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August 02 2012

Day one in the Olympic velodrome: a symphony of noise, colour and speed

World records fall but a disqualification mars Team GB's day as £93m super-fast cycling stadium opens for business

The saddle-shaped Olympic velodrome simmered into life just after 4pm on Thursday.

Polite applause echoed around the wood-clad oval when the first Olympic record fell to the Netherlands women's sprint pair.

But the real baptism for the venue, designed with the help of Sir Chris Hoy – who won his fifth gold medal – came shortly after.

A tinnitus-inducing clamour greeted the arrival of the jet black bikes of the Team GB riders Victoria Pendleton and Jessica Varnish.

Just 32.526 seconds later and the high pitched screams turned into a throaty roar as Varnish dipped for the line, punched the air and a partisan crowd in the 6,000-capacity stadium saluted a new world record.

The £93m velodrome was in business, and as if to remove any doubt that all the world's best riders would be happy here and Team GB would not enjoy much home advantage, China's pair smashed the world record again just a minute later.

Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge were among the fans who took their seats in the clammy 28C heat which is kept constant to achieve top speeds.

The aim of track designer Ron Webb to build the fastest track in the world was being achieved. And by the time the men's team took to the track it was starting to feel like a potential British stronghold.

The announcer did not hesitate to play The Boys are Back in Town as soon as Hoy, Philip Hindes and Jason Kenny beat Germany in their team sprint heat.

Later, as the Team GB pursuit team hurtled around the 250m oval to a thumping heartbeat soundtrack at an average speed of 62kmh (38mph), the cheer followed them like an audible Mexican wave until they broke the world record and the place erupted.

The noise produced was only eclipsed when Hoy led the GB sprint team home in the last race of the day to snatch gold from the French and smash a world record of their own.

The venue has a friendly sociable air, with hundreds of fans milling about on the mezzanine alongside the riders' families – chatting and drinking beer while the tyres hum on the steeply banked track below.

Before each race a montage of British celebrities appeared on the big screens hushing the crowd, ending with Dame Helen Mirren saying: "Button it."

In architectural terms, the velodrome has already been acclaimed by many as the design highlight of the Olympic Park, winning awards and plaudits for its simplicity and elegance.

"We worked very hard to make this building as elegant and efficient as a bicycle," said its architect Michael Taylor.

On Thursday, the cycling fans who were lucky to get seats in one of the Olympic Park's smallest venues gave it their seal of approval.

"It is one of the best velodromes in the world," said Michael Pagels, a 53-year old from near Munich who was supporting the German team. "The atmosphere is wonderful because the British fans are very knowledgeable about cycling."

With the athletes, technicians and coaches visible to the crowd at all times on the in-track labyrinth of warmup areas, spectators were able to keep tabs on Team GB riders' every move and could watch Dave Brailsford, the shrewd team chief, fulminating at the decision to disqualify Pendleton and Varnish.

"Up there the noise was really loud," said David Henderson, 30, a researcher from London who was attending his first Olympic event.

"When they were discussing the disqualification we saw the coach walk across head in hands, throwing a water bottle around. It was good to see for us."


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Bradley Wiggins on his Olympic throne – a reminder of Britain's true history | Jonathan Jones

This picture hints at something that was missing from Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony: empire

The 2012 Olympics began with a vision of British history. Danny Boyle's romantic panorama started in a pastoral land of shepherds, then showed it torn apart by the rising chimney stacks of the industrial revolution. But out of this pandemonium rose the suffragettes, marching for the vote, and the wonder that is the National Health Service.

Five days into the Games, and Bradley Wiggins was pictured here on a golden throne in front of Hampton Court Palace. Wiggins sprawls on his throne for photographers after winning his gold medal in the cycling time trial. He paid this royal palace the ultimate insult of apparently not knowing where he actually was – "wherever we are", he told interviewers. This picture might be seen as a sequel to Boyle's imaginary revolution. The people have occupied the palaces! Comrade Wiggins sits on the tsar's throne!

And yet, the red bricks of the mighty building behind King Bradley tell another story. As Olympic events take place at evocative locations across southern England, there is some consolation for Tory critics who suspected Boyle's extravaganza might – just might – be a little leftwing in its none-too-hidden messages. While Boyle celebrated a people's history of Britain, Olympic locations like Hampton Court, not to mention the Eton rowing lake, offer a toffs' history after all. As Wiggins celebrates his medal in this picture, the warm ochre facade of Henry VIII's palace bears quietly formidable witness to who really built Britain.

