Wow, just wow. Prepare to be amazed by the Rio cross-country course! It will look spectacular for all those watching on TV. It has enough questions on it to be a true test, and hopefully will suit our team well.
Today, the media had a special preview tour of the track, with course builder, France’s Pierre Michelet, and technical delegate, Alec Lochore.
Pierre says he has built a “true four-star” track. “It is difficult. All of the fences are at a maximum for FEI rules, and some are very technical.”
This is his first Olympic build, but Pierre knows what he’s doing, with 25 years in the business. He’s responsible for the four-star track at Pau, and built the course that caused so many problems at the last World Equestrian Games. He’s a former top rider who has competed at Badminton and WEG, and he was the French national champion at one stage.
His signature is having difficult fences at the start of the track, and this course is no exception, with the first major question at the first water jump, fence 4 – the Botanical Garden – which has four elements as well as an alternative that involves a fifth jumping effort. Says Pierre: “Some horses are not ready so quickly for doing such an accurate fence. The Corners Question combination is also difficult, at fence 6, as it too is very early on. If this type of fence comes at the end of the course, the horse finds them easier, but at the beginning, it is difficult for some. But it will not be too early for the good ones.”
Pierre says it’s impossible for him to predict how many clears there will be. “It’s not about numbers. I want the course challenging and exciting for the public. Riders will need to go straight through to make the time – it is a balance between losing time or having 20 penalties. The teams will have to work out their strategy and then, if the first rider has problems, the coach may have to make a decision to go the alternatives. The team strategy is important.”
The long routes require a lot of turns, as the track is narrow. Pierre says: “When I build an alternative, I try not to make it too long otherwise no one will try it. It has to be a balance. If some riders are not comfortable with the direct route, they can choose the alternative and still make a good course.”
The ground is undulating, with a mix of hills and flat sections. Pierre describes it as “perfect” and says that overall the course will suit horses who are balanced, riders who are accurate and keep their line, and who can keep their horses confident.
All of the fences are named and have been designed and decorated with local features. For example, fence 8 is the Sugarloaf, named after the iconic mountain peak at the mouth of the bay, and part of that fence depicts the trains, cable cars and mining. Still others feature tropical creatures and jungle scenes.
Huge amounts of work have gone into preparing the ground, which has an automatic watering system underground, is then spiked with sand over the top, then a layer of turf and top-dressing. There is good grass cover throughout the track.
Former Olympic medallist and now US team coach, David O’Connor, had this to say about the course: “The angles are hard. It will be quite influential and that is what we want. There are lots of long options. It is definitely an Olympic four-star. It will be a proper competition and a very good strong course, just at the right level.”
Pierre said he hadn’t yet had any feedback from riders. “The Ground Jury told me it was fantastic, but they are always polite!”
As we walked, I made notes about my impressions. Fence 6ab, the double of corners that Pierre signalled was quite a question, and has four strides going direct. The alternative is good but would add at least 10 seconds.
Fence 7 has a downhill approach, it is a good galloping fence, wide but very jumpable.
Fence 8, according to Pierre, will cost both time and energy if the alternative is taken:”You will lose 15 to 20 seconds here – it is easier to go forward. If you twist and turn you break the gallop and tire the horse.”
At 16a, there’s another jump into the water, land on flat ground, then down a slight bank, through the water then up a good-sized flagged bank, and two strides to the next jump.
There is then a big, long, uphill gallop. Fence 17a is a skinny but wide oxer, and 17b is another corner on quite an angle. The straight route should be achievable to those going forward, but the alternative will not lose too much time.
After this there is a downhill turn, and then the course starts to climb again up a slight incline to fence 18, an inviting let-up.
The next fence is straightforward enough, but then there are three or four straight strides to fence 20a, so riders will need to be accurate, and three turning strides onto 20b. The alternative is definitely easier, but would add 15-20 seconds.
Fence 21 seemed quite big, definitely at maximum, but appears to be fairly straightforward. There is quite a sharp downhill turn afterwards.
Fence 23 is the big table. If you take the longer option you would jump the table straight and then do a sharp but long turn to a brown gate at fence 24, which is upright and is one of four fences that utilise the frangible pin system. The faster route is to jump the table on an angle, and then try for possibly four turning strides to the gate. This will require an honest, forward-moving horse; not impossible but certainly a good challenge.
The next water is fence 28: a lovely boat jump to start with, landing on grass but soon into the water, and probably another two strides before reaching a jump in the water, then two strides to the b-element, followed by a curving line to a skinny, which is a lovely carved frog.
The TV cameras were being set up as we walked, and there seems to be one on every corner, at every fence, and some very sophisticated equipment being put in place. There will be some amazing footage captured for the huge television audience.
The course is supremely well built, it is decorated beautifully and the ground feels springy and very suitable. All in all, I think it is a great course; I was impressed. I hope I am still impressed when that phase is over!
There are 33 numbered fences, but a total of 45 jumping efforts, or, if you take the longer route on one fence, 46. The course is 5,840 metres long and the optimum time is 10 mins 15 seconds.