Huge increase planned in Box Hill spectator numbers for Olympic road races

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LOCOG, organisers of the London 2012 Olympic Games, have announced a big increase in spectator numbers at Box Hill for the men's and women's road races in July. Originally, some 3,500 spectators were to be allowed onto the National Trust-owned section of the climb that is likely to be pivotal in both races, but it is now planned to increase that figure more than fourfold to 15,000.

According to LOCOG, the final spectator numbers will be determined following completion of varius works required on site as well as completion of a health and safety audit.

The decision to route the road races via Box Hill – it will be tackled nine times in the men’s race, and twice in the women’s – has caused controversy from the start because the land is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), due to rare species of orchid and butterfly found there.

At last August’s Test Event, won by Great Britain’s Mark Cavendish, just 3,400 spectators were allowed onto the Zig Zag Road section of the ascent, climbed twice during that race. Now, additional spectators will be allowed there, as well as on the Donkey Green area of Box Hill.

Admission to other parts of the Box Hill circuit, as well as the rest of the route out from Central London and back including Richmond Park, will be unrestricted.

To make the increase in spectator possible, the National Trust will be carrying out a variety of works at Box Hill to protect the SSSI, supported by LOCOG and Natural England. To enable a start to be made, Zig Zag Road will be closed for a week from 30 January so that scrub can be removed safely.

The chalk grassland that will eventually replace it will ultimately provide suitable habitat for the rare orchids and butterflies long after the road races have passed.

Other works include a BT fibre optic broadband line being laid to the top of Box Hill in March, while in April, the road will be resurfaced.

Andy Wright, the National Trust Countryside Manager for Box Hill commented: "It's great news that so many people will be able to enjoy the races in this wonderful natural setting.

“The surveys conducted by LOCOG are the most thorough ever carried out on this site and will really help us manage the habitat for the long term.

"The scrub alongside the road has very few species living in it so when we remove it, it doesn't matter if people walk in those areas.

“Gradually, over the years, that land will turn into chalk grassland which is a much richer habitat - supporting around 60 to 100 species of plants, animals and insects per square metre."

Jim Smyllie, Natural England's Executive Director for Delivery, added: "Natural England has a responsibility to ensure that the wildlife on this very special site is effectively protected, and it is great news that LOCOG's survey shows that careful scrub clearance will restore degraded habitat and at the same time enable more spectators to view the thrilling road cycling events of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“The cycling road races will be world class events in world class scenery and the restoration work at Box Hill will help ensure they leave a living legacy."

London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics originally envisaged the road races starting and finishing in Regent’s Park, with the route following a circuit up Highgate West Hill, across the top of Hampstead Heath and back down to the start via Hampstead Village and Rosslyn and Haverstock Hills.

With the men’s road race taking place on the opening Saturday of the Games, however, and also being the first event in which medals will be awarded, the International Olympic Committee asked LOCOG to provide a route that would take in more of the capital’s tourist attractions and showcase the host city to millions of television viewers worldwide.

Debbie Jevans, London 2012 Director of Sport, said: "We are delighted to welcome people to watch the Olympic Road Race from the Zig-Zag Road and Donkey Green at Box Hill.

“We will give people the chance to see a generous amount of road race competition at one of the best stretches of road which we are able to do following the test event and our learnings there.

“Spectators will have a unique viewing position on the route, there is another 120km of route which is free to spectators, including some great points through London and The Royal Parks."

Reacting to the news, Brian Cookson, President of British Cycling, said: "Following the test event, both myself and UCI President Pat McQuaid made our views about the unsatisfactory arrangements on Box Hill clear to LOCOG. 

"Both before and since that time, there has been considerable input from the technical representatives of both bodies into the planning process, and I am pleased that this, together with the public and media pressure, has now resulted in a much more satisfactory situation for cycling fans than had originally been the case."

Access to Box Hill at the test event was through wristbands distributed to local residents and via British Cycling, and LOCOG says that for the Olympics, “access will be ticketed in line with London 2012 aims to provide fair access and safety at venues.”