The opening weekend of the Olympics will start with a bang, showcasing the cycling road races for both women and men. The route carries riders past some of London's most notable landmarks, including a spectacular start and finish on the red bricks of The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace.
The course - while not particularly challenging compared to the fierce route featured in the 2008 Beijing Olympics - still features a number of smaller hills that may well break apart the pack and offer some challenge to the pure sprinters such as favorite Mark Cavendish from Great Britain. In order to take the gold, Cavendish (and anyone else who fancies a medal) will need to find himself in the right position in the last stretch of the race in order to take advantage of his lightning speed, which has already put him in the spotlight any number of times with his stage wins in the Tour de France and elsewhere.
After the mass start at The Mall, riders will head to Westminster before crossing the River Thames via the Putney Bridge. From there, it's off toward the southwest, to a figure-eight course through the Surrey Hills that includes Kingston-Upon-Thames, Bushy Park and Hampton Court Palace as a backdrop. This loop includes a climb around Box Hill which could further break apart the peloton (main pack of cyclists) and provide an opportunity for ambitious cyclists to launch breakaway attempts. Then following several loops around this course (nine laps for the men; two for the women), cyclists then return to central London going through Richmond Park and back over the Thames before a final anticipated sprint finish through the streets of the central London towards the finish on the The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace. The 145 male competitors will cover a total of 265km, while the 67 women riders will race over 140km.
You can view the exact course route here (via Bikely).
The riders will pass through six London boroughs - Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, Wandsworth, Richmond upon Thames, and Kingston upon Thames. Once outside the city heading into Surrey the route carries them through the districts of Elmbridge, Reigate and Banstead, Guildford, Woking and Mole Valley before returning to central London for the finish.
In the road race, a country's team may have as many as five members (four for women), and these people work together to position their strongest rider to be in a place where s/he can make a successful sprint to the finish for the victory. Spots are awarded via UCI world rankings, with secondary spots awarded through continental championships. Interesting, only road race competitors may race in the 44km time trial; there is no separate selection process or different pool of cyclists competing in this event.
The road race and time trial events are one of the few free events at the London Olympics. Other than a 2.5km portion of Box Hill reserved for ticketed spectators, the rest of the route is open to all who want to watch. The most popular portions of the course for viewing the race will likely be start/finish portion of the The Mall and certainly the Box Hill loop, where racers will pass by multiple times. You'll need to plan to get there early to secure a good spot, and you should be aware that it's a bit of a hike from the nearest train stations to Box Hill so allow plenty of time. Especially with a 10 a.m. start local time (noon for the women), this will be an early day for you if you hope to see the race. Also, special race watching sites with big screen TVs showing all the action have been organized at several locations along the route.