Cycle repair venture takes off
When Highland police suggested donating unclaimed bikes to Alness Academy, no one could have imagined the idea would grow into a small industry.
"When we were offered the lostproperty bikes, at first we wondered what we were going to do with them," says the school's effervescent head of PE, Jill Sharp. "Then we thought we could do them up and sell them.
"They started coming in from Dingwall and now we get them from Fort William, Alness and Tain too - we've got heaps of them," says Mrs Sharp, surveying an array of bicycles awaiting renovation in the school's cycle shed.
Some may be scrapped, others will be used for spare parts and the best will be refurbished by the team of pupil mechanics and sold on to pupils, staff and local people, usually for pound;5 to pound;10.
Mrs Sharp never does things by halves and this thriving cycle-repair business now supports and inspires a huge range of cycling activities under the umbrella of the school's bike group "Recycle". As well as improving pupils' fitness, their cycling ventures have involved some business skills - setting up a bank account and learning how to record their income and expenditure.
The bike club started three years ago with a group of keen mountain bikers meeting once a week after school to practise skills and race. Since then, the number of cyclists has doubled to enjoy an impressive calendar of competitive races and fundraising events.
This morning, three of the school's most enthusiastic cyclists are braving a raw wind to demonstrate their manoeuvres on a challenging-looking skills track in the school grounds. It's muddy and bumpy and they're performing tricks that make you fear for their front teeth.
Some have had their fair share of scrapes: "Suspected broken back, suspected broken neck - I've not broken a bone - but that's the worst injuries," says 16-year-old mechanic John Allison.
Even this harsh winter cannot dampen their enthusiasm. Terry Kemp braves all weathers, unless the snow's too deep to get through. "I like this a lot better than other things," says Terry, 15. "I hate football; I prefer the bike to anything else."
The boys have a lot of time for Mrs Sharp, probably because she loves bikes too and doesn't talk down to them. She hasn't had quite so much success convincing girls, though; they just don't seem to get that whole muddy-bike-careering-down-mountains thing.
"I took them to Carbisdale Castle and there's some tracks up there, not difficult tracks. First hill - off, off," says Mrs Sharp. "Then going round the corners, they're screaming. I said `Did you not think that was really good fun?" They didn't.
"It's the getting dirty and sweaty bit. It's hard going - cycling uphill is hard. It's all right on the flat, though; they don't mind that," says Jill who's now on a mission to win them over.
The girls prefer indoor cycling - winter spin classes on stationary bikes, which Mrs Sharp runs for pupils and staff colleagues.
The Alness Academy passion for bikes is now catching on beyond the school gates, with plans for a new medium-ability track in a nearby park. Two local firefighters join pupils on weekend trips and one of the mums helps out, along with a volunteer from Careers Scotland who works on the mechanical side.
Later this year, all new first-years will take a basic bike-maintenance course, with help from senior pupils who recently passed a two-day Weldtech Silver Mechanic course. Two boys visit a primary school to maintain children's bikes and encourage new young blood into cycling.
Word on their mechanical skills is spreading - now local people appear at school with broken bikes, looking for the team of mechanics. The boys wear distinctive red boiler suits and do repairs and servicing over lunchtime and after school - profits help fund trips away. Their ventures have also been helped by a grant of nearly pound;2,500 for tools and spares from Firstsport and Scotland UnLtd.
Steven Baikie, 15, says he enjoys the freedom and the fitness. "It's faster than walking. And it's liberating - you can do what you like when you're cycling and get over any terrain. And with the bike repairs, it means that we know what we're doing and we can repair our own bikes when something goes wrong."
This year, the school will enter a team in the British "10 Under The Ben" 10-hour, mountain-bike marathon and compete in the Highland Schools race competitions. There are also plans to service the Spin Cycles in the local leisure centre and to bring on board an NHS nutritionist to help the cyclists increase their awareness of healthy eating. Keen cyclists will also take part in the new "Go" cycle scheme award.
Another development is for pupils to attend first-aid courses - which sound as if they may come in useful for Mrs Sharp too. "I don't know how many times I've been over the handle bars. Oh yes, I've got some good scars," she laughs.
Jean McLeish email@example.com.