For maths teacher Ian Drake, the road to children's health and fitness is covered on a bicycle. His school cycling club has dozens of pupils hooked and some have gone on to national championships. Simon Childs joins the tour for a day.
Every January, gyms throughout the land are temporarily filled to bursting by armies of couch potatoes who have resolved that this is the year they will finally reverse the effects of half a lifetime's indolence. But, as any behavioural psychologist will tell you, good habits start young, and the key to lifelong fitness is to take part in an activity you enjoy. Which is where Ian Drake comes in.
The Derbyshire teacher's answer is to get young backsides off the sofa and on to the saddle of a bike - and the children love it. Mr Drake teaches maths at Frederick Gent school, a mixed 11-16 comprehensive in South Normanton, a run-down former mining town tucked away on the eastern edge of Derbyshire. For the past six years, he has also been running the school cycling club, and has become closely involved in national schemes to nurture children's love of cycling.
"The sport is great for kids," he says. "Not everyone's good at football, but nearly all children have bikes. I've seen children who perhaps lack confidence - they've come to the club, seen what they can achieve and have really flowered."
Thanks largely to Mr Drake's efforts, the school has attracted generous funding, including a pound;3,200 lottery grant for bikes and a cross-country course round the edge of the playing fields. And Frederick Gent pupils have been competing - and winning - in local, regional and national championships. More importantly, hundreds of children have had a whole load of fun learning skills that will improve their safety on the road and, with any luck, set them up in an activity they will enjoy for the rest of their lives.
Mr Drake's own passion for cycling started at university. At Loughborough he met other cyclists, and by the time he had qualified in maths and PE, he also had a cycle coaching qualification. When he started at Frederick Gent in 1993, he asked if anyone was interested in joining his weekend mountain bike rides. They were. The first week four pupils turned up. "The next week four had turned into eight, then eight turned into 12 and it went on and on until it just got ridiculous."
Recognising the enthusiasm that was not being met by local clubs, and increasingly concerned about the safety aspects of looking after a large group of inexperienced riders, Mr Drake decided to set up something more formal. "With so many turning up, we had to look at a new way without having large group rides on the road. The easiest option was to create something that could be delivered in school - on the playing field or car park."
The evening training sessions were open to all local children and became an immediate success. "In spring 1994, we gave talks to our feeder primaries," says Mr Drake. "We thought getting some of the primary children over would help them get to know the school. The next session 80 or 90 kids turned up. The youngest was just three, and still riding with stabilisers."
Numbers have since levelled out at 30 to 40, of which about 75 per cent are Frederick Gent pupils. Initial funding came from the pupils themselves - who sponsored Mr Drake to ride the gruelling Three Peaks cyclo-cross race - and from the parent teachers' association, which paid for some of the kit. But to make sure as many children as possible can take part, Mr Drake insists all sessions are free. "Some people reckon that devalues it," he says. "But this is a poor area. If they hadto pay, many of these kids just wouldn't be able to come."
He says the value of the cycling club extends into other areas of school life. "It helps build relationships with pupils. Some kids can be trouble; some have been temporarily excluded. You come here and you wouldn't know they were the same children. This gives them something they enjoy that is linked to the school. And by not pushing them too early, I hope they will come to see cycling as a way of life. Lifelong experience is what it's about, rather then being a champion."
Nevertheless, the school does produce champions. Philip Dougall, now in Year 11, won the 1998 British national under-14 cyclo-cross championship. Former pupil Andrew Naylor was the 1997 British Schools Cycling Association over-15 mountain bike champion, and Mr Drake's two daughters, Stephanie and Felicity, who both ride for the school club, have won BSCA national best all-rounder titles. In 1998 the school was also best all-rounder in the BSCA competition.
On the day of my visit - the club's first session of the year - 30 pupils (about one in four of them girls) have turned up on all sorts of machines, and everyone is keen. Wayne apologises for being late, but he's been out on his bike - doing his paper round. Another pupil warns, "I'm not very good, Sir," but gives the final race - three circuits of the course - her best shot. Another two girls have come to watch, and promise they'll be bringing their bikes next week.
