Youth cycle racing – which way now?
14 June 2015
We’re living in a golden age for youth cycling and racing. Never before have there been so many opportunities to ride or race, so many great bikes available, so many excellent facilities, so many clubs and coaches – and so many kids enjoying cycling!
It’s surely the best time ever to be a young rider in any discipline of the sport: whether it’s BMX, track, road, MTB, cyclocross or cycle speedway.
So everything is rosy? Not entirely, perhaps. Lots of experienced parents & coaches think it’s a bit more complicated than that, and in a minute we’ll take a look at why that is.
And British Cycling has just announced some radical changes to youth competition which will soon affect every child racing. The biggest impact will be felt in BMX initially, and the BMX community is outraged by the changes to its sport and, indirectly, to its whole culture.
So here’s Youth Cycle Sport’s take on the current state of youth racing and on the governing body’s changes. It’s written from the same positive point of view as our “The Rules” feature, which is the most popular article YCS has ever published.
So what’s the point of children’s cycle racing?
Cycle racing is a superb way for children to have fun, make friends, keep fit & healthy, learn new skills, increase their self-esteem – and, of course, to take part in competition against each other.
Are there any problems with the sport?
Despite all those very positive benefits, many experienced coaches & parents have some reservations about the current state of the sport. Specifically:-
Sometime the BC Performance Pathway unintentionally causes “collateral damage”. Young riders who don’t reach the highest levels can become disillusioned and leave the sport.
The objective of identifying & developing talent to ultimately win Olympic medals (and therefore secure major funding) isn’t always compatible with the objective of making cycling a sport for all.
Volume & intensity of training & racing
Over the last few years the volume and intensity of youth riders’ training & racing has increased, and it has been pushed down through the age categories.
For example, the kind of training that Under 16 (Youth A) riders did five or six years ago is now being done by Under 14s (Youth B). And what Under 14s once did is now typically being done by Under 12s (Youth C). And so on.
Some coaches think it’s too much, too serious, too soon for long term success and enjoyment of the sport.
Equipment “arms race”
In circuit racing in particular, an “arms race” for equipment has developed, and this puts less well-off kids at a disadvantage. Even in Under 12 races it’s now quite common to see bikes with premium brand carbon frames and carbon deep-rim wheels.
Expectation based on early success
Children who become used to winning races and getting attention at an early age often don’t stay ahead of their rivals as they move up through the age groups.
Those kids and their parents often can’t help getting excited about their early success, and racing can become much less rewarding when a rider is no longer winning regularly.
Unlevel playing field?
What about those kids who don’t show early talent, or develop later than their rivals, or don’t have very good equipment, or don’t have knowledgeable, committed parents who are able to take them to lots of coaching sessions or races?
Most people who love cycling and who believe in the value of sport want to make sure that these kids (the majority of kids, in fact?) can still benefit from taking part in cycle racing.
Cycling is a competitive sport, after all, so there will always be winners and losers on the day, but that doesn’t mean that these kids should just be cannon-fodder for the winners to beat.
How is British Cycling about to change things?
In November 2014 BC announced that its Youth Workgroup had done some work on a review of youth cycling and competition. You can read the full announcement here but their initial output was:-
to encourage as many young people to get into cycling as possible, there must be an emphasis on making the sport fun, accessible and easy to understand. The group acknowledged that talent identification for the Great Britain Cycling Team is still crucial, but that this should only become a priority from the age of 13 upwards.
BC announced a first phase of changes which would restrict national competitions to riders aged 13 and older while those under that age bracket would compete at a local and regional level with ranking points no longer available. That would have a huge impact on BMX in particular, which has a long culture of national and international level racing for young children.
BC also proposed updating equipment regulations to reduce costs to parents – in other words, an attempt to reverse the arms race that we mentioned above.
BC also announced that the second phase of the project would arrive in 2017 with a focus on the pathway of local, regional and national competition. The racing calendar would be restructured
…to reduce the number of national events and increase the focus on local and regional competition, skill development and rest.
There will be three levels of competition, starting at local, progressing to regional and then finally national events. Local events will focus on enjoyment with no prizes or results available, therefore encouraging riders of all ages and abilities to take part and develop new tactics and skills.
Regional level events will aim to introduce the more competitive side of the sport with more racing available and a small number of events acting as qualifiers for national races.
Those look like quite radical policies. From an early age, children have a strong desire to race each other and to win, and will always find a way to do that – whether it’s in an official race, in the middle of a coaching session, or just tearing around their back yard.