Boyle's vision of Albion imagined a Britain where folk shared the common land before the rise of those "dark Satanic mills". But Hampton Court is a monument to the powerful state built by the Tudors centuries before the first factories appeared. This grand house, originally built for Cardinal Wolsey, became one of a constellation of royal palaces along the Thames. Here Henry received his advisers. Here, according to folklore, walk the ghosts of his executed wives.

Hampton Court is as much a wonder as Wiggins is – and it tells a story of Britain just as spectacular as the one Danny Boyle crafted. The ancient wall behind the triumphant cyclist has terracotta portraits of the caesars embedded into it. Within the palace itself are Mantegna's paintings of power and glory, The Triumphs of Caesar. Why all the caesars? In Mantegna's paintings – bought for Britain by Charles I – defeated prisoners are brought to Rome as slaves while their goods are booty. It is an image of imperial triumph. And here's the real absence in Boyle's vision of Britain: we had the biggest empire in world history.

Britain's wealth did not start with the steam engine. It started with empire. The British empire was imagined in Tudor times, as Hampton Court's caesars show. When Henry VIII was desperate to divorce his wife and the Pope said no, Henry's scholars "proved" Britain had always been an empire since ancient times. A dangerous idea was born. By the end of the Tudor age tentative colonists were braving the wilds of north America. Plantations in Virginia prospered in the 1600s on the back of slavery. Britain's slave empire was driven by an appetite for sugar not only among the rich but among the innocent ordinary white people so celebrated by Boyle, too.

The strong, centralised monarchical government so long established in Britain enabled it to rule a global empire without any pressure on its internal social fabric. Essentially, the British are not Boyle's nation of protest but a docile people who celebrated their royals while the French and later Russians were executing theirs, and who enjoyed the wealth of empire with few questions or scruples.

Maybe this picture holds within it not a Tory so much as a pessimist's history of Britain. Are we really a nation of rebels and visionaries? Or are we lost in Hampton Court's Maze, our present and future bamboozled by a royal and imperial heritage?


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July 30 2012

Richard Long's cycling art shows British landscape at its best

The UK artist's 'river' of paint along the road-cycling track in Surrey pays tribute to the beauty of the Olympics' British setting

If you enjoyed the Olympic cycling road races at the weekend and cheered Britain's first silver medal for Lizzie Armitstead, you may have noticed a curious graffiti painted on one stretch of the road. It is, in fact, a permanent work of art that will serve as a landscape legacy of one the first sports in this year's Olympics. It is called Box Hill Road River and was created by the British artist Richard Long.

In the middle of the night, Long poured paint in a continual squiggly line for 100 metres along the road. You can see him doing it here. Usually, Long paints with mud, but here he has used road paint, making a continuous, rolling, flowing gesture – a "river" of paint, as the title calls it.

Long's art is all about landscape, the human body and movement, so cycling is a natural sport for him to ornament. The epic journey of the road-race cyclists out of London and around Box Hill is similar to Long's walking artworks. Since the 1960s, he has embarked on walks through landscapes, from forbidding mountains to English valleys, making non-obstrusive artworks (such as arrangements of sticks) along the way, and documenting each walk in photographs and texts. Painting with mostly natural materials is another side of his reflection on the human place in the landscape. His Olympic road painting in Surrey is a primeval marking, akin to the chalk figures carved on British hillsides in its quiet mystery.

Box Hill is itself a marker of landscape, a land-mark. In the 18th century, when people were just starting to see Britain as "picturesque", it was thought to be quite a mountain. One of the earliest British landscape paintings is called A View of Box Hill, Surrey. It was painted by George Lambert in 1733 and is in the Tate collection. In this picture, Box Hill is a mighty mass rising above a golden countryside against a luminous sky. The most famous portrayal of this landmark is, however, literary – a disastrous day out on Box Hill in Jane Austen's 1815 novel Emma.

All very British, and the cycle races this weekend served, like Long's art, to make us see the landscape. It looked great, didn't it? In the summer rain, Surrey was deep green. As Olympic events take place against British landmarks, we are getting a great view of our land.


