Bicycle School

Maths, history, chemistry: how was school for you? What if you could have learned about pedalling, speed and balance? Well this is exactly what kids do in many of cycling’s heartlands. Right from the earliest age children learn cycling skills, start racing and join a club all thanks to a scuola di ciclismo, école de cyclisme or “cycling school”.

This is an essential part of the sport for many and the nursery for many a champion.

The “bicycle school” is a varied format, at its base is a collection of skill-based exercises for young riders, often under 10 years old and available to anyone older than four. The skills include riding around a tight course with cones, riding limbo-like under a bar or perhaps going over a see-saw plank. As you’d imagine this teaches handling skills from the earliest age. Here’s an example on youtube:

There are small races too, often just a 60m sprint because this is what fits in a school yard or the straight section of a local athletics track. This competitive element extends to other areas, there are even timed competitions to remove and replace a wheel or simulate a puncture repair; bonus points if the old inner tube is folded away carefully. Watch the clip below found on youtube where at 3m00s a young rider fakes a crash so that the adult monitors can observe whether the other kids stop and help as they’re supposed to.

It’s highly structured, a whole chapter of the French Federation’s rulebook is dedicated to the school rules from safety, from the obligatory use of helmets and gloves to the maximum gear size to protect growing bones and ensure kids develop a light pedalling action; plus obvious child protection measures. Amusingly there’s even a rule banning race radios just in case a pushy parent gets ideas about playing directeur sportif during a 60m sprint (rule 9.1.0018 in case you think I’m joking).

“Find a club and join your tribe”

With skills and small races it mirrors more adult competitions with the best in an area being invited to compete on behalf of their region, just like an U23 rider might do in time. Structured, yes but that’s only because the rules are mentioned above. Outwardly it’s all about having fun and any competitions within are kept short and amusing. Cycling is a tough sport and the culture, even the cult, of suffering is something for an adult to embrace later.

The Scuola di Ciclismo Piovene lets, er, them learn from Ballan and Pozzato

School vs internet
Cycling has taken off in popularity in many English-speaking countries in recent years and with it a lot of adults have got into the sport, there’s even the marketing term MAMIL, the Middle-Aged-Man-in-Lycra. It’s great but means many – perhaps you – didn’t go via this early introduction, it marks a contrasting approach because adults who start cycling often don’t receive any formal training and tips. Maybe this explains the proliferation of “how to” websites and the likes of GCN.

This blog tends to look only at pro cycling but that’s just the top of a pyramid. Here’s a look at the base of the sport, an essential part of it with the provision of training and skills. These schools also act as recruitment for clubs. Encouragingly the top and bottom of the pyramid are linked, with many pros rising up from a club school to a contract with a big team and often a pro will turn up at a school session of their club to encourage the kids.

Bicycle school doesn’t replace classroom lessons but some kids in Eurp[e will attend mid-week or weekend “cycling schools” in order to learn basic skills from handling to puncture repair and just to have fun on the bike. The older they get the more they learn and specialise and the school becomes competitive. Many of today’s champions started with these schools.

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28 thoughts on “Bicycle School”

  1. I was waiting for them to prod him with a toe to make sure he was still breathing! But seriously, it looks like a great scheme.

    My French friends here helped their sons learn – both four or five years old at the time – by taking out the bottom bracket,cranks and pedals. There was no need for stabilisers: they both got their balance really quickly. Now, all pedalled up, they fly round the park like pros.

    • If it is anything like the Go Ride scheme, it is not about teaching the kids to ride their bike initially. It is about improving their riding, and generally encouraging an interest and having fun.

    • My son struggled to find his balance at 5, but wanted to start a BMX camp with his friend. I took the pedals and cranks off his bike on a Saturday morning, and by Sunday afternoon he was pedaling. Then he started a BMX camp on Monday, and was able to competed in his first BMX race on that Thursday. All in 5 days. Best method.

  2. Pet hate of mine is the radios to/from cyclists, is there something about power meters or other such devices which are also banned? (not that they will be needed for 60 meters but….)

  3. Eric van Lancker (former pro and classics winner) runs a cycling academy for kids in Belgium. It is massively over-subscribed. Kids cannot race unless they have been to the school from what I understand. Eric’s team teaches them loads of basics, not just riding in bunches, how to take corners etc, but also maintenance and basic discipline.

    As the blogger alludes, perhaps a bigger issue is those who did not get the benefit of this as kids. Why? Cycling accidents among MAMILS who take up the sport later in life are reaching epidemic proportions (at least this is what the stats in Australia and the UK are telling us, with hospital admissions for “recreational cyclists”, mostly males, who are 40+ showing scary year-on-year increases).

    Perhaps the lack of formal training in a club environment, means that we don’t necessarily know our limits and then ride within them. I would love for some kind of program for adults to be offered with every bicycle purchase or as a condition to getting a race licence or a gran fondo entrance. Perhaps it could be tied to an insurance incentive or something.

    • I’m well over 60 but we had cycle training (and the Cycling Proficiency Test) when I was at school, although my bike handling skills were greatly enhanced by doing a daily paper round on a ‘W H Smith’s bike’ – the original fat bike.