Then, last week, British Cycling announced that the proposals have been approved and will be implemented. More details of the practical changes across all disciplines were given, and particularly the contentious BMX-specific changes.
It all adds up to a big change in the governing body’s strategy and policy for children’s racing.
However, one discipline of the sport already works very successfully on this basis and is probably a good model for youth cycling development: cyclocross has a national series and national championships for Under 14 and Under 16 riders, but not for riders younger than that. Younger riders have local-level racing for which the entry fee is often as little as £2. Their courses are usually technical enough to help riders develop their skills but still accessible to all. There are rarely cash prizes and there are no licence points or rankings. Apart from some changes to equipment regulations, cyclocross isn’t actually likely to be affected by the new strategy at all.
We shouldn’t forget that British Cycling’s major funding from UK Sport and Sport England is one of the biggest reasons why our sport is so big, and why we are now in the “golden age” that we described in our introduction. British Cycling has to meet very specific, demanding targets to receive that funding. Some of those targets are related to elite success, and others are related to mass participation.
Also, some of that funding must be directed towards the recruitment and retention of riders aged 14+, not younger.
These factors apply to all publicly-funded sports and they aren’t specific to cycling. They aren’t policies that British Cycling itself has control of. So we do have to accept the reality of that situation, and how it influences BC’s strategy.
Why do children race?
Is it prize money? Trophies? The desire to win? Self-esteem? Dreams of becoming a pro, or making a career from cycling, or becoming an Olympic champion? Inspiration from role models? The social benefits of riding & racing? In order to please parents or coaches?
We think it’s probably a different mix of those factors for each child, and that the mix changes as riders get older.
But, as you’d expect, we think racing is a very positive activity for children, as long as it’s handled wisely and is approached positively – our “The Rules” article summarises everything that we believe about that.
What makes a child successful at a young age?
We’ve all seen impressive kids who ride with the skill and speed of an older rider, winning with style when still only aged eight, ten or twelve years old. Why do these children do so well? It’s often a mix of these reasons:-
Early physical development
Growing early and being tall for their age means having the longer levers, bigger heart and lungs, and stronger muscles of an older child. It also has an impact on equipment: a tall ten year old might be able to ride a 700c-wheeled road or cyclocross bike which will roll faster than the 24”- or 26”-wheeled bikes that their smaller rivals ride.
Being born early in the calendar year is lucky! For example, a child born in January will race against a field of younger kids in their age group.
If the same child had been born just a few weeks earlier in the December of the previous year they would be one of the youngest riders in an older age group instead, and their racing experiences could be quite different.
It’s usually an advantage to have parents who are already involved in cycling and who are knowledgeable about the sport. Cycling is a technically complex sport compared to many others, and there’s lots to know about equipment, rules and regulations. Parents who come from that world themselves are able to give their children a head start. They can also accompany their children on social rides and in training.
Parents able to make a big commitment
Not all kids have parents who are willing or able to learn about the sport, and who will give up their own evenings and weekends to take them to training sessions or to races.
It’s not just a big commitment in time that’s needed either: parents who are able to spend money on better equipment, clothing and travel give major advantages to their racing child.
Starting cycling at an early age
Take the example of a ten-year-old child who started circuit racing or MTB at the age of eight. They will have gained two years of valuable tactical experience, skill development, and fitness development by the time they are racing other ten year olds who might be taking their first steps in the sport. That’s a massive advantage.
The desire to race and win
Some children have a stronger desire than others and they will take any opportunity available to ride, train or race. It’s a state of mind that future champions need, but it’s not always the right thing for a young child, all of the time.
Parents and coaches need to act as regulators, and check that the young rider doesn’t get too serious too early, nor do too much too young.
Some sports scientists argue that natural talent and genetics are a much-exaggerated factor in the success of a sportsman or sportswoman.
But most cycling coaches on the ground will take a practical view and will notice a child who learns new skills quickly and who has good all-round physical capabilities.
Why do children leave the sport?
Parents and kids themselves (and less enlightened coaches) can get quite excited by 8, 10 or 12 year olds winning national-level events or titles, and can talk about them being the next Lizzie Armitstead, Liam Phillips, or Jason Kenny.
But it’s actually pretty unusual in most disciplines of cycling for very successful riders at such a young age to still be dominant when they reach 18 years old – the factors above tend to have become equalised by that age.
