You can cycle for recreation, you can cycle for fitness, you can cycle for transport and, as Cadel Evans, Anna Meares and Shane Perkins have shown, you can cycle for sport. It wasn’t quite a year ago that I found out that you don’t have to be a super-fit and super-lean athlete to have enormous fun in the sport of cycling – you can read more about that here.
In this coming year at least two of my kids will be getting themselves onto their bikes and into competition, and they’ll be doing that thanks to the junior development program at the Lidcombe-Auburn Cycle Club (LACC) and the influence of Gay Chandler and Ian Watson.
Gay and Ian, both New Zealanders, started their interest in sport cycling through their kids. Ian’s son got into cycling via a team triathlon where he was the cycling member of the three-man team. After their swimmer came out of the water last, Ian’s son jumped on his Dad’s much too large bike and got their team into first position, beating state and national champions in the process. It probably wouldn’t be that surprising, therefore, to find that the lad went on to ride as a professional in Belgium.
Gay’s introduction to cycling was also through her son who wanted to take up cycling as a sport. After a year of carting him around to cycling events, she decided to jump on a bike as well and rode as a masters cyclist at Oceania and National level, picking up a good amount of silverware in the process. Given that they both came to cycling as adults, Ian and Gay have a varied cycling background.
While I don’t have the depth of experience that Ian and Gay have, it should be pretty obvious that I’m already a convert to cycling as a sport. My kids have been watching me ride for almost a year now and they’ve made friends at the race meets, ones who they want to ride against. They know that when they start racing they’ll be riding at the Lidcombe velodrome, and they have no fear of that at all. From a non-cyclist point of view, however, this is about as far from riding on the local shared user path as you can get in cycling; yet many of the kids in our club seem to start there. I asked Gay about the junior development strategy she employs with the kids at LACC.
Gay: “One of the challenges for me in getting young children into cycling, and into bike racing, is getting access to good places to train them; that’s why we started with the track. The thought of getting them out track racing, for some people, can be a little scary; putting their precious little ones onto bikes with no brakes! But if you watch those little kids on their track bikes, they’ve got amazingly good control over their bikes and good skills at quite young ages.”
“I’ve been working with some of the younger kids for about two years and it’s been interesting to watch them develop over that two year period; their bike handling skills are superb. You really can train quite a lot into them as long as you make it fun. We do lots of different challenges and we make up games within the coaching structure so they’re not just out there riding laps and counting laps. There’s all different games, like making trains or slingshot races, and they’ve all got their own names. [The kids] know what those names mean and all of those games teach different strategies; they can sit down and watch a high level race and say “They’re doing a slingshot”, or “They’ve got a train” and that means something to them that wouldn’t mean anything to a professional cyclist, but it’s the exact same thing.”
“It’s interesting when you work with the different psychologies of the different children and you have to coach around those; you have the kids who are the “grinners and winners” who, as they come over the finish line, turn to receive the photo flash, give a nice big smile and take their eyes off what’s happening and where their bikes are going. Then you have the others who, as soon as they see the finish line, just give up because they’re exhausted and then there are others who cross the finish line and immediately swerve in. There’s all these new challenges all the time working with such a young group of kids; I have to come up with different ways of meeting them.”
“[Coaching young kids] is really a trial project. When you come across to cycling at 15 and you have to ride races of 40, 45 or 50kms, most kids will go “I can’t do that” and it will turn them off. Or when they’re up against other kids who have been doing it for years and who can pump out 40 km an hour; it’s a hard sport if you come into it late (although if you come into it as an adult it’s not that bad)”.
Ian: “Our motto is “as soon as they’re out of nappies, they’re on a bike”…otherwise they end up playing soccer.”
But what if you don’t get your kids started early? Does it mean they’ll never do well in cycling?
Gay: “Well, it doesn’t really matter. It just becomes more a matter of building a longer term relationship with them and not winding up their expectations in the first year. If they want to do it and give it a go, within twelve months they can lift themselves up to be there; it’s just a lot harder if they come with low levels of fitness as well as having to learn the skills. It just takes a little longer; it’s generally easier if we can get them younger”.
Both Ian and Gay laugh as they tell me stories of particular kids and their novel racing techniques, such the girl who was mocked when she swam the first leg of a triathlon wearing floaties, but shut everyone up when she got onto the bike and won. Their laughter is good natured and their enjoyment of these experiences is genuine. If that was all there was to this story, then that would certainly be enough: great coaches create a great team; good times were had by all. Obviously, that is not all there is; what makes this story different is the Pixies – Australia’s (and possibly the world’s) only all-girl junior development team.
Gay: “It’s been interesting, working with the girls team particularly, because we really didn’t have girls in the club; we had two or three older girls in the 16’s and 19’s, and we had one under 13 that went to another club because we had no other girls. So we sat down and said “How do we get girls? What are we doing wrong? Why is this sport not appealing to girls?”, because it should appeal to girls.
For us, the key was giving them a team identity: The Pixies. We gave them something that stood out, so that when I took them out [to a race] they wouldn’t merge into the crowd. So rather than [people] seeing our group and saying “Look at that bunch of kids” they’d say “Wow, look how many girls they’ve got” and “Oh, my daughter could ride a bike too” or “I’m already here with my son, I’ve never thought about my daughter”.”
And stand out they do. Lidcombe-Auburn’s regular kit is a black jersey and knicks with a large yellow strip around the body. The Pixies have a similar kit, but with pink instead of yellow. This means they are immediately linked to the other riders in the club, but they’re recognisably different.