      • We had a cycle after school club when i was a nipper, did CPT and was a fully paid up member of the Tufty Club, i been crashing push-bikes since i was 4yrs old, over half the crashes would be my fault the rest taken out by car drivers. Fairly hefty head trauma in September and last month 2 broken ribs. The way i see it, it’s all about the numbers, the more we ride the more unluck we possess. Now, where are my overshoes?……

  4. There is such a structure in the UK. Find a local cycling club (BC website and LBS can point one in the correct direction)learn to ride in a group at a pace that suits. There are plenty of clubs who don’t rip beginners apart and will do their level best to nurture any newcomer whatever age or cycling interest. However lots of 40+ men seem to know better…

    Still if you’re happy to drive half way across the country and pay £40+ to ride for 6 hrs on roads that would normally be empty I’m okay with that.

    • I grew up through the club system in the UK. My point was how do you persuade those who didn’t of the merits of getting involved later in life. For whatever reason, the clubs don’t really sell the benefit to that large swag of people who we see out on the roads these days. How do you reach them?

      • I’m sure many posting on here have come through similar routes to you and I regardless of country of origin. Those you want to inspire probably don’t want to be reached, in the main. Every once in a while we get a few new members who stay the course.

        To me it appears a bit like education, because everybody has been to school they think they can teach, likewise because almost everybody learned to ride a bike in their youth perhaps many newcomers believe they can ride at an appropriate level now after 20-30 years off a bike.

        I still follow sports I played or picked up at school but I have no intention of joining a formal club structure now. I imagine that view may prevail in a large proportion of new converts to cycling and so be it. Natural selection will always win in the end.

  5. When I was growing up in the north of England there was nothing this formal in the school itself, but there was an after school program where kids could develop skills towards taking the “cycling proficiency test”. Almost everyone I knew who had a bike went through that program. Taught a lot of bike handling, minor repair, and road safety stuff.

    • That’s still around, but it’s called Bikeability now. It is more aimed at recreational cycling, though, than the sport. That’s more the domain of the clubs which, for whatever reason, are less visible – especially at a junior level – in the UK than in the sport’s heartlands.

    • I was going to write the same thing, about Go Ride.

      If you check the club finder of the BC website you can see where you local clubs are, most, but not all, are attached to senior clubs. The training is done is a very informal way, but with a strong emphasis upon improving bike handling, developing pedalling technique and awareness of others around you. BC obviously want to encourage participation in cycle sport, and the massive fields for junior cyclo-cross racing shows that it is effective in that regard.

      BC also enforce (the same?) rules about gear inches to prevent overuse type injuries and also stop the larger kids just mashing massive gear and dropping everyone!

  6. Ha! A very timely article from my point of view – I was just out assisting on a day’s ride with a class of 10/11yo boys and girls from a local school. (While wearing my inrng cap of course!)

    We’re extremely lucky to have a group who provide free bike training to all local schools and nurseries, culminating in every pupil going on a full day’s ride in their final year of primary school, as well as running an annual Sunday club. It’s not about racing at all but trying to ensure kids can ride safely and courteously on roads and shared-user paths. Perhaps only a few will go on to become regular cyclists (in the most general sense) but, as mentioned in the article, it at least gives them training and skills on a bike that they might not otherwise receive – I have been surprised by the number of adults who have turned up with their kids to some of the Sunday clubs I’ve attended who lack those same skills.

    And without wanting to travel too far down the bike advocacy route, surely (parent) drivers seeing kids out on bikes (and sending their own out there) might think about their driving skills which hopefully has a knock on effect for all cyclists?

    Also, on a different note, thanks Inrng for such compelling blogs. Even on those off season days when I really can’t be bothered logging onto the many news sites, I still avidly check out this blog and your twitter page too.

  7. I’m eternally grateful to those who taught me
    all those years ago when I came to a club as an ex-marathon runner and pro moto racer. I regularly see one of these schools here in Rome when we ride the Lungotevere north. Sadly, too many MAMILS think they know everything already, my friend Bill Ron no longer offers his expertise on any instructional rides after too many arguments with so-called experts on how to properly ride in a paceline, etc. In some ways modern bicycles are like point-and-shoot cameras, so easy to use everyone thinks they are a pro. After all “everyone knows how to ride a bike” they say while they wobble around endangering their fellow riders.

  8. Chiming in here, in the US.

    A few after school bike handling classes at elementary schools, but lack of funding makes it predominately an after school dad/mom volunteer program.

    Not sure if they teach the kids the proper cuss words for that aggressive motorists they may encounter later in life?

  9. My club has a Juniors academy and it has produced some good young kids coming through the system. The coach does a fantastic job as well.

    As for MAMIL’s, I raced MTB in my junior years before moving to the road, I see too many people that are pretty clueless in our club joining the fast ride yet have never been involved in a paceline, never raced and are chewing stem to just hold on to the group, but if you tell them they should go and join the slower group, they are not interested.

    Our club has been looking at doing intro rides to new members as a way of trying to introduce some training etc.

    It’s a bit of a problem.

    • It is a problem, potentially a big problem when one of these bozos hits the front and then screws up, taking down the whole group. Back-in-the-day one of the senior club members would take these folks aside and tactfully inform them of the need to attend one of the club’s Saturday morning training sessions where proper positioning and such was taught. It was made clear that until this happened these folks would no longer be welcome on the club rides. Worked well back then but in these days of “point and pedal” bicycles perhaps it’s more of a challenge?

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