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Richard Moore:

Power to people

Richard Moore Posted 2nd August 2012 view comments

They clambered aboard and squeezed into the too few trains heading out of London, shunting slowly past those who remained standing, forlornly, on the platforms of every station between Waterloo and Hampton Court, unable to get on.

There was no smugness felt by those lucky enough to be on the People's Olympic Express. That wouldn't have been appropriate. We were all in this together; crushed tight, arms pinned to sides, as though it was the mother of all rush hours, but with a very different mood. It wasn't someone's elbow you felt poking you in the ribs; it was the end of a flag. And you didn't really care.

People made eye contact. Some even laughed and joked with strangers. It was simultaneously the most un-British and the most British occasion imaginable, what with the Union Jacks, the Team GB and 'Wiggo' T-shirts, and the archetypal British tribute, stick-on sideburns.

At one point the coach erupted: news had come through of a first British gold medal, in the rowing. But we were on our way to witness the second, in the cycling.

It was certainly something I'll never forget. Literally the roads were lined with people not just cheering but screaming our names. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it.

Chris Froome
Quotes of the week

We spilled out at Hampton Court to be absorbed by an even bigger crowd: banks of bodies pressed against the barriers on both sides of a road that snaked through the village. It was as though it had been encrusted with people, like brown sugar around shortbread.

Was anyone left in London? Can't have been. This was an exodus, a decampment, to Surrey. "I don't consider this London," Bradley Wiggins said later, with a wry smile. "It used to be called the Home Counties."

And yet, paradoxically again, here in the Home Counties could be found the People's Olympics. This was as close as most will get to the Games, and the real beauty of it was that the time trial - men's and women's - was not some consolation event; it was the one that everybody wanted to see. It was the hottest ticket in town, and it was free.

At least, most of it was free. Only the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, which hosted the start house, and where the ceremonies were held, were ticketed. There was a smattering of people in there. It was a little sterile. The party was outside.

From the start house in the grounds of the palace the riders exited through the gates and turned a sharp left, over the bridge and into the village. The first British rider was Lizzie Armitstead, the silver medallist in Sunday's road race.

In the 90 seconds between the rider in front of her and the appearance of Armitstead the atmosphere changed, like it does before a storm. It went still and quiet. All eyes were on the soldiers by the gate, standing with their mobile phones pointing into the grounds.

When they began to move the atmosphere changed again: it was super-charged. They began clattering the London 2012 boards that lined the course. And when Armitstead was spotted, there was bedlam. A roar travelled along the line of people like a flame on a piece of rope. And it was like that the whole way round, said Armitstead after her ride. "There were no silent moments. I had Rod Ellingworth on the radio in my ear but I couldn't hear a word."

Chris Froome, who claimed a bronze medal here to follow his second place at the Tour de France, became quite emotional when he talked about the crowd. He has spent the past month or so acting as bridesmaid to Wiggins, and the same could be said of him yesterday. As though to rub it in, the first thing he was asked after the race was for an assessment of Wiggins.

And yet, while he rode, Froome was his own man, an individual not obliged to follow team orders, and he, too, was roared on. It was possibly the first time that this Kenyan-raised cyclist really felt British. "I almost expected today to be like another stage of the Tour," said Froome. "At the Tour there are lots of people by the side of the road and you cruise past them, don't really think about them.

"But this was," he paused a second, "something very different from that. It was certainly something I'll never forget. Literally the roads were lined with people not just cheering but screaming our names. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it."

As first Froome and then Wiggins came up the finishing straight, the clock confirming their bronze and gold medal-winning rides, the flame that had been lit when they left the start house reached the end of the rope and off it went: the noise was surely heard in the centre of London, if anyone remained there to hear it.

It was Wiggins who then made the gesture that confirmed him as the people's champion, and this day as the People's Olympics. Before the medal ceremony he climbed back on his bike and pedalled out of the palace grounds, through the gates, back around that tight left bend, and on to the bridge, still lined with people.

"I wanted to go and see my wife and all the people who'd come to stand on the roadside and shout for the whole thing," he said.

"We all know about Olympic ticketing..." he paused as though an internal voice was warning him not to go there. "But the great thing with cycling is that anyone can come and watch it. Like in Europe, it's accessible.

"It's a bit of a prawn sandwich fest," he continued, channelling Roy Keane and obviously meaning the Olympics and the ticketing, "so it was nice to go back outside the gates, because all the public are not allowed in. All the real fans are out there. It was a shame they couldn't see the ceremony. But it was nice to go out and roll up and down."

Warming to his theme, Wiggins pointed out that cycling is like that. "Someone out there watching will be inspired by today. This facility didn't cost anything to build or to use. They didn't even resurface the road, because it was terrible in places.

"But anyone can go and ride that circuit and pretend they're one of us. That's the great thing about cycling. Anyone can do it."

Unlike some other events, there weren't any empty seats at the People's Olympics. Or, for that matter, any empty stretches of roadside.

A seat might have been nice on the train, though.

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