On yer bike, son, it's time to get serious

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Scottish cycling successes in Athens last summer have given impetus to ensuring talented boys and girls line up to follow on, writes Roddy Mackenzie

Encouraged by the success of Edinburgh's Olympic golden boy Chris Hoy in Athens last summer, Scottish regional cycling academies are being set up to ensure a steady stream of young talent into the sport.

The first academy was set up about a year ago in Edinburgh and two others, in Dundee and Glasgow, started recently. By the end of the year, it is expected three more will be set in motion in central Scotland, Highland and Grampian.

"It was decided to set up the academies to attract schoolchildren into the sport," explains Kenny MacDonald, the principal teacher of technical studies at Johnstone High in Renfrewshire and a director of the west academy, based at Bellahouston. "There are a lot of children with bikes but not a lot do much in terms of using them in a competitive environment."

The west academy, which opened in April, has a 1km circuit in the park and a banked track will be built in the autumn. It has the use of 24 top-of-the-range bikes which retail at around pound;400 each, 12 provided by Glasgow City Council.

A group of 20 secondary pupils meet every Saturday for introductory classes in competitive cycling and an elite group meets every Wednesday. With a dozen volunteer coaches at the centre, there is no shortage of expertise to push them in the right direction.

"We have one 13-year-old girl who has progressed from the beginners to the elite classes in just six weeks. She is a potential future star," says Mr MacDonald.

"It doesn't matter what age you are; if you show talent, you can quickly move up."

The west academy is still rolling out its programme, he explains. "It is mainly mountain biking and road skills we can offer at this stage but work on a banked track will begin shortly."

It has the capacity to take up to 24 children now but the directors are looking to expand that to 36 in the near future.

The east academy at Meadowbank currently has 26 children and the Tayside and Fife academy at Dundee has 27, says Mr MacDonald. "So we have been fairly successful so far.

"In May, we brought all three academies together for a competition and that worked really well.

"We have the mountain biking world championships at Fort William in September and we will be sending cyclists there to compete in the children's races."

All of the academies come under the eye of Gary Willis, Scottish Cycling's youth development officer, and Graeme Herd, the sport's national coach.

The fact that mountain biking is now an Olympic sport has been a big factor in getting schoolchildren involved.

"Most have a mountain bike - while very few have a racing bike - so that is what they will usually start on," says Mr MacDonald.

"Chris Hoy winning the Olympics in track cycling has helped, as children can identify with him and it gives them a good role model," he admits. "The publicity he generated undoubtedly helps get children involved.

"It's a sport where you can cross over from road racing to mounting biking to track cycling, so there is a lot of flexibility."

What has undoubtedly held back cycling in Scotland is the lack of an indoor velodrome track, which has meant top riders have had to travel to Manchester every fortnight for training and many are now using the new facility at Newport.

Six Scottish road and track cyclists aged 18 to 23 ride with professional teams in Europe, as part of a scheme jointly funded by the foreign teams and the Braveheart Cycling Fund, which was established last year to assist promising Scots. The fund has announced that 15 will be supported this year, including mountain bikers.

Meadowbank has had an uncovered velodrome since the Commonwealth Games in 1970 and although Edinburgh City Council has stated that it wants to build a covered facility, it has also said there are no funds set aside.

The academy initiative, however, is seen as crucial for the future of the sport.

Elite riders such as Chris Hoy, the track cycling world champion, Graeme Obree, the former world champion, and Aileen McGlynn, who won gold and silver medals at the Paralympics in Athens last summer, have visited Bellahouston to offer tips to the cyclists.

The west academy will be looking to work with primary schools next session as part of the Go-Ride scheme operated by British Cycling.

"It is designed to identify talent at a very young age," says Mr MacDonald.

"We intend to roll it out to six primary schools. The children will be given skills tests and take part in a mock race, which will be timed. They can then input their times into a UK-wide database so that they can see how they compare with other children throughout the country in their particular age category."

Bicycle polo is being revived in Scotland as another way to attract children to cycling. It allows them to take part in a team sport while honing their individual cycling skills. Adults and children can play together in four-a-side teams.

"It is basically polo on bikes instead of horses and is played on a grass football pitch, so there are no problems with finding facilities," says Mr MacDonald.

"Traditionally, the sport used to be a bit rough - like ice hockey on bikes - but the rules have been modified and it is easy for children to play.

"It is a big sport in America, Canada, France, India and Pakistan.

"We are reviving it in Stirling and Johnstone and taking initial steps to get it started in Fort William and Edinburgh."

That would leave every road into competitive cycling covered.

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