On the whole cycling is a “late development” sport unlike swimming or women’s gymnastics, for example, in which Olympic gold medals are very often won by teenagers – sometimes very young teenagers.
However, highly technical disciplines like BMX and MTB are so competitive that successful riders usually need to be working on their skills from an early age. That’s much less the case for road racing or track racing.
So the reality is that winners at twelve years old aren’t likely to be the winners of pro road races or Olympic track events. It’s tough for kids who are used to standing on the top step of the podium to get used to that, and we’ve seen many children abandon the sport and stop cycling completely.
Interestingly, the great champions that YCS has interviewed nearly always encourage children to keep doing multiple disciplines, not specialise in a single discipline too early, and to maintain other sports for as long as possible. This can be difficult to reconcile with a child’s desire (and often their parents’ desire) to develop the particular form of cycling that they are super-keen on, when they want to reach the highest level in that discipline as quickly as possible.
In all disciplines, Under 16 racing is at an extremely high level. A rider needs to be highly committed to their cycling and to have great support if they are to continue their racing success at this level.
Early success and praise falls away as racing becomes more competitive. As children reach teenage years, it may become clear that earlier dreams of world-level success are not realistic.
There’s a risk of psychological or physical “burn out” if parents & coaches don’t regulate their young riders responsibly. A child of sixteen who started racing at eight probably can’t remember a time when they weren’t training or racing. We believe that cycling and racing are very positive for children (including for young children) but adults need to stay objective in order to recognise when it might be best for the child to back off a little.
Other sports, interests, education and social activities can become more time consuming or more attractive as children reach their teenage years. They might well decide for themselves that cycling isn’t quite as important to them as it once was.
Does talent development cause damage?
British Cycling receives significant funding linked directly to Great Britain’s success at Olympic level – funding that we all benefit from. The BC talent development team and coaches are under a lot of pressure to develop the best riders and deliver that success.
BC’s Performance Pathway is extremely successful at delivering those medals, but by the very nature of elite sport only a tiny number of the best riders will ever reach the highest level. Most young riders who join the Pathway at its lowest, broadest level will leave that system before reaching the top.
Last year we interviewed Ian Yates, the Performance Pathway manager, and we asked him about how riders leaving BC’s talent programmes can still enjoy the sport and be successful.
The introduction of the Olympic Development Apprentice scheme looks like a good step forward here: it’s accompanied by some very clear messages that riders might be an ODA for a limited time; that they should be prepared to learn as much from the experience before leaving the scheme and continuing their racing development outside the Pathway; and that the Pathway’s programmes are still open to them in the future if appropriate.
We think the Pathway coaches are conscious of their responsibilities to riders leaving their programmes, and they do their best to set expectations and motivate those riders. However, their primary focus is always going to be on taking the most talented riders forward.
So where now?
Although British Cycling’s changes were announced as a firm decision, the powerful storm of protest kicked up by the BMX community has prompted a BC statement that appears to acknowledge that there might need to be more consultation and perhaps some changes to the new policies themselves.
Moving away from rankings, license points, and even national events for the youngest road and track riders is something we can support. Success in those disciplines at such an early age is likely to set unrealistic expectations for the future, for the reasons discussed earlier.
We agree that youth cycle racing should become more accessible and that the use of expensive equipment should become regulated. What we’ve seen so far of the new regulations certainly goes in the right direction.
We’d like to see recognition of the special position of BMX because that discipline is particularly family-oriented, has a very strong social lifestyle around it, and early skill development and experience are needed for future success.
Since the introduction of Olympic Development Apprentices we’re now more relaxed about the risk of ambitious riders turning their backs on the sport.
However, we’d like to see increased awareness amongst riders, parents and coaches about the nature of talent development within cycling. We think this could help those riders who are smaller, younger, and have basic equipment to stick with the sport and keep working at it.
It would also help successful young riders (and parents) stay grounded whilst still enjoying their wins, but not to get carried away too early and risk coming crashing down when other riders catch up.
Racing and winning
Competition is good for children of all ages and it should be encouraged, not suppressed. We don’t think that British Cycling is trying to stop children doing that (why would it?) but we’d like to see a strong commitment to competition throughout the age groups.
It might just be a case that British Cycling hasn’t communicated this commitment very clearly yet, or it might be that some more work and some changes to the new policies & regulations are required.
We do believe that cycle racing is the best sport in the world, that Great Britain offers some of the very best opportunities, and that there’s nothing better for kids than tearing around on bikes as fast as possible!