UK’s first Cycling Performance degree course
24 June 2014
A senior lecturer in sports and exercise performance at the College for the last seven years, he provides coaching support to some of the top GB cyclo-cross riders, including European Cyclo-Cross Champion Helen Wyman, emerging star 17-year-old Sean Dunlea – who is a student at the College – and multiple national champion Hugo Robinson.
Here he explains why now is the right time to launch a cycling degree, what the course involves, and its unique mode of delivery, which gives students the chance to pursue their coaching or competing ambitions while studying.
The idea for this new degree came from the fact that I’ve been undertaking physiological tests on a number of cyclists in the sports laboratory at Writtle College who have faced the dilemma of whether to continue in education when they leave school or try to become a professional cyclist or coach. This is clearly a really difficult decision and it creates lots of conflicts in their lives. Some of them choose not to pursue their education and to dedicate their time to being a pro as it’s such a small window of opportunity but it causes stress as they know very few people succeed. It’s obviously good to have a fall-back position and their parents, knowing the risks, find it concerning if they give up education altogether. With the growing interest in cycling, we thought we could put together a degree that is taught in a flexible way so those in this position can continue with their studies but also balance their training or racing commitments.
The course is a Foundation degree as this has a work-based focus and is more vocational than an Honours degree. The students spend 25% of their time in industry. Our model is that students spend September to February in College studying, with intensive teaching in February. They then carry out work experience in the summer months – coaching, cycling development, working in any facet of the cycling industry they are interested in or, if they are a competitive cyclist, they can race and train while it contributes towards their assessed work experience. During this time, there is an element of distance learning to the degree – they continue with their formal modules online – so we’re really trying to make it as user-friendly as possible for these students.
The Foundation degree has modules to complement coaching such as coaching strength and conditioning, exercise physiology, nutrition, along with a large element being about the cycling industry and careers in the industry. We have a fully-equipped sports lab here, which has a strong focus on cycling science – measuring power outputs of cyclists with SRM and 10 power tap wheels – and the physiological demands on the cyclists.
With the industry-focus of the degree, students can really think about their future career direction and we can facilitate it so they have the career they want. We have a huge number of contacts in the industry – the Olympic velodrome, Hadleigh Farm, Braintree BMX Club, local coaches, physiotherapists and the professional cycling team – which can help students gain the work experience they need. The professional cycling team in particular can give students a unique and valuable insight into the roles of staff and what it’s like for riders on the team.
It is an exciting time in the industry. When I was a youngster there wasn’t an obvious way into cycling. But with British Cycling there is now a clear structure and route into coaching. We are offering a coaching qualification as part of the degree so we can give students the best chance of being able to step into a career after successfully graduating. We envisage our students embarking on carers in cycling development, coaching, team management, retail – the biomechanical side of the market is really growing – and competitive cycling. Although the degree is based purely on cycling, students will also be able to progress onto the more generic Sports and Exercise Performance Honours degree at Writtle College – the Foundation degree in Cycling Performance will count as the first two years so all they need to do is to study for another year to get a more general sports science BSc. This opens up doors in sport generally and they could go onto physiotherapy qualifications or teaching qualifications, for example. This means, on graduation, they can boast a Sports Science degree with a unique focus on cycling, which should put them in a strong position.
We carried out market research on Twitter to gauge demand for the degree. Within two days we had 200 respondents to our online survey, so this gives an idea of the level of interest in the programme. As a result of this feedback, we have broadened the scope of the degree. At first we thought the degree would mainly appeal to those who have just completed school or National Diplomas but we found there was a demand from older students who were saying that they wanted a career change in their late 30s or 40s and they were interested in pursuing a cycling course. These were people who could already have a qualification from British Cycling but wanted to learn the underpinning sports science. There is a parallel to what I did – I trained in engineering, bio-technology, as an undergraduate and then did my Masters in my early 30s and pursued a career in sports science and as a cycling physiologist. That came from a passion in cycling and sports science as a youngster so I can empathise!
Cycling is thriving off the back of the Olympics and the Tour de France, with the success of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. The Women’s Tour has gained a raised profile through the success of competitors such as Marianne Vos and the UK held the European Cyclo Cross championships in 2012. Alongside this, there’s been a big push by the Department for Transport for active transport for good health and environmental reasons. All of this has led to an enormous growth in the popularity of the sport and many more people are racing recreationally. The College is already really well-known in the cycling community as we have hosted cycling events here such as the Eastern Region Cyclo Cross Race and rounds of the Mud, Sweat and Gears mountain biking contest. We have held, with British Cycling, coaching days for women’s cyclo cross and an eastern region cyclo cross conference, all with the help of Mark Wyer from British Cycling. This momentum is continuing with the Tour de France visiting the UK this year and coming past Writtle College. With the London velodrome only 40 minutes away from us, along with Hadleigh Farm in the county, Writtle can capitalise on being in the midst of this action and we hope to develop the College as a hub for cycling expertise. All this makes it the right time to launch a programme like this and I am really excited to be bringing it to Writtle College.
I’m thrilled to win bronze at the World Cyclo-Cross Championships and be the highest achieving female cyclist in 14 years. Mark Walker’s work has been invaluable in helping me to improve my performance by giving me the scientific understanding to back up my existing structures. At World level, coaching is about the complete package of knowledge, understanding and experience. With Mark as part of my coaching team, I have that.