry Germans, English, Irish, Dutch and a smattering of Italians as well as self meander back into the road. And wait… some more.

Five minutes later, hi-visibility orange-vested security people hove into view. They, too, request everyone to stand on the pavement that, by now, is bulging with people, pushchairs, backpacks and bikes. “Hey, friend... the race is an hour away” says the Dutchman next to me. “Don’t matter, mate. Stand there... on the pavement”, instructs one of the shaven-headed security man. “You’re causing a hazard”.

He moves off, we move out onto the road. Again. And wait. This is just like a Tour stage; camaraderie – no matter nation or creed – all around abounds.

At more or less the appointed hour, the first police 'command vehicle' flashes past, driven by a uniformed officer, his face masked by impenetrable dark glasses quickly followed by another security 4x4 with four occupants… again sporting the obligatory dark glasses. Isn’t this just a tad over-zealous?

(This actually happens on each lap; they’re too obviously serving absolutely no purpose and one can’t help but wonder exactly what the hired thugs are doing in their 4x4 – for example, do they charge by the hour or by the mile? It doesn’t take the brain of Einstein to work out that they are on an serious earner for doing… nothing). The helicopter is chattering overhead; the race is getting closer. Excitement builds all along our stretch of pavement.

The first of the police motorbike outriders is heard below us on the hill; the on-off squawk of their sirens pierces the early lunchtime quiet. They flash by quickly followed by another two and then another pair… Moments later the workman-like leading group ride tempo up the hill. A flash of heavily tanned thighs, a whir of carbon-fibre and they’re over the brow and heading toward the roped-off sections of Box Hill itself.

Ecologically minded as I am, I’m all for saving the rare daffodil, exceptional species of orchid and certain genus of butterfly but why the race has been routed in such a manner whereby sections of the route will be designated as no-go areas for spectators is beyond me.

The assembled throng holds its collective breath for five more minutes and then the main bunch come through, most of the (expected) main protagonists easily recognisable even despite the fact their race colours are unfamiliar (national jerseys and not the more usual trade-team ones). Even so, it’s a little bizarre seeing the Italians more marble-white than Azzura-blue and the Australians in canary-yellow while close up, Team Sky (GB’s) grey-blue outfit is downright horrid.

The hi-visibility orange-vested security people amble back uttering the same, tedious demands. By now, they also look bored; they have little or nothing to do because its quite evident that the crowd do, actually, know what to do when the race comes through. Even those who – probably because they saw it on one of the high-mountain stages – decide to briefly run alongside the riders are hauled off by other spectators. This is a crowd self-policing itself.

The lady PCs amble back and forth and chatter to the crowd, they have no job to do either other than enjoy their day out. The Police outriders who come through give high-speed high-fives to those who choose to extend their hands; other than the orange-vested Orangutang-bullies it’s as good natured as it gets, a real festival on the roadsides of Britain.

Some of us in our little sub-section of the route are timing the gap between break and main group. There are virtually no updates coming from the race itself (generally, there would be an announcers’ car either just ahead of the race itself or in-between break and bunch) but, inexplicably, this is either a detail overlooked or, maybe, just thought unnecessary. Whichever it is, its becoming clearer still that none of the relevant authorities had imagined the size of the crowds assembled.

As the race unfolds, the gap between break and main bunch slowly comes down. And then, the inexplicable happens. The next time up our climb, a second group on the road has formed and they’re rapidly closing in on the break: and, it contains a welter of big names; Gilbert, Sanchez, Cancellara, Phinney, Nibali… big-hitters every one and yet… no British jersey is to be seen.

They roll through on the front of the main group some 70 seconds later… interestingly, Eissel (Cav’s Sky loyal team-mate but, obviously, today in Austrian colours) is sitting second wheel. Even so, the tempo they’re riding is not (perhaps) as hard as it could… or should… be.

Either there is supreme confidence that they’ll bring it all back together or… they’ve felt no need to at least police that second group by placing one of their guys in it (thus forcing other teams to chase) or… they’re stuffed… or they’re riding at a pace that suits Cav and daren’t up it just in case he can’t hang on.

What is clear is that the Plan A – Z (to bring Cav to the line and position him to achieve Britain’s first Gold Medal) as publicly outlined by the boss of Team GB isn’t going to waver come hell or high water; no matter what, there is to be no deviation.

