Parents guide to competitive bike racing
We are all ‘newbies’ at one point and the myriad of terminology/races/kit/disciplines/gearing could not be any more daunting so we asked Tom Partridge to give his advice that he wished somebody had given him in the beginning and being the diligent engineer that he is, what we got back was nothing short of phenomenal………………..enjoy
- Where to start
- The different disciplines….
- Being a Parent (not a coach!)
- Post races
- Growing up.
This guide is written from the perspective of a parent who has sponsored/supported a child through various disciplines of cycle sports. Not all disciplines are covered, but the hope is that the methodology could support any parent in any discipline from any age.
Most of what is written has been ‘found out’ through various channels – there is no single point where all the information is contained. It tends to be learnt through trackside discussions with other parents or digging around the internet.
It can seem like a complicated sport – and in some forms it is! But for the most part its quite simple and most importantly – enjoyable for you and your child. It offers a chance for your child to develop key life skills and form strong bonds with you, and other people around the sport.
Where to start
If you are reading this you either have an interest in cycling that you would like to share with your child, or your child has an interest that you want to help them develop, or hopefully both. From this point both you and your child see cycling as something fun, enjoyable and brimming with opportunities to help your child develop whilst keeping fit and healthy in the great outdoors with like-minded families.
Your child is probably of an age where getting into a club or group of like-minded people doing something active appeals to you as a parent.
Lets pause here for a moment…..three key words that often get forgotten as you spiral deeper and deeper into cycling and racing – fun, enjoyable and opportunities. These 3 things need to be at the forefront of your support as a parent.
We have all seen it – the parent that is living their own dreams through their child – shouting at the side of the track (or touchline if it’s a ball sport), focussing on what they think is wrong and why their child is not performing. I always said it would not be me – but it was…luckily I had people around me that were not shy in telling me – and although I did not want to admit it – I could see it.
Its hard – you want your child to do well – to help their self-esteem – but parents do not make good coaches (more on that later). What you need to focus on is helping them to enjoy their cycling – regardless of a result. Whilst racing – you want them to give their best and be happy that they did indeed give their best – to finish a race with a smile their face as well as one on yours.
Obviously, you need a bike – depending on your chosen start point this could be a MTB, or a road bike. If you are aware of cyclo cross – you might want to think of a road bike with disc brakes (or canti lever brakes on older models) that can be used for both cyclo cross and road riding. Disc brakes are now allowed in road races so you can use the same bike for both – with a change of tyres.
My own personal experience here is to ensure you spend wisely on a bike that is a light as your budget will allow. Heavy cheap bikes from the High Street make it harder for your child to ride. The proportion of bike weight to the child’s input makes it much harder for them and is more likely to put them off. Also the gearing is of poor quality and stiff to use, again making it hard. We spent around £350 on a Islabike which lasted 2 years for our first child and 3 years for our second. Other similar bikes are available from Worx as an example. We sold it for £100.
Next you need a helmet – bear in mind here your child will fall off – many times. Some of those will involve a little trip over the handlebars….a decent helmet in the child’s favourite colours can be purchased from £20 upwards – check online reviews and ensure it has the relevant safety endorsements.
Often when kids are playing with their friends on bikes on the local village green or similar, there is peer pressure not to wear a helmet – personally I took a stance that my child would never ride a moving bicycle without one – and they have both respected that and adhered to it – especially when you show them a few pictures of those unfortunate to have had crashes without helmets – shock and awe tactics do work….
Next your need some gloves or mitts – reference the helmet discussion your child will fall off and the first point of contact is the hands – particularly the palms. A decent set of mitts/gloves will prevent some deep grit filled grazed hands.
Finally, you need glasses – either cycling ones of just some clear lens safety type. These help prevent flies/grit/dirt/mud and in the event of a crash bits of bike going into the eyes. This is the first area where the ‘street cred’ comes in and your child will want a cool set of specs….
Other kit will come as you develop in the sport, such as tops/shorts/jacket/clipless pedals/socks/cycle computers etc etc – but none of that is needed to get riding and racing.
The different disciplines….
Mountain Biking – riding and racing through an off road course, often through trees, up and down hills, and depending on the time of year, lots of mud! Courses are created using stakes and plastic tape and set up by volunteers prior to the race. Under 12 years old have a shorter circuit and race for shorter times. Over 12’s ride the same course as adults and can ride for 45min+
One of the fastest growing cycle sports, cyclo cross uses a bike that looks like a road bike, but has tyres with more grip for off road condition and brakes that do not clog easily with mud. The courses are a mix of off road and hard pack/tarmac. Depending on the time of year races often involve lots of mud. Racing tends to be less wheel to wheel as after the first lap riders tend to get strung out. A good sport for those that prefer a softer landing and less elbow to elbow action. Be warned though – its very tough as there tends to be no ‘rest’ during a race. Riders often have to dismount to clear obstacles, such as hurdles or have to run sections of the course because its unrideable or faster than trying to ride it. Again under 12’s ride a smaller course and race for less time. Over 12’s race the adults course. One big difference with cyclo cross for over 12’s right through to the adults is that you can have 2 or more bikes and a pit crew. Since bikes completely clog with mud to the point they cannot be ridden, bike changes are allowed. A rider makes a judgement to come into the pits and change bikes. The pit crew will pressure wash the dirty bike and get it ready for another change. Worst case – riders may change bikes every half lap!!! Your therefore need a good pit crew!! This can be one of the more expensive disciplines due to number of bikes, pressure washer, and regular replacement of worn out parts due to mud/grit ingress.