According to Ian: “That was the cleverest part of this strategy; you often see men riding their bikes with their sons, but what about his daughter? His attitude is often “Well, she’s just a girl”. But with the Pixies, they have the uniform, they have the bike and all of a sudden you have three in the family riding, and before long even mum is looking at riding as well. If the son doesn’t have a bike [and the daughter does] he’ll want one as well and then you also get the dad.”
Gay agrees: “Men will often buy their sons a bike but not their daughters because they don’t see girls as riders. They’ll invest in their son in the sport but not their daughter” and the Pixies approach seems to be working, “Now we’re in the reverse position where we have more girls than boys [as club juniors]. That’s taken only twelve months. It’s amazing what these girls accomplish with one training session a week and occasional rides on the weekend. They really can learn to race quite quickly.”
So by addressing the gender imbalance in junior racing, Ian and Gay have affected a whole family interest in sport cycling. This is no more obvious than when the Pixies go “on tour” to a track meet.
Gay: “At [a track meet in] Dubbo, almost all of the parents rode in the afternoon after the kids carnival. A lot of the parents had only bought track bikes that year. While they’d ridden road before, they hadn’t ridden track, but now that the kids were involved they wanted to as well. The kids had as much fun cheering for their parents as their parents had cheering for them earlier in the day. It becomes a family event.”
I’ve seen this myself in a criterium I rode in during one of LACC’s off racing weeks. The host club had no junior races scheduled until they were inundated with adult LACC riders with their kids in tow. Our club bought a whole junior race with them! As Gay quipped “That was only a third of our guys. Juniors want kids to ride with.”
The biggest problem junior cycling faces is competition from traditional team sports such as soccer, netball and cricket. Cycling simply isn’t viewed as a valid sporting option next to these sports and so choosing cycling isn’t a simple decision for parents to make.
Gay: “It takes time because we have to make a huge impact at that age and grow it upwards. Once you get this body of girls, and boys, then you have lots of people to race and what makes it more fun is to have someone to to race who’s almost at your level. It doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or a girl, or older or younger, you push against that person and then you both can grow. So it’s a numbers game for us in cycling. We need to have enough numbers to make it interesting for all the kids.”
So the question becomes, how do we get junior development like this in every club? I told Ian and Gay about when I was coaching my kids in under-6s soccer. When I volunteered for that, I had no coaching experience, but Soccer Australia (Football Federation Australia) ran a coaching clinic for all of us beginner coaches where they taught us how to coach little kids and they gave us all a coaching manual. This manual was a masterpiece of instructional design, it made putting together a season’s worth of coaching sessions so easy that anyone could do it. If that wasn’t enough, there were support videos, coaching forums and a coaching pathway if you wanted to progress your skills and knowledge. I know from talking with other parents that cricket and netball have similar schemes. Isn’t there something like this for cycling?
Gay: “Cycling is not like that, not like that at all and it’s the hardest thing that I’m always fighting with. If you look to swimming, swimming has set itself up really well and swim coaches have been paid well for a long time; it’s valued as a skill by parents and so they bring their kids along to swimming and they’re prepared to pay for it, to develop that skill in their children. Cycling hasn’t come down that pathway; coaches are completely undervalued, they’re not paid, most of them are volunteers.”
“I have the coaching skills and credentials to prepare athletes for national titles and Commonwealth games, but that’s not what I’m passionate about; I’m absolutely passionate about juniors. If they have an introduction to the sport and a pathway through the sport and a family experience in the sport their lives are so much richer in the long term.”
“In many sports, and even in cycling, you start with your athletes young and if your athlete progresses then you as a coach progress. I believe that pathway is wrong. I fundamentally believe that every coach at every age should be as good as they can possibly be, that children deserve the right to be coached by a good, qualified coach just as much as any top level athlete does.”
“Good coaches will grow good programs. Unfortunately, coaches are not connected to each other to help each other grow good programs. If you went to any club and said “Would you like a good, rich juniors program?”, they’d say “Of course we do”, but no one is helping them do that. They should be coming to us and saying “What are you doing? How are you doing it? Can you help us do it?” because if they have juniors and a good program, then that helps our juniors because it would mean more numbers and more competition.”
“Get good coaches and you’ll see cycling develop, you’ll see the programs get enriched and grow in number. You’ve got to value your coaches.”
After talking to Ian and Gay in depth, and having seen the results of their work at the Lidcombe-Auburn Cycle Club, it’s obvious that even a couple of passionate people can make a huge difference in their local community and in their sporting club. Imagine if we could find and train these people and replicate what’s happening at LACC. Imagine if we can put these people in contact with local frame builders, importers and bike recyclers and then hook all of these people up with local schools. Imagine cycling as a school sports option. Imagine road races where people sit in their front yards and cheer for the local kids for half an hour on a weekend morning. Imagine petitioning local council for permission to build a mountain bike trail or bmx track on disused land.
Imagine? It is possible, and the first step is to chain Ian and Gay to a desk or video camera and make them document everything they know. If we can get them to train the trainers and if we can get clubs to push the whole family approach to cycling, we would have a grass roots movement that would grow cycling the same way that Soccer Australia, Cricket Australia and Netball Australia have grown their sports. If we can have an Ian or Gay in every club in Australia, what a difference it would make!
If you want to get your kids into cycling as a sport, you’ll need to join a cycling club. Competitive Cycling Clubs in your area can be found through Cycling Australia. You’ll need a license, which for an under 13 is only $20 for a restricted and $66 for an open racing license, a helmet and a bike. Quite often any bike will do to start riding with and your club can help you with choosing and sourcing more suitable bikes as your child progresses. While your there, think abut racing yourself; it’s an experience you won’t forget.
Ian and Gay can be contacted through the Lidcombe-Auburn Cycle Club.
Part one of Getting Kids Into Cycling