Its only as the race unfolds that the viewers will be able to herald this as being either a tactical master-stroke or… strategic ineptitude akin to the Charge Of The Light Brigade. We’ll see… battle has, by now, been properly joined.

As they all roll on toward another skirmish on Box Hill, its my time to head back down this hill and retrace steps back to Leatherhead. I’ve figured out that, so long as I time it right, I’ll get to see the race once more along the circuit, then catch it at the roundabout on the southern edge of Leatherhead as it heads back into London and still be in plenty of time to make it to the big screen to see the closing stages.

Parts one and two went swimmingly; the crowds had grown to colossal proportions at the entrance to the Old London Road – there, the Cancellara fan-club had staked its place right along the verge, they’d set up a tv screen around which were gathered as many as could see. The Norwegians were next door, the good people of Surrey and every other part of Britain crammed into every other available space.

The helicopter’s over head and Gilbert streaks through, spring-loaded and whippet-like. The break behind has swelled – so obviously the junction was made somewhere out there and Millar leads the chasing bunch through… the gap between front and back of the race is maybe no more than two minutes. Game on. Best foot forward and stride-out to the roundabout.

It’s jammed. Even so, a little hustle and bustle and you can feel the swish of air as the riders hurtle past. The leading group, which feels like it’s about 30 strong now, is bearing down on Gilbert and a minute or so ahead of the main peleton. The race is fast heading for denouement and its my time to make equally rapid foot-fall toward the big screen a mile hence.

There is a path that runs behind a hedge parallel to the main road up which the race and attendant convoy of vehicles has just made its way. Along with many others, I make for it.

Not so fast.

Three security people bar not just my but everyone’s way. “You can’t come through here yet... mate”. Pretty obviously, I'm not his mate but we'll let that go for the moment.
“C'mon... don’t be silly… the race has gone through… we’re all trying to get to the screen in Leatherhead”.
“Sorry… mate... you can’t come past until I say so”.

The security guard inflates his beer-belly and stands there implacable behind his dark-glasses. Its becoming less and less likely that we'll be buying one another a pint at days end.
“Hey chum..." I'm trying my very best to be... chummy. "The race has gone by… why are you holding us all up?”
Clearly, enforced chumminess isn't going to operate any form of thawing mechanism. He and his cohorts stand there, saying nothing, hiding behind their man-sized shades. The minutes tick by as crowd-anger increases.
“Can you let us past please… now! We're going to miss the finish. Please!”
He starts fiddling with his ear-piece. One of his colleagues starts talking animatedly into a cell-‘phone. Still nothing happens. The minutes continue to trickle by. There is visible irritation coming from everywhere. The security guys are pissing everyone off; the roads are silent with all race traffic long since gone that-a-way and, sooner or later, someone is going to march forward and deliver a healthy blow to this bloke’s solar-plexus. We wait for another five minutes.
“What the fuck is the problem?” yells someone in the deep background from amongst the grumbling throng of adults and crying children.
“I’m not allowed to let you through yet. It’s a health and safety issue”.

Five minutes (which feel like fifteen) later, word comes through that we’re no longer a danger to anyone’s health or safety and the over-sized, over-zealous security man steps aside. There is a congenial rush toward Leatherhead central.

Breathless, a whole group of us make it into the main market area of Leatherhead, there’s the big screen and images are coming through but they’re horribly pixilated and Chris Boadman’s co-commentary and race analysis is being transmitted as if by way of a vocoder from outer space operated by an alien. Moments later the screen goes blank.

A howl erupts from the throng all across the pavement; it was a collective moan the like of which I’ve heard just the once before when, watching the screens in Times Square at just the moment Obama walked out to accept his nomination in Chicago for the US Presidential elections… they, too, went dark. A moment of history about to be missed.

Thankfully, there is an Irish couple stood next to me; he has somehow managed to get a radio-feed on his cell ‘phone, my own is dying a slow death by battery-run down. The commentary is intermittent but at least a little information is coming through; the big-screen technicians are struggling with both the equipment and a visibly (and understandably) hostile crowd.

This is not just a race against time but a malfunction which is, in anyone’s book, unacceptable. This is Britain, it’s the technological age and we’re hosting the Olympics. For pity’s sake, don’t fuck up and look like you don’t care or, worse, that you don’t know how to fix it.

