Mountain biking not only engages young people in a physical activity, it lets them roam their local woodlands, writes Douglas Blane
MOUNTAINS ARE not strictly necessary for mountain biking which is just as well for the prospects of a pilot project at Abronhill High in North Lanarkshire. There aren't many mountains in Cumbernauld.
But on a sunny September afternoon, 20 teenagers in black helmets are belting around a wooded corner of the local glen on mountain bikes, scaring the life out of innocent bees trying to collect nectar from the purple knapweed.
"The project is part of our Active Woods campaign," says Kevin Lafferty, a health adviser with Forestry Commission Scotland. "The aim is to get people active and using their local woodlands in all kinds of ways mountain biking, cycling, walking, orienteering, adventure trails, picnicking with the kids. It's an idea we call green exercise."
As the girls who form the majority of this outdoor class illustrate, green exercise could help solve a problem facing all PE teachers teenage girls' lack of interest in activities that work up a sweat and improve their physical health. "Mountain biking really engages the girls," says Mr Lafferty. "In fact, more girls are keen to do it than boys. It's fun. It's exciting. You do it in a group."
There is evidence also of mountain biking's girl appeal from beyond Abronhill. "We had a project in Aberdeen with girls who were close to being expelled," says Mr Lafferty. "It worked really well. In Dumfries we are going into schools with mountain bike leaders and getting as much interest from girls as boys."
As Charlene Campbell (S6) waits her turn at the top of the little slope that starts the woodland circuit, she explains why she chose this optional course. "I thought it would be fun and it is. I like doing stuff.
"Getting the basic skills at school before coming out here gives you confidence. We learned how to brake so you don't fall, and practised cycling around traffic cones. Getting down that first slope is still hard, though."
Her colleague Craig Brown (S4) is regaining his confidence after a broken collar-bone sustained outside school, he says although there seems no lack of confidence or skill as he soars over jumps with plenty of fresh air between tyres and terra firma. "You can get injuries in any sport," he says. "I love this and I fancy being a sports scientist when I leave school."
Any risk of injury to youngsters is minimised by preparing them thoroughly before they hit the slopes, or even get on a bike, says principal PE teacher Bill Griffin, a keen cyclist. "We take them through checking the bike and helmet for safety. We explain the brakes and the gears. We watch them riding, to see who looks comfortable and who needs more work before we get them on the slalom courses.
"We teach the basic handling skills in a controlled way on a smooth surface for three periods before bringing them out here."
The single most important thing the youngsters then have to learn is how to read a surface, he says "just as far ahead as they can."
"We are offering this course now to senior pupils as part of the two hours of core physical education pupils at Abronhill High are lucky to get right through the school."
Funding has been provided for all the bikes, equipment and staff training at Abronhill, says Mr Lafferty, with the aim being to extend the project to two other North Lanarkshire schools and, if its success continues, to schools and after-school clubs further afield.
Teachers beyond the PE department are taking an interest. "Geography is an obvious one, since cycling gets people exploring the countryside. We are thinking about offering bike maintenance qualifications in technical departments.
"It's all about encouraging young people to get active and to improve their health. The outdoors is the best classroom you can get."
Project partners are Forestry Commission Scotland, Cycling Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust: Kevin Lafferty T 01698 368555; www.forestry.gov.ukforestry infd-76acwc