Last Saturday, over 130 junior cyclists descended on Lansdowne Reserve for Stage 1 of the Junior Tour of Sydney. The sun came out to play, bathing the winter morning in brilliantly warm sunshine. The atmosphere buzzed as music blasted from the speakers and parents shouted encouragement from the roadside.
B Grade Cyclist spoke to some of those parents about their views on junior bicycle racing. Surprisingly (given the amount of criticism cycling seems to attract on social media), their responses were overwhelmingly positive. From their perspective, the sport of cycling offers a lot to both juniors and their parents.
We’ve previously talked about how to start bike racing. Emerging from those conversations were the following five great reasons why to get your child into bike racing.
1. Lifelong health and fitness
When asked what they wanted their children to get out of cycling, the most common response from parents was to develop lifelong habits of health and exercise.
‘Just to enjoy it as a lifelong sport,’ said Diane, whose daughter Ash competed for Central Coast CC. ‘To compete when that’s in her realm, and just to keep fit for the rest of her life.’
Sue had a similar desire for her daughter, Alex, who races with the Australian Time Trials Association (ATTA): ‘Just a lifelong enjoyment of cycling. I mean, I commute to work. I’ve always just really loved cycling, not racing but just riding, and I hope she does the same.’
Your child may not always want to race. However, through bike racing, they will learn invaluable skills, build up their confidence and develop healthy exercise habits to set them up for a lifetime of health and fitness.
Big junior bicycle events like the Junior Tour of Sydney are a great way for children to make friends.
Georgie’s son, Jonah from Port Macquarie CC, raced the Under 15 event alongside some friends he’d met through cycling. Even though they live in different parts of New South Wales, the boys take every opportunity to ride together recreationally. ‘The social side of it for all these guys, they love it, they love seeing each other. They all get on,’ she said. ‘That’s what they did after the [Port Macquarie Junior Tour]. They had about 8 or 10 of them, they’d all spoken the day before to see who was staying, and they all went off for a social ride together. That’s the nice side of it.’
It’s not just the competitors who make friends through the sport. For regional parents like Georgie, who travel long distances to get to races, the prospect of meeting friends keeps them going during those car trips.
‘It’s tricky with school and obviously accommodation,’ said Georgie. ‘You slowly build up relationships, so we’re lucky when we go to Illawarra we have friends to stay with. Our longest journey was when we went from Port Macquarie to Canberra. That’s a big drive. About eight [hours]…it’s a long haul. That’s probably the toughest part.’
Closer to Sydney, the opportunities for children to connect with other cyclists are readily available. Alex’s mother Sue couldn’t sing the praises of InterSchool Cycling highly enough. ‘Alex has really enjoyed the social aspect’, said Sue. ‘She didn’t know anyone there [at first], but they’re a really nice bunch of people.’
3. Bike racing is fun!
Let’s not forget the most basic joy of bike racing – it’s fun!
In that respect, junior grassroots bike racing has one leg up on its senior counterpart: they have spectators. And what a difference they make to an event!
At Lansdowne, the atmosphere during the Junior Tour of Sydney was enthralling. Sure, the pop music, live commentary and coffee van were pleasing extras. But the centrepiece of the event – the racing itself, with crowds of parents cheering from the roadside, juniors warming up nearby, and siblings and friends running around gleefully – generated a carnival-like feeling. I returned to a much quieter Lansdowne later that afternoon to ride in a senior club race, and the contrast was stark. If the senior race was a lazy game of park cricket, the junior event was like the Boxing Day Test.
For mother Diane, merely watching a junior bike race is ‘exciting…just to see all the kids do well. For us, it’s about having a go and coming off and being happy about how they went.’
If nothing else, a junior bike race is a fun day out!
4. A natural move from other sports
Many juniors come from a mountain bike or BMX background.
For Brad’s daughter, from Central Coast CC, the Junior Tour of Sydney was her first road racing event. ‘She actually does BMX racing’, said Brad. ‘She came to do some track cycling and road cycling due to her hand injury, while she was doing her recovery.’
For Renee’s son, from the Southern Highlands, mountain biking was the pathway. ‘I saw mountain biking in the Southern Highlands and thought he could enjoy it’.