Moments later, the screen pixilates back into life; the audio feeds-back but settles whereby Boardman now sounds like he’s being strangled. The sound is so awful that it is impossible to make out what co-commentator Hugh Porter is actually saying. If anything.

The images on the screen swirl to the extent that only someone who’d taken a mouthful of Dr T Leary's most famous substances would have been able to make head or tail of what they were seeing. They could have reached Knightsbridge... equally, they may still be in Richmond Park... that might have been a shot of a deer. Either which way, it was impossible to tell. Twenty seconds later, the screen goes black and the commentary fades away and eventually fizzles out like a slowly released fart.

This is utter bollox. A shambles.

There… look… a pub with a mass of people straining to see something through the window. God-willing, the pub will have their TV hooked up to the transmission.

It does… and yes, they were traversing Knightsbridge. Phew, just in time then.

Those of us piling up against the window get to see someone in a pale blue jersey beat someone wearing predominantly white in a two-up sprint. The word goes quickly around that Vinokourov has out-smarted the Colombian Uran in the final metres along the Mall.

A hectic sprint for third place follows and then another big bunch comes in. It’s just possible to make out Cav being bested for the line and looking decidedly down-faced as he rolls to an ignominious halt; his race run.

Time for the train home.

And the moral of this tale is?

This was (is) The Olympics. This was Britain’s first chance of a Gold Medal – fielding the outright favourite.

And what is abundantly obvious is that the authorities (local, national and international) underestimated this entire event from the get-go.

Why, for example, were there no large-screens at all the obvious places where the crowds would gather?

Why was there no system put in place for the crowds on the roadside to be kept informed of the race’s progress?

Who decided to employ security staff who’d absolutely no idea of the event they were ‘securing’? (And how much public money was flushed down the lavatory in so-doing?)

And… then… when finally being able to watch a re-run of the television coverage, the entire debacle became clearer still.

Consigning TV footage to only two motorbike cameras – when you have a minimum of three in every classics, semi-classic and all Grand Tours – was unpardonable in that immediately all live footage which could be edited for the broadcaster to pass on to the consumer was a third less than for any other major race.

The on-screen information / timing-splits issues that the broadcasters suffered from has been well documented in the mainstream media. But… no one seemed able (or capable) of thinking on the hoof.

For example, how hard was it to establish who was in the first (or second) break by way of collecting the race numbers off the tv footage, correlate that to the start sheet and get those up on screen? The first leaders’ caption came up (unless I’m much mistaken) one hour and forty-seven minutes into the broadcast. That’s not just inexcusable but smacks of a ‘couldn’t care less’ level of incompetence / nah, that’s someone else’s job.

And now we have this party blaming that party who, in turn are blaming someone else who, in their turn are blaming people using Twitter and Facebook, texting their pals back at home and so forth – all in all, saying the mobile networks couldn’t cope.

This is so much bollox as to be beyond incredible – firstly, the telemetry should have been carried on the same protected networks as the video, rather than using a domestic mobile 'phone network and secondly (and perhaps more importantly) this should have been figured out before the fact = long before race day.

LOOSECOG (or whoever really was responsible for the broadcasting) got this unutterably WRONG way, way before the event. And, most probably from when the 'test-tube-event' was run last Summer. After which they (undoubtedly) said... yeah that all ran fairly smoothly... that'll do.

And is anyone going to admit it? Damn right your sweet ass, they won’t.

Because and unhappily its symptomatic of the total denial, the absolute non-acceptance of accountability culture we all inhabit nowadays.

A culture epitomised by the total inability of person X / organization Y to put their hand in the air and say (humbly)… ‘you know what… that was my / our fault… I / we cocked it up’.

But no… So much (so far) with this Olympics – be it the empty seats debacle, the insipid commentary across many events (try the beach volleyball for size) or the televised coverage of the Mens’ Road Race smacks of: Not me guv, it was his fault… no it wasn’t, it was theirs. No, that’s not possible it was them all along.

And so the blame games rumble on.

And will do until someone, some organisation takes it on the chin and says… we fucked up.

Pity the athletes and pity the public who couldn’t get in to see / understand what they wanted to watch.

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