Your cycling journey – which path should you follow?
29 October 2013
So your four-year old has just been inspired by Mark Cavendish, Rachel Atherton, Shanaze Reade or Jason Kenny to take up cycling and be the best that they can be. Where do they and you start, and which path do you follow?
Here is our guide for giving your child the chance to be the best cyclist they can be. Don’t panic if they are older than four. Jason Queally and Rebecca Romero took up competitive cycling in their twenties and still won Olympic Medals. The exact age will depend on the speed that different children develop. It’s more about enjoying the journey than the detail.
Age 3 – 7
This is the age when many children learn to ride a bike. These days most start with a balance bike and then move on to one with pedals and brakes but perhaps just one gear. Some BMX riders start racing and training at about five or six as long as they are strong enough to pedal up the jumps. This is a good route to take if you live near a BMX track. BMX skills will be a great grounding whatever cycling discipline you choose in later life.
Age 7 – 10
At this age children might start to show an interest in cycle racing and developing their cycling skills. It’s a good age to join the youth section of a local cycling club. This is a chance for them to see if they enjoy the sport enough to have some skills coaching.
This is an age when they can start to get to grips with using gears. Don’t be surprised if they take a long time to get the hang of gears. The fewer gears a bike has (assuming there are more than one) the easier it is for children to grasp which one to select. Modern bikes tend to have a greater choice of gears which can be confusing. Using a bike with just one chain ring is much simpler. It is important that they get used to cornering with the inside pedal up as soon as possible. Being able to pedal standing up is a fundamental skill that many children miss out on and find difficult at an older age. The whole sequence of getting on a bike properly, setting the pedal, and standing up out of the saddle to start off is important for developing other skills and taking part in competition.
Many children are wary of formal competition at this age. If they are enjoying their training sessions that include some fun races then take them along to some local races and see if they are inspired to give it a go. Don’t force them, just give them the option. Don’t be surprised if they take fright on the start line – they can always try again next time. They shouldn’t be racing more than once a fortnight on average so that races are fun things to look forward to rather than tough chores.
The best bike for a child of this age is a “do everything” all-rounder, ideally with no suspension to keep the weight down but sturdy enough to go off-road. A single chainring at the front keeps things simple with six or seven derailleur gears at the back. If they are confident at developing cycling skills then an additional BMX bike will be great for playing on. If they are riding BMX events regularly then obviously they will need full BMX kit.
At this age riding their bike should be about fun and learning new skills – not about developing physiologically. The more they ride a bike the more skilful they will become but this can be part of normal life. Riding to school with Mum or Dad, riding to take part in other sports, family bike rides, and playing on their bikes after school with friends are all great ways to improve cycling ability without it being formal training. The only formal training session should be club coaching sessions once or twice a week.
Age 10 – 12
This is the age when your child might start to take cycle sport a bit more seriously. They may want to compete more often and train more seriously. It’s important that you allow them to take the sport as seriously as they want to, not as seriously as you want them to. They shouldn’t have given up other sports to focus exclusively on cycling. Other skill-based sports such as tennis, football, golf or gymnastics require you to develop at a younger age than cycling does. It’s often reported that Tiger Woods first swung a golf club aged about two and was soon playing and practising regularly. However, with cycling you can leave taking it seriously and training regularly to much later on in life. Regular swimming training provides a great base for a future career in cycling. It develops the cardiovascular system and training discipline. At this age young riders will often have started to prefer particular cycling disciplines. Ideally, though, cyclists of this age should try and keep their options open and not yet specialise. If you do want to be a BMX rider or a Mountain Biker it is more important that you keep up your skill development at this age but all riders should keep concentrating on their bike riding skills.
This is a crucial time for an aspiring BMX or Mountain Biker to assimilate the skills and techniques required for these disciplines. It is possible but more difficult to learn these skills later. Manuals, jumping and pumping are key skills for both disciplines. In addition, all riders should start to become more aware of other riders and riding in groups. They should be able to adjust lines through corners to take account of others and cope with riding close to others. It is also critical to start developing good pedalling technique and being able to spin with a high cadence at this age. This can be done very effectively on rollers so now is the time to start learning to ride on rollers comfortably. A set of rollers is a great training tool but is also convenient for warming up for many different events.
Riders of this age can be building up their experience by competing more regularly, perhaps once a week on average in the main season. They may start competing in national series events when they are held locally for the experience of a big event.
For the endurance based disciplines, a cyclo-cross bike will do as both an off-road and road bike. If your child is competing in mountain bike races then straight bars will be required. There is no need at this point in time for them to have suspension – in fact their skills will develop better and they will learn to ride more smoothly on a fully rigid bike. Track bikes can usually be hired from velodromes so it is probably not necessary to get one yet unless your child is track racing regularly. A set of rollers will be a good investment to enable your child to do some pedalling and balance development work.