Surprisingly, in most cases, it was the children themselves who wanted to start cycling. They took the initiative to jump into the sport, without prodding from their parents. That was certainly the case for Georgie’s son: ‘I had a then seven-year-old who saw an ad for a mountain bike club and decided he’d take himself along to it. His initiative. Two years later, there was an open day at the cycle club and he went to that and then he went, “that’s it – road biking!”‘.
In many cases, children were inspired by role models in the sport. Justin’s daughter, Caitlin from Hunter District CC, took up cycling after watching Anna Meares conquer the velodrome. For Diane’s daughter Ash, her interest stemmed from watching her older sister compete in triathlon.
However, a bicycling background is by no means a prerequisite for road racing. Just ask Dave Beatty (Parramatta CC), whose daughter Samantha transitioned to cycling from artistic gymnastics!
5. A supportive environment
A highlight about the Junior Tour of Sydney was the encouraging environment in which the juniors raced. While they competed firmly, winning was clearly secondary to fair play and personal achievement.
This was evident during the Under 15 Men’s race, when Georgie’s son Jonah dropped his chain. ‘Thankfully, some lovely parent up there stopped and helped him put his chain back on.’
For Charmaine, from the Southern Highlands, this was not an unexpected sight. ‘That’s the one thing I’ve noticed with cycling, everyone helps everyone… [it’s a] great environment for the kids; everyone’s friendly.’
There was no better example of sportsmanship than that displayed by Parramatta’s Deren Perry during Stage 3 at Oakville the following day. In the Under 15 division, first-year riders (13-year-olds) suffer a natural disadvantage against their second-year (14-year-old) rivals. The story emerged that Deren, who rode strongly to finish second overall, had taken the time to assist first-year Oscar Jakeman (Port Macquarie CC) over the climb so that Oscar could finish with the main bunch. Oscar’s father Stuart was full of praise for this gracious act, sharing on Facebook that this show of encouragement ‘has really given Oscar a huge boost for his confidence. OUTSTANDING!!’
Children’s sports are often maligned for having a toxic, ultra-competitive culture. One only needs to hear an angry parent abuse the referee at a kid’s soccer match to become disillusioned about the whole concept of junior sports.
Thankfully, for the most part, junior road cycling can rise above earning such a negative reputation. Win or lose, each child can earn a sense of satisfaction from merely having competed and tried their best. Georgie summed it up perfectly: the kids are ‘fierce rivals on there, but when they get off, they’re not. And the same with all the parents, everyone’s there to help you.’
Conclusion: takeaway points for cycling clubs
Our conversations with parents at the Junior Tour of Sydney were extremely encouraging. All in all, the junior cycling scene is healthy and thriving in New South Wales. Here are some takeaway points for cycling clubs to consider:
1. Explain jargon to non-cyclists
Not every parent, and not every child, comes to the sport from a cycling background. We cyclists may understand the jargon of “primes” and “KOM points”, but not all participants are so well-informed. At least one parent remarked that event organisers could do better by clearly explaining the format of bike races, such as what the children should do when they hear the whistle for the start of the “prime lap”. This is especially important in track cycling events, where each race has its own set of confusing rules.
2. Encourage friendships between juniors
Cycling can be a lonely sport if you don’t know anyone. In traditional sports like football or cricket, children train and play with the same teammates all season long. In contrast, a cycling club may only have a handful of juniors from completely different age groups. After hearing the positive stories from Georgie and Sue, whose children have thrived after getting to know other cyclists, it’s clear that clubs and parents should endeavour to help their juniors make friends within the sport. Inter-club events like the Junior Tour help in this respect, as would fostering a culture of hanging out both on and off the bike.
3. Engage with BMX and MTB
Given the high proportion of junior road cyclists who come from BMX or mountain-biking, it makes sense for the road racing community to engage with those sporting communities. Compared to the road and track, BMX and MTB are more natural and ostensibly safer pathways by which children first learn to ride on two wheels. If we want to grow road cycling, we should engage with our off-road neighbours and encourage juniors, when they’re ready, to try having a go at the on-road, drop-bar stuff.
After such positive encounters with parents at the Junior Tour of Sydney, one couldn’t help but come away with a smile on one’s face. Host club Lidcombe-Auburn CC, together with all those parents, coaches, administrators and riders who make junior cycling happen in this State, should be applauded for their efforts. May junior cycling grow and succeed in New South Wales.
To find out how cycling might benefit your child in the long-term, click to read how cycling changes you.