The French and the Italians are impressed. Kevin Berry gets his wheels in a spin over a new NVQ in bicycle maintenance
Alan Finch and his colleagues are changing the way that UK cycle mechanics are trained - and the Europeans are impressed. Indeed, the head mechanic of the French Cofidis cycling team, which will be led in the Tour de France this weekend by British rider David Millar, has already asked Finch to look out for a suitable trainee to join his team. "There's no better recommendation for what we do," says Finch. "Putting people into that environment is where we want to be going."
If that were not enough, the managing director of Campagnolo, the legendary Italian component manufacturer, came to England to see Finch - and invited him to Italy to explain his methods. Finch is understandably ecstatic.
Training takes place in a workshop at the Aylesbury Training Group, an organisation set up by local companies. There are 10 workbays, each with a cycle stand and a bench with tools hung on shadow boards. Bikes are getting more and more technical - they simply cannot be fixed with just a spanner and a hammer.
Alan Finch is an engineer and teacher. He is also a lifetime cyclist who has never been satisfied with the standard of repairs and customer care in bike shops. Russell Cashmore, the unit's training and assessment officer, is a skilled and respected mechanic frustrated with standards of maintenance in the industry. The lack of teaching in other cycling qualifications, and consequent variation in work practice, bothered both of them - there was stringent testing, but no training was taking place.
"We want to put the word 'professional' into a mechanic's training," says Russell Cashmore. "And, of course, we now live in a society where people are quick to make a claim if anything goes wrong. Repair and maintenance must be to the highest standards."
And its not just on the sports circuit where business is needed. Figures from the Bicycle Association - which represents UK bicycle manufacturers - show that six million people ride a bike in the UK, and 2.3 million bikes are sold every year. Turnover including sales, repair and accessories makes it a billion-pound industry.
Alan Finch has spent five years developing structured cycle maintenance training and, with colleague Peter Cowling, he has spent two years preparing an NVQ. Their new CyTech NVQ is an amalgamation of the Association of Cycle Traders' Accreditation scheme, known as CyTech (from cycle technician), and the Engineering and Marine Training Authority's NVQ Level 2.
Alan Finch is particularly pleased with the customer care element in the NVQ. A Level 4 NVQ is being planned to cover shop management. Advanced specialist courses have been put together with the help of component manufacturers to cover specific items such as disc brakes and mountain bike suspension systems. Mechanics who do not want the full NVQ can pick from a menu of modularised courses.
The CyTech NVQ was launched at the Aylesbury unit in early March this year. Finch expected to have 25 or so trainees, but his staff are dealing with 70 at various stages in their training. New trainees begin with a week of instruction at the centre and then go back to their shops, and then return to Aylesbury a month or so later. They work on a range of bikes, and repair the ones belonging to people who work at the Aylesbury Centre, thus helping the unit's finances. Access to government and European funding ensures there are no fees for any trainees under 25 and up to 45 per cent of fees are paid for older trainees. NVQ training is pound;350 (free for under 25s) though grants are available.
Peter Cowling, the unit's maintenance training officer, visits trainees in their workplace to assess them and suggest improvements in their own working environment.
"They train in a risk- free environment," he says. "And back in their shop, they are working with greater confidence. We are cutting out trial and error."
The trainees come from all over the UK - as far away as Fort William and Cornwall - and they stay in Aylesbury hotels. Some have never even pumped up a bike tyre, some are ex-race mechanics who want the reassurance of correct training. They are all mustard keen. The hooter for tea breaks is largely ignored and they are soon back after lunch.
"I knew next to nothing and thought I would be lagging behind," says Paul Chapman, who works for Mission, a Maidstone-based cycle company. "But the tutors spent more time with me. It's not like school. I broke something on the first day - but nobody was upset."
The mechanics each have a hefty course manual containing certificates, assessments and technical data. It inspires confidence and pride - and will be useful when seeking a new job.
A network of training workshops all over the UK, with regional assessors, is planned for the future. The next workshop is likely to be at the Manchester Velodrome which houses the National Cycling Centre.
Alan Finch has described cycle maintenance as a cottage industry. The new CyTech NVQ takes cycle maintenance as far from that perception as is possible. The mechanic is becoming more of a technician - the age of slack work and slack attitudes is fast disappearing.