This should mainly consist of attending club sessions to keep working on skills and developing them into techniques. In the winter in particular a regular roller session can help keep up fitness for races. Riders of this age may start taking part in regular rides on the road. Whether they have the maturity to ride on the road is obviously down to their parents but this is usually the age they do Cycle Training (the new version of Cycling Proficiency). It will be up to you, their parents, to judge whether they are safe to ride on their own to school or to friends’ houses, or whether they should only ride with another family member looking after them.
Age 12 – 14
This is the age at which cycling may become the most important sport for a young person. It may become the only sport they compete in outside school PE lessons. It is healthy for a young person to keep up other forms of exercise such as swimming or running (even if they are not competing in other sports) to avoid only their cycling specific muscles being developed at such a young age. There is some evidence that puberty is a crucial time for young people to develop good bone density and this is aided by taking part in weight bearing activity which cycling is not.
At this age skills development can start to ease off a bit to allow time for physiological development. That does not mean riders should stop practicing their skills but they should become more relevant to the events they are competing in and should be addressing any weaknesses identified in consultation with coaches. Skills should start becoming techniques that are relevant to success in races, not just good general bike control – e.g. throwing a bike at the line to win a road or track sprint. Riders should be starting to look at analysing and improving their tactics in races and building up a mental ‘library’ of what works in different race situations. Endurance event riders should start to develop their roller riding skills, working on activities like riding no-handed, riding at a fast cadence or riding one-legged.
At this age a promising rider should be looking at competing at national level fairly regularly for experience. They might target a national series to try and achieve a high overall placing and take part in the national championships for their favoured discipline. They may have narrowed down the disciplines they compete in but should still be competing in at least two disciplines or, at worst, two sub-disciplines. Possible combinations are:-
- BMX and MTB 4X
- MTB Downhill and Cross Country
- MTB Cross Country and Road
- Road and Track
- Road and Cyclo-Cross
Riders of this age, especially as they near fourteen years old, should probably look to average one and a half races a week during the summer season and maybe slightly more if you include a club time trial.
A rider of this age will probably need two discipline-specific bikes. Bikes can be sourced secondhand and don’t need to be the most expensive going. A turbo trainer will be a useful training tool for all disciplines, especially in the winter months. It may also be worth having a pair of training wheels (especially for turbo training) to save the best pair for racing.
The British Cycling Talent Development Coaches suggest that riders of this age should be starting to actively train. Ideally this training should be done after consulting and discussing with club coaches. There should be one or two club coaching sessions a week, a club run or group ride, in addition to a race or two a week. A turbo trainer will be an important training device for the most ambitious riders. Young riders should start to add in stretching routines as part of their training. At this age riders will generally be naturally flexible but should develop the routine of stretching a couple of times a week.
Age 14 – 16
This is a key age for an ambitious cyclist to start switching from the majority of their cycling being about skills development to the majority being about improvements in speed (acceleration and cadence) and fitness. National level competition in this age group is ferocious and requires a high level of skill, fitness and commitment. It is likely that a rider of this age will need to fit their racing and training around school work, especially exams and revision. More careful planning of when and where to train and race may be required. Riders should be encouraged to take more ownership of choosing races, entering them, packing their kit bags, making sure their bike is working properly and organising their training. It should be up to a rider to ask if they can go to a particular race rather than for the parent to tell them what their race programme is.
At this age the importance of skills development starts to fall. Riders should be making sure they are applying their skills in the correct situations – e.g. choosing when to run or attempt to ride in a cyclo-cross race. Road riders should be starting to look at skills and tactics for team work. Rollers can play a key part in endurance riders continuing to develop their pedalling technique and pedalling speed (cadence). Anyone competing in off-road racing (Mountain Biking, Cyclo-Cross or BMX) will need to keep a higher proportion of their training focused on skills as they will do throughout their cycling career.
An ambitious rider of this age should be making the national series or championship their main target for the season. Alternatively they may be looking at a high placing in their regional series or gaining selection for a regional team. It might be worth looking for opportunities to compete abroad to gain further experience.
Riders will need a bike specific for their discipline. This can still be secondhand with components gradually upgraded where possible. Aero bars will be needed for track events and can be used in club time trials. A second cyclo-cross bike is really only needed for major events and can be borrowed from a club mate or cycling friend. Young cyclists will need a range of gears for track and BMX bikes and the tools to change chainrings and sprockets. By this age they should be able to change gearing themselves. A turbo trainer is a vital training tool to go alongside a set of rollers.
By this age ambitious young riders may be training as much as nine hours per week. During school weeks no more than this is necessary as the longest race they will do is one hour. School holidays are an ideal time for keen cyclists to do more training with long road or mountain bike rides. Rides of three to four hours will give young riders an idea of what faces them (as endurance riders) when they join the junior ranks. If they don’t enjoy them now then they will struggle to cope with the workload of a successful junior cyclist.
Mark Wyer has worked in Cycle Coaching and Development for over 15 years. He currently works for British Cycling as a Go-Ride Coach in the Eastern Region and is a Level 3 Road and Time Trial Coach as well as holding various Level 2 awards. He is also a Regional Cyclo-Cross Commissaire, judges at races and regularly organises cycling events.