Let’s do some simple maths: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are around 3.75 million school students in Australia spread between 9,400 schools. Although there are some big schools and some small schools, the average primary school enrolment is around 280 students and the average high school enrolment is around 560 students. Now imagine that each primary school had 10 – 20 serious cycling students in it, a team if you will, and each high school had 30-40 cyclists in their team. That’s 9,000 teams of kids doing two wheeled school sports every week across the country. Imagine what a difference that would make to the health of the nation. Imagine how that would change the nature of cycling in Australia. Is this possible? Both Stelio Pappas and Gary Fisher believe it is.
You probably know who Gary Fisher is – he’s the California based cycling guru and father of mountain biking, as well as being a fashion icon. Stelio Pappas is the Sydney based father of 3 young girls and winner of the iconic Fat Man’s Wheel Race at RAW Track in 2012; his fashion sense is not worth commenting on. Gary and Stelio don’t know each other, but they have a very similar mission.
Gary Fisher, through his association with Trek, is promoting NICA, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which has grown from 700 students across two states in 2009 to having over 10,000 cycling students in 19 cycling leagues across 18 states. Trek have promised a dollar from every Bontrager tyre sold to NICA, a deal that could provide up to $1,000,000 over the next 5 years. Gary Fisher, ever the friend of cycling of any type, is promoting this input wherever and whenever he can. All in all, it’s a very good thing.
In the antipodes, Stelio, with his hard working band of dedicated parents and junior cycling coaches, along with a gaggle of smiling kids, is trying to do the same sort of thing without the benefit of big dollar sponsorship or international celebrity. Their organisation, Junior Cyclist, is currently running an Interschool Cycling Cup as well as a Student Championship. Kids nominate their school when they sign up for a race and build points for their school in a year long series of events. A perpetual trophy is awarded to the primary and secondary school with the most points at the end of the season. Participants can also compete in a the Student Championship, which this year will be held on the 25th of September.
“In our first season, we started with 17 schools signed up in May and now we’re at 40 schools and counting.” says Junior Cyclist organiser, Stelio, “We don’t rely on schools to come to us, we get kids who are keen on cycling and they often bring their school friends along with them. That’s a school team, and we want all their friends to join them on that team.”
Stelio is a cycling fanatic and Junior Cyclist has made it easy to make more cycling fanatics. “Getting into the sport is easy with no special licence required [for Junior Cyclist events]. Insurance and registration is covered as part of the cost of entry. The Interschool competition is open to anyone. Riders don’t need fancy kit to be competitive. Any bike in working order and Australian Standards helmet will do. Our events are graded by ability, so having the fancy bikes doesn’t help much. You can do it tough in C grade on an ordinary bike, or do it tough in B or A grade on a fancy bike. Nobody cares, so long as everyone is doing their best and having fun,” continues Pappas. “We have a great mix of riders who are new to cycling in the entry level grades and experienced racers in the higher grades. Riders get a chance to move through the grades as their confidence and ability improve.”
I’ve known Stelio for years, he showed me how to ride a track bike and taught me about racing so I know what type of bloke he is. Stelio and the other volunteers who make up Junior Cyclist are all passionate about junior cycling and totally sincere in their mission. Interestingly, they have made it a point to promote cycling as a sport of equality: “Cycling isn’t a boy’s sport or a girl’s sport. We’re proud that we’ve achieved gender parity within a few percent. Our participation rates tip in favour of the girls as often as it does the boys.” Junior Cyclist members are also involved in all types of cycling; mass participation rides such as the Spring Cycle, track and road championships, mountain biking, and BMX. They even find time for gentle social rides through Sydney Olympic Park.
The annual Student Championship and the monthly Schools Cup events allow kids to ride in a competitive environment, without the competition. According to Stelio, “When the kids race, they’re not racing against each other, they’re riding with their friends and racing against themselves. We track the kid’s PBs [personal bests] in the time trials and beating that time gets as many points as an overall race win, and we give points in other events down to tenth place for the schools cup. It’s all about rewarding participation and improvement.”
At the moment, Junior Cyclist is only operating in Sydney but is looking to expand their concept wherever they can. Like weekend soccer or netball, cycle sports involve afternoon skills training sessions and monthly weekend competitions. Kids are also welcome to join a regular Cycling Australia club (Junior Cyclist is heavily affiliated with the Australian Time Trial Association, but JC members can join any cycling club) and participate in Cycling Australia events. Several Junior Cyclist kids are actually state age group champions on the road and the track, while others are still on balance bikes – they all come together to ride in a family supported environment.
I can easily see a day in the future, and hopefully not too far way, when Stelio and Gary Fisher will be sitting down with each other organising an International School Cycling Cup, a student exchange program, or even just a sausage sizzle with a bike race in the middle. I would personally love to see cycling as popular as soccer as a kid’s sport and the Junior Cyclist approach might just make that happen.
Details about Junior Cyclist can be found at juniorcyclist.org.au, and information on the Interschool Cycling Cup and the 2016 Student Championships can be found at interschoolcycling.org.au.
Photos courtesy of Alex Cyreszko from CyKo Photography