Road racing does not mean racing on a road, next to cars and trucks!!! Its called road as it uses a bike very similar to and for some even the same as a road bike. It can take place on close roads, but in under 16’s more often on a race track either specifically built for cycling or a car/bike race track. In the U12’s again they race less laps for less time and it tends to be less rider’s in a bunch. Once in over 12’s it can be 30mins upto 1hr of racing, and sometimes a bit longer for National events. Its close racing too – often in a ‘peloton’ or close group of riders.
Track or Velodrome racing takes place on an oval track using a fixed gear bike (no gear shifters) that has NO brakes!!! There is no free wheel either so if the back wheel is rotating, so are the pedals! To slow down riders need to learn to reduce the pedal pressure and apply it gently whilst the pedals come upwards. This tends to be a discipline for riders who have some bike experience. Starters are best joining a ‘Club Cluster’ session at a velodrome where approved British Cycling coaches can get them started – it is not a sport to just jump on a bike.
Track riding and racing takes a lot of discipline and trust. Speeds are high and those not aware of their surroundings could endanger others. But its very good for bike handling skills and awareness. Tracks can range from outdoor 450m with very little banking to indoor 250m 45° banking!!
As the name suggests Time Trials are races against the clock. There are no bunches and riders are set off at intervals, often 30secs apart. They also often take place on the open road where vehicles are active. You must be over 12 to take part on the open road. Occasionally clubs arrange TT racing for younger riders at tracks, and the Cycling Time Trial Association do arrange events at race tracks.
Its purely a battle of rider vs the clock – and those that get serious about this can spend a lot of money buying ‘Aero’ equipment as this is a discipline where it can make a big difference.
Being a Parent (not a coach!)
Here is the hardest piece of all, balancing that role of being the parent and giving your child advice of how to do their chosen sport….. or is it their chosen sport??
Are you encouraging them to do a sport that you enjoy??
In a lot of situations, we are guilty of engaging our children in the sports we enjoy – at the expense of the sports they may enjoy – that we, the parents, may not!!
Guilty as charged for me!! I am not into football – so when my kids started asking for the shirts of certain clubs and to go to football clubs – I was not enthusiastic!!
When they were not interested in the first bike I bought them – I was gutted!!
But then, when they show interest, I stepped up my parenting skills to tell them how its done.
It was at this point it could have gone very wrong – as a parent you will no doubt realise your children seldom actually listen to your voice.
I realised this when we first attended a coaching session at Hetton Hawks. After weeks of trying to explain how to ride around corners with the inside pedal up – and it just not happening, my son jumped in the car after the session and proceeded to tell me how to corner!
The lesson here was another voice, an apparent expert, and lots of other children to listen to, watch and learn from – made the learning experience more fun – instead of the nagging dad who couldn’t possibly know anything of interest to a 5-year-old about riding a bike.
As my son has raced more – I have unwittingly dipped my toe back in and out of the parent/coach role – and all that it does is heap on the pressure of expectation that you set as a parent.
The best thing I did was step back – be the provider of kit, the taxi, the bank manager and the counsel.
This last part is the most rewarding – the person that they can discuss a race with on their terms – a pre race chat or a post race analysis – not a ‘do this or make sure you do that’ but a ‘have you thought about this and what you might do if’ and perhaps most importantly, afterwards ensuring every result is congratulated – whatever it is – remembering that your child has gone and done their best.
Here I am assuming that there is an interest to race, otherwise there is no need to train!!
This is a hard area to define. Do you race and race and make it your training, or do you train, train, train, and race when your fitter and stronger…..
There is no right and wrong answer……
My son dipped his toe into training when he was about 10 – and hated it – he did not enjoy sitting statically on a turbo trainer. He also didn’t particularly enjoy riding on the roads and he was very nervous of traffic. What he enjoyed the most was Saturday mornings at Hetton Hawks and racing – as much as he could…
Only later did he begin to find training and enjoying it – age 13 – and at this point it came from a coach – a coach that took time to help him understand areas of weakness and where training could help. Someone who could structure his training and give him the feedback he needed to help him focus.
So two key things for me – do not push your child into training, let them find it. And when they find it ensure you connect with your club coach – who knows what they are doing and is likely to advise and guide your child appropriately.