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July 26 2012

Take a virtual tour of the Olympic Park

Fly through the Olympic Park and explore the main venues using our immersive photographic tour. Discover hidden photographs, galleries and videos by clicking on the venues within the aerial panorama





February 01 2011

Unsung hero: the Olympic velodrome

There is so much noise surrounding other permanent facilities that the success of the velodrome is in danger of being overlooked

Sir Chris Hoy can uncross his legs. The lavatory he asked for is exactly where he wants it to be, close to the track at the Olympic velodrome, ready for riders who feel the need to answer a last-minute call of nature before tightening their toe straps for the pursuit or the keirin at the 2012 Games.

In the Tour de France the competitors can just hop off the bike on some deserted country road, or even pull down their shorts and irrigate the scenery as they freewheel along. Such relief is hardly possible in a crowded velodrome, making Sir Chris's khazi just one of the impressive details to be found in a structure that threatens to give the London Games a good name.

So much noise continues to be made about the scandals surrounding other permanent facilities in the Olympic park – notably the uncertain future of the main stadium and the outrageous £180m cost overrun on the aquatic centre – that the success of the velodrome is in danger of being overlooked. Here is an arena that was properly planned, properly costed and delivered on time, to specification, and within its £90m budget. So it can be done.

The building was 24 hours away from being handed over to the organisers as a finished article when I was shown around the other day. To get there, a visitor to the Lee Valley park passes by the unremarkable main stadium, its looks compromised by the absence of the "wrap" intended to provide its visual signature but cancelled in order to save £7m on a building costing almost £500m, and the swimming pool, an aesthetic disaster thanks to the need to flank Zaha Hadid's surprisingly unremarkable core design with two temporary grandstands in order to bring its capacity up to Olympic requirements.

Then the eye falls on the swooping roof of the velodrome, rising elegantly at its two ends to echo the banked turns inside and supported by exterior walls of warm red cedar, a hint of the wooden piste itself. Here is something of genuine beauty, an elegant example of form following function.

You might have guessed that it was designed by a cyclist. Mike Taylor, a senior partner at Hopkins Architects, a practice noted for creating the canopied Mound stand at Lord's, led the design team. He rides, which helped him to listen with a sympathetic ear to Hoy's suggestions, such as the request to ensure that the opening of the main spectator access doors does not create a cold draught for the riders (the solution involved industrial "air curtains"). Hoy also asked for the design to incorporate seating around the top of the banked ends to create an unbroken wave of noise as the riders circulate.

Ron Webb, an Australian former champion who specialises in track design, created the piste itself from 54km of Siberian pine. Shipped from Archangel, sawn into narrow strips in a German mill, it is secured with 360,000 nails into a 250m ribbon that rears at either end into a 42-degree banking. Previously responsible for the Manchester and Sydney velodromes, Webb reportedly reckons that this is one on which records will be broken.

I'm going on about this because so many big building projects in Britain invite scorn for their flaws of design and execution, and in the case of sporting arenas for their farcically inept legacy planning, too. I was tagging along with a visiting party from the Save the Herne Hill Velodrome organisation, a group dedicated to preserving the 450m shallow-banked concrete track used in the 1948 Games, for whom Taylor has created a striking set of plans to ensure the south London track's rescue from its present state of dilapidation and its revival not just as a centre for community and schools use but, as the architect puts it, "for getting people started on the way to the high end of the sport".

Herne Hill looks as though it is going to survive. And so will the 2012 velodrome: a building which, whatever the fate of its troubled neighbours, will in time become a perfect, much loved monument to whatever achievements it may witness.


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July 27 2010

How Boris let Barclays brand London

The mayor's deal has smothered London's public spaces with what may be the largest piece of corporate branding in existence

London's long-awaited cycle-hire scheme is launched this week. While there's no doubt it's a valuable addition to the capital's public transport options, it strikes yet another blow to the idea of London as a dignified city. First of all, there's the name. Paris has the Velib, Montreal has the Bixi; what does London get? Barclays Cycle Hire. Clearly the good people at Barclays marketing thought long and hard about that one.