After a thorough safety check of equipment, pupils are split into groups and play games that build confidence and technique - riding under "limbo poles", picking up water bottles without dismounting, or slalom-riding in pairs on a steep camber ("How might the weather affect this?" asks Mr Drake). The emphasis is firmly on bike handling skills, rather than doing long, punishing rides, the staple of many amateur clubs. Most sessions end with a mini-race, and although there is an element of competition, everyone is made to feel like a winner.
Mr Drake has developed a set of training materials that can be adapted by other schools, whatever their available resources, and the Frederick Gent club is being used as a model for national coaching schemes. Two years ago, Mr Drake was one of three educational consultants employed by the British Cycling Federation to advise on its Impruve Get Setscheme for coaching primary children. And since September he has been seconded to the federation for one day a week to work onits Level 2 qualification for training peoplewho want to work with older children and adults.
Even though Mr Drake, along with his wife, Rayna, and other coaches from the local Ashfield Road Club give their time free, the costs of competing, with race entry fees at about pound;2 a time, can be prohibitive. But Mr Drake tries to ensure everyone can take part. Here, Frederick Gent has a definite advantage. The school was built in the Fifties, with an attached community centre. In 1994 the then headteacher turned it into a self-supporting business centre. It is hired out for conferences, meetings and adult education (including, of course, BCF coach training courses), with any profits ploughed back into school activities, including pupils' race entry fees. Last summer, it also gave Mr Drake pound;750 to kit pupils out in bright yellow Frederick Gent cycling jerseys. The Prince's Trust and the Impruve scheme, a collaboration between the BCF and the Prudential assurance company, have also been vital sources of income.
Mr Drake says the biggest headache at the moment is finding a sponsor for the club website, which for the past few months has been taking up about five hours a week of his time. In fact, since September, Mr Drake has been "absolutely up to my neck in it".
So how does he manage to fit it all in, on top of the teaching, the marking, his own racing and the demands of a family of three children with another due in May? "I try to do most of the fundraising in the winter," he says, "leaving the summer free for coaching, but I daren't add up all the hours I've spent. It's frightening."
He recognises, though, that he couldn't do it "without the support of my wife and our headteacher". Rayna, who is also a maths teacher at the school, says some people might describe her as a "cycling widow", but laughs as she describes Ian rushing off to pick up the e-mails generated by the website "the minute we've put the youngest to bed".
And headteacher Mike Ainsley gives unqualified praise: "It's good for the kids, good for community involvement and good for the school," he says. "Some of these children can be difficult. The cycling sessions help build their self-esteem and mean school is not just a place they come to get told off. It gives kids who perhaps don't succeed in the classroom a chance to say 'I did that'. It's also given us national recognition. We're lucky to have lots of teachers, like Ian, who go the extra mile as a matter of course."
In fact, the only dark cloud on the horizon for Frederick Gent is Mr Drake's full-time secondment to the BCF. From the end of this month until September 2001 he will be working with the federation on a scheme to spot and nurture young talent for professional racing. But again, Mr Ainsley gives his blessing - even though, when Rayna Drake goes off on maternity leave, he will be two maths teachers short. "The BCF is covering his salary," he says, "and it's a great form of professional development."
The young riders won't miss out either. Mr Drake plans to carry on squeezing at least 25 hours out of every day by continuing to run the school club - and going further. He says: "Everything's in place to start opening it up - maybe getting other schools to use our course, or starting a summer racing league. This country has so much potential. We have shown how easy it is to set something up. If we can do it, anyone can."
BCF: 0161 230 2301Frederick Gent website: www.youthcyclingzone.demon.co.ukl Get Set is part of the Prudential-sponsored Impruve scheme. It offers primary-age children an alternative to standard PE and sports programmes and uses colourful activity cards to develop children's cycling skills. The materials meet key stage 2 and 3 national curriculum criteria. Teachers who wish to become Get Set coaches must attend a five-hour training course. Contact the BCF development directorate.l The Level 2 qualification is aimed at people who want to coach older children or adults. It involves a three-day course with home study and post-course assessment and will eventually form part of a career path for professional cycle coaches. Contact BCF coach education.