When children race with the pros
Every child should have the opportunity to ride a bike. That is the firm belief of the UCI and one of the objectives of the UCI Advocacy Commission established by the UCI in 2014 to make the case for “cycling for all.”
While adequate infrastructure, training and promotion are key to getting kids on bikes, the inspiration provided by cycling champions can also play a huge role.
A number of races on the UCI calendars cater to children by organising special events adapted to their age. In another feature, we told the story of the Mini Tour de Pologne, a side-event of Poland’s major road race, attracting some 1,500 children each year. Here we present an overview of the best practices from the world’s top-notch road bike races.
As well as fostering the improvement of bike infrastructure, major cycling events have huge potential for the promotion of active transport and healthy behaviours – starting with children.
Cycling as a form of transport strengthens children’s muscular system, improves their cardiovascular fitness and makes them breathe better, on top of all the other benefits regular pedallers enjoy at all ages. British Cycling’s Chris Boardman recently drew attention to the role that cycling training in schools can play in defusing the obesity time-bomb.
Exposing children to cycling at an early age allows bike riding to become a fundamental thread in the fabric of their lives. Together with road safety training and an environment fit for bikes, events can inspire youngsters to cycle – especially when they are involved not just as spectators but as participants too.
Biciscuola is an edutainment programme Giro d’Italia organiser RCS created in the early 2000s. Catering to school kids aged 6 to 10, it promotes a healthy lifestyle, environmental consciousness and sustainable mobility – with the bicycle at its heart. It is estimated that more than 1.3m children have taken part in the programme in its 14-year history. In 2014 alone, 19,000 schools were involved.
More on the sporting side, there is “Cycling Cup”, a series of kids’ races run in cooperation with FCI, Italy’s National Cycling Federation. Children sprint on the final stretches of the flat stages, and winners are awarded prizes on the same podium as the pros. In 2014, 69 cycling teams took part with their youth squads.
Australia’s UCI WorldTour event the Santos Tour Down Under has its own “Bupa Mini Tour for kids”, with children aged 6 to 12 years riding along the same start/finish straight as some of the world's cycling superheroes. Enabling children to cross the same finish line and climb onto the same podium as the top athletes is becoming increasingly common at top events. Earlier this year we outlined the case of Hamburg’s unstoppable ascent to the top of the list of the world’s most cycle-friendly cities. Among the contributing factors is the integration of elite cycle sport into the broader city plans. The Vattenfall Cyclassics, the UCI WorldTour’s German stopover, boasts – alongside the pro race, a mass participation event with 22,000 amateur riders and a race for intellectually impaired people – two initiatives for youth. These are “Youngclassics”, a three-day stage race for licensed junior athletes, and “Cycling to Hamburg’s Schools”, a year-round project to teach cycling in schools. Now in its eighth year, CtHS is the fruit of a partnership between the Department of Education and Sport, the German Cycling Federation and the event’s title sponsor, which provides teaching material and training to teachers.
The Swiss Tour de Romandie, traditionally at the forefront of environmental sustainability, also lets youngsters sample the delights of cycling. At each stage, local kids are given the possibility to experience the excitement of the stage finish by taking part in the "P'tit Tour de Romandie", crossing the finishing line just before the champions, and finishing with a photo session on the official podium.
The Tour de France organisers Amaury Sport Organisation have several operations entirely dedicated to young people. At each stage, the initiative “Les Cadets - Juniors” offers young riders aged 15-18 the opportunity to experience an exceptional day in the same conditions as a team participating in the Tour de France. Moreover, ASO and FFC – France’s national governing body for cycle sport – have a programme that extends over several years to scout for tomorrow’s champions and develop grassroots cycling in the country.
ASO and FFC also collaborate on the project “Les oubliés du sport” (sport’s forgotten children). The two organisations invite more than 1000 children aged 6-12 from disadvantaged areas to several stages of the Grand Boucle, introducing them to the joys of cycling. BMX initiations are part of the programme.
The Tour also runs “Média-Pitchounes”, an initiative to forge a new generation of sports reporters: children from underprivileged backgrounds are invited to follow the race suiveurs, and then contribute to the production of a magazine and mini-reports.
Last summer, on the occasion of the Grand Départ of the Tour de France from Yorkshire, British Cycling organised a series of TdF-themed events, in the framework of its “Go-Ride” development programme. 241 entry-level events were staged in the lead-up to the Tour, and 3,800 children had a chance to try cycling for the first time.
While having the chance to participate is a great motivation to continue riding, watching an event would also appear to be an effective means of igniting the cycling spark. According to a study on the impact of the UK stages of the Tour, 56% of 16-24 year olds who attended the race declared they had been inspired to cycle more frequently.
The importance of sport for the physical, psychological, emotional, social and intellectual development of children is widely accepted. Event organisers should now become aware of the inspirational power they can have on children, who are encouraged to ride more often…. even without a race number pinned on their backs.