Maybe it's not worth getting too wound up about the name – selling the rights to popular institutions is unlikely to make anyone who watches, say, the Barclays Premier League or the Npower Championship even blink. What is new, however, is the prospect of more than a hundred kilometres of the capital's road surface being branded with corporate livery. The city's new dedicated cycle lanes – two of which recently opened, with another ten to come before the Olympics – are called "Barclays Cycle Superhighways" and painted Barclays blue.

London can now claim the dubious honour of hosting what is surely the largest piece of corporate branding in existence. It's not just the scale, the mind-blowing square footage, that is shocking about this – it's the principle. We're not talking about some supersized billboard here: we're talking about the mayor selling off the very road beneath our wheels – one of the few parts of a city that counts indisputably as public space. Whether they realise it or not, whether or not they even care, from now on thousands of cyclists are doomed to commute on a giant Barclays ad.

The sponsorship deal, worth £25m, has been presented as a coup for Boris Johnson. It has enabled him to recover some of the £140m Transport for London spent on the cycle-hire scheme and has even been presented as "payback" for the mayor's support of the banks during the credit crunch. Surely, however, £25m is a small price to pay for such an invasive piece of branding? If a city of the global stature of London can't afford to provide rental bikes without turning its urban fabric into a massive endorsement, we're in trouble.

There is something, too, in the gibes suggesting this is not just Barclays blue but Tory blue. Neither New Labour nor former mayor Ken Livingstone did anything to prevent the growing privatisation of the city, but it is hard to imagine Livingstone selling off a chunk of the public realm in such brazen fashion. Johnson seemingly lacks any sensitivity to the ethical or aesthetic side-effects of his deal-making – this is, after all, the man who condemned the Stratford Olympics site to a hideous 115m-high sculpture – precisely the kind of vainglorious ego trip the Olympics can do without – based on a 45-second chat with Britain's richest man in the cloakroom at Davos. We must be careful not to assume a loss of innocence; private ownership and interests have held sway in this city for centuries, and often cooperation between private and public bodies is the best way to meet the city's needs. However, the public realm that the Victorians handed over to municipal authorities to manage in the public good – including streets and pavements, squares, and infrastructure such as transport and sewage networks – has been under steady assault since the privatisation of the Thatcher years.

A decade ago, Naomi Klein argued in her book No Logo that we had reached a point where it seemed nothing could happen anymore without a corporate sponsor. The inevitable upshot of their growing social power was that brands wanted an expanded visual presence. T-shirt logos and media advertisements were no longer enough: branding had to be a fully immersive experience. As the superhighways prove, there is no amount of space a brand will not happily fill, with public bodies all too willing to hand it over. TfL is becoming ever more imaginative about the bits of Tube stations it will sell off to advertisers – including, now, the space between escalators and the gates of the exit barriers. Every year the Regent Street Christmas lights, once a public gesture organised by the Regent Street Association, turn a major thoroughfare into a 3D advert for some fashion label or blockbuster movie.

Increasingly entire pieces of London have become brands in their own right, a process that began in the 1980s with the privately owned Canary Wharf development. Since then, so-called "business improvement districts" have been popping up all over the capital under the banner of regeneration: Broadgate in the City, Paddington Basin, Kings Cross Central, the new Spitalfields Market, the More London development near Tower Bridge. It's a national phenomenon, too, exemplified by "malls without walls" such as Liverpool ONE or Brindleyplace in Birmingham. They might look like other parts of the city, but they are very different. Stroll through Broadgate and you'll notice the logo of developer British Land studding the pavements. These are privately owned developments, policed by private security guards who can throw you out for the slightest misdemeanour or – if you happen to be sleeping rough, say – simply for disrupting the projection of affluence. In the case of More London – a series of sterile glass blocks set amid some rather uptight landscaping on the South Bank – the very name is a deliberate deception. The developers are trying to claim this is just an ordinary piece of the city. Don't believe it.

Anyone who wants to find out more about the insidious privatisation of British cities should read Anna Minton's latest book, Ground Control. The point is that we are in danger or running out of unbranded space. Though it may seem innocuous, the branding of cycle lanes sets an all-too-exploitable precedent. As citizens we have a communal birthright, which includes the public realm. Our representatives are supposed to protect that – not sell it off to corporations who are neither responsible nor accountable for the spaces of which they claim symbolic ownership. Politicians seem only too ready to turn our cities into horizontal billboards. If we're not vigilant, the urban landscape is going to become a brandscape.


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