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Building a London 2012 venue - in a Dutch forest

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Ollie Williams | 15:55 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011

Deep within a wealth of forest encompassing the Netherlands' central belt, the Dutch have carved out their Olympic nerve centre.

Twice the size of Lilleshall and dwarfing Bisham Abbey, the Papendal national sports centre is home - literally, in many cases - to top Dutch athletes from a wide range of Olympic sports.

And now, it is home to an exact replica of the London 2012 BMX track. Or at least, the Dutch hope it is - because it's difficult to build a replica of something which doesn't exist.

Building work on London's track has only just started (it's on schedule, it simply had to wait for the velodrome had to be finished first), so a bit of guesswork was required on the part of the Dutch. But they are pretty confident.

Dutch BMX track

Dutch BMX riders test out their new toy at Papendal.

"We will only know how close it is when the London track is opened," says Maurits Hendriks, the man who took over from Charles van Commenee as chef de mission of the Dutch Olympic team.

"We do hope it's very close. There are only a very few people who build these things."

Hendriks is standing on a berm on the opening stretch of track, which carries riders away from the yawning metal frame of the start ramp. This tends to be where track designers stamp their mark. The Dutch track (and, they hope, the one in London) has a huge 14m jump to get things going.

"They're using their heads and doing it correctly," reckons Pat McQuaid, the president of cycling's world governing body (the UCI), when I speak to him.

"They also built a replica going into Beijing [although that was just the start hill, not a full course]. It's canny that they try to replicate, as much as possible, what they know is going to be in London and have their athletes train on it. It's not a problem that the athletes train on a replica - at the end of the day it's down to the athletes in the Games itself, and first they have to qualify as well."

Merle van Benthem, one of the Dutch team, stands at the top of the start hill and surveys the vast spread of forest (and Olympic committee buildings, and a golf course) that we can see. Then she peers down the ramp, which is steep enough to make keeping your footing a real struggle. "We can ride it every day, so we can be used to the track when we come to London," she says.

The 18-year-old is one of the Netherlands' most promising BMX stars, and riders like her are one reason this exists. Hendriks says the Dutch sunk "a fair penny" into the ambitious landscaping project, which sticks out of the forest like a sore thumb.

"I'm the junior world champion," continues Van Benthem, "but now I have to race with the elite women, against [British world champion] Shanaze Reade. It will be hard but I'll do my best."

But this track isn't just about giving a tiny handful of Dutch athletes a minor training aid. It's also part of a wider campaign to get foreign stars thinking about the Netherlands as a place to train before the Olympics come to London.

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Netherlands build replica 2012 BMX track

At this week's Track Cycling World Championships, about half an hour up the road in Apeldoorn, glossy brochures pointing out the benefits of training in the Dutch province of Zeeland have been handed out.

Entitled "Training for London", they read as follows: "Do you wish to prepare yourself for London 2012 at close distance from this city? Zeeland enables you to train in a beautiful and challenging surrounding, far from the media turmoil and pressure around the Games."

On a later page, it quotes a road cyclist saying: "A nice training round was 200km without coming across one traffic light. That only occurs in Zeeland!" We are then given a map illustrating just how close Zeeland is to London. Were it not for the body of the water in the way, it'd probably be quicker than driving there from Manchester.

Back at the track, Hendriks admits that while he might be inclined to keep his new facility purely for the Dutch to benefit, letting in the rest of the world actually makes competitive sense.

"We built this for our guys, we have a full-time programme and the guys live here - they are the owners of the place," he continues. "But it's in their interests to have good competition going on here and we're looking forward to receiving some of the best BMX athletes in the world."

In other words, this track is open for worldwide business if any foreign riders want to taste the 2012 venue ahead of time, but the Dutch get priority as a return on their investment.

Yet not everybody will be flocking to the Netherlands to have a go. I spoke to British rider Liam Phillips via Twitter, and he made it clear that - even though London's track is incomplete - few of his GB team-mates would be packing for Papendal in the near future. Britain has its own BMX laboratory in the works.

"There is a Manchester indoor track nearing completion and it will provide a great training base," he said. "I think every BMXer will want to visit Manchester. It's the first permanent indoor Supercross facility in the world."

One doubts that will deter the Dutch. In the same interview, UCI President McQuaid told us his organisation are hoping to back skateboarding as an Olympic sport. You could almost hear the local carpenters constructing a half-pipe by the time he'd finished talking. After all, there's enough wood for it.



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