Start them young and you could nurture a world champion, says Stephen Swain Phil Norfolk would like to hear from teachers who are interested in cycling - and from someone who has money to spare. For Mr Norfolk, the development officer of the British Cycling Federation, the sport's governing body, is the organiser of the BCF Challenge, a competition for young people.
The event has just lost its main sponsor of the past four years, so Mr Norfolk is keen to get more funding. Last year's Challenge final, after regional heats, saw 160 children competing at the National Cycling Centre at Manchester velodrome. The competition covers speed, skill and "talent identification". Entrants have to complete a 1,000-metre time trial, and an obstacle course. The winners in three age groups receive a new bicycle.
The competition is run by volunteers: members of cycling clubs, road safety officials, and youth workers, as well as teachers and schools - this year's final is scheduled for Sunday, October 5 (for entry details, see panel).
Riders who are identified as speedy and having good bike-handling skills can be put in touch with clubs or coaches, including those from the mainstay of school cycling, the English Schools Cycling Association, which runs its own championships to nurture the cycling stars of the future - 1,000 pupils competed last year.
The association arose from an article teacher Noel Henderson wrote in Cycling Weekly back in 1967. While teaching at Keighley Grammar School, he had organised a school cycling club and had led pupils on cycle-touring rides. After his article, he was contacted by Peter Hopkins, a teacher at Bradford Grammar School. A meeting of like-minded teachers was held at Chesterfield College of Education, and the ESCA was born.
Mr Henderson was treasurer for most of the assocation's life, and was made president 18 months ago, following his retirement from a Cleveland comprehensive. "We brought together a large number of kids who were good at sport, but who didn't enjoy the competitive nature of some team games. Cycling helped them because it was more individual," he recalls.
Today, he is concerned by the paucity of funds for school cycling. "We operate on a shoestring," he says. As well as a minuscule Pounds 2,000 grant from the British Cycling Federation, the association has a Sports Council grant, funding from the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, and various donations and legacies. National Lottery cash would seem like an obvious addition, but Mr Henderson is quick to point out that such money is for capital projects rather than revenue - and the association's main need is to cover its running costs.
Mr Henderson is also secretary of the National Council for School Sport. He says that there is a move to make the junior governing bodies of all sports independent of their senior counterparts. This could help ESCA's funding in the long term, he believes.
The association gave many top riders their first taste of competition, including Roger Hammond, the former junior world cyclo-cross champion. Noel Henderson also recalls Paul Curran, an ESCA champion who went on to be a Commonwealth Games medallist and won many events in the sport's several disciplines.
But the association's most famous old boy has to be Chris Boardman, the 1996 world pursuit champion and Tour de France stage-winner, who also holds the world hour record. In 1984, the young Merseysider was the ESCA's over-15 time trial champion, setting a blistering pace of almost 30 mph over 10 miles - a record that still stands.
David Bishop, another ESCA stalwart, was organiser of the event at which Boardman excelled. He also laments the lack of funding for youngsters, and points to the differing attitudes in Europe. "They start much younger on the Continent. In Holland there are cycling clubs with facilities and circuits suitable for five-year-olds. Older children are offered tracks with gyms, a cafe area, facilities as good as many soccer clubs.
"Here, no one's got the money - the only big money has gone to the Manchester velodrome, which is a venue developing elite athletes, but not helping kids. As racing secretary I spent Pounds 35,000 last year, but the majority of that came from the kids themselves. My 17-year-old daughter races, but if it comes to taking her on a 200-mile round trip to an event, I can't afford it."
Even with limited resources, there are still things that can be done to make cycling interesting for pupils, particularly younger ones. Mr Bishop, who lives in Hull, says he needs only 30 square metres to allow pupils to practise their bike skills: a slalom course can be set out using empty plastic bottles, then pupils can practise picking them up while riding, or braking to a halt at a set point, or going under a set of "limbo bars".
Safety is paramount: all riders must wear helmets, and have parental consent. Teachers should check that the school or local authority insurance will provide accident cover.
The association also trains teachers in giving cycling instruction, including a mountain-bike leader's course. Geoff Greenfield, ESCA's coaching chief, says: "When teachers return from our two-day course, they will be capable of riding for two to three hours at a time, and be able to tackle any problems that might arise with a group. They would be taught how to fix mechanical problems such as a broken chain or a buckled wheel. They must have a first-aid certificate before being able to lead a ride, and we also teach them the off-road skills they might need."
The next courses will be in Manchester on March 22-23 and the Isle of Wight on April 12-13.
* Details of the BCF Cycling Challenge from: British Cycling Federation, National Cycling Centre, 1 Stuart Street, Manchester M11 4DQ.Tel: 0161 223 2244.
* Cyclists' Touring Club,69 Meadrow, Godalming,Surrey GU7 3HS. Tel: 01483 417217.
* British Cyclo-Cross Association,14 Deneside Road, Darlington,Co Durham DL3 9HZ. Tel: 01325 482052.
* English Schools Cycling Association secretary, Susan Knight, 21 Bedhampton Road, North End, Portsmouth, PO2 7JX.Tel: 01705 642226.
* Details of instructor courses for teachers from Geoff Greenfield (ESCA) Tel: 01703 391286.