Cycling and cycle racing would not happen as it does today without the huge support of volunteers up and down the country. Helping in clubs, helping within the region and even helping nationally. One such group of helpers are the club coaches. These coaches go through training, from Level 1 upto Level 3. As with most volunteers – their guidance can be varied and you may find that you do not feel it’s the best for your child. If this is the case – read the chapter titled ‘Being a parent….’
A level 3 coach can give children guidance on training. They can assess performance and give training plans. They can ask you child to aim for certain things and provide feedback. This normally happens once a child is 14+
One of the best thing you can do is engage fully with your club coaches and listen. You may be a very good bike rider – but what do you know about training for MTB races or hour-long road races??
The other thing to do is ensure your part of any communication – just to help you child understand the context of what is being asked – for them, going through that learning process of communication – can be a real challenge!!
One key thing to remember though – you can suggest/tell/recommend things to your child 100 times over – and in the process become frustrated with the fact ‘they don’t listen’ but another voice, another respected expert, gets it through in one go.
Club racing is where you should start. This is where your child races against other children within their age category. If you have been to cycle sessions with your child then its likely they have made a few friends, and they will race against them. Club races happen in most of the main categories of cycle sport. This racing tends to be enough for the early racer – its challenging and rewarding and is celebrated with likeminded friends and families. Its here that your child may need help learning to lose – perhaps the biggest skill required in all sports. There may be tears – of pain and joy – which need that parental guidance supported by club coaches.
Regional races is where the travelling starts. The region has leagues set up for each discipline of cycle sport. For the North East Region there is the North East Youth League (NEYL) for road, and the Cyclo Cross North East (CXNE) for Cyclocross, or the North East Cross Country (NEXC MTB) for Mountain bikes. These leagues have racing for Under 8’s upto U16’s.
There are anywhere between 5 to 15 rounds per season, depending on the discipline, and you must compete in so many to ‘qualify’ for a position. For example you may need to race is 5 of 8 rounds to qualify for prizes at the end of the season.
For Road and MTB the season is from March to September, for cyclo cross its from September to February – so if you do both – it’s a busy year!!!
Depending on where you live it could be upto 1.5hrs of travelling to get to a race, but normally its around 30-45mins.
If your child is really enjoying their racing and desperate to do more, AND they can cope with a little more time/distance – then regional racing is the next logical step.
Here you race other clubs and riders you may not know. It can be a little bit more ‘serious’ if you let it – but again setting expectations early on and allowing your child to be happy not winning is key to enjoying this step of the process. They will put enough pressure upon themselves to do their best without parental pressure.
Warning: at this point in the racing – the cost starts to increase….there is pressure for ‘better’ equipment, faster wheels, spare wheels, second bikes (cyclo cross), pressure washers, bigger car/van etc etc…. its not always needed – its not until age around 14+ that this starts to make some difference….. don’t get sucked in by ‘needing’ the fancy kit that someone else has because they did better than your son/daughter!!!
Now we are getting serious about our racing. If your considering racing at National level you are about to pitch your child against the best in their age group. Those that are fast and talented for their age.
Don’t let this put you off – start by doing one National race, your most local one – have a go! It’s a great experience to see how you child stacks up and it can be a great spectator event. Often just the bragging rights of riding in a national event are enough to put a smile on their face.
If you are doing this – see if you can find another person in your area/club who knows what is going on! Often you get the best information from those that have been doing it for a while. There is a lot to consider – gear checks, start times, start locations, warm up, feeding/drinking, getting there, parking etc etc
For the more serious racer who has shown real talent in regional races – this is a shop window to show how you good you are. Performing well at this level can start to help you progress into some of the Pathway programmes of British Cycling whereby you get invited to attend even more training with British Cycling to help develop your racing skills.
Another warning: this can be a very pressurised environment whereby youngsters really struggle with what they see as poor performance – not doing as well as they feel they should can start to demotivate them to the point of giving up – which is a shame.
Use your club coach to help them – keep a touch on reality in that the most likely outcome over time is that they become excellent local or regional bike racers that have a great bunch of friends they can cycle with. Very few will make it through to become medallists or pro’s.
The post race download – that 20-30min conversation whereby the parent is asking lots of questions and trying to understand how a race went – either good or bad. The ‘What could you have done differently?’, ‘What were your tactics?’ – which soon develop into ‘Why did you do that?’, or ‘Why didn’t you do like we discussed?’, emotions rushing in…….
I have learnt here that time is key – there seems to be a sweet spot for this discussion – and its NOT straight after the race. I have found that a brief moment of praise, a ‘Nice racing’ or ‘Well done’ is enough. They need time to come down from that high heart rate, that adrenaline rush. They often have a chat with those new friends from other clubs/regions etc to talk it over at their level first.
For me the sweet spot seems to be the journey home – get it done and dusted in the car/van – it may be different for others. The reason this seems to work is by the time we are home – its over – we are not living and breathing it for hours. Its not taking over. I also feel it helps demonstrate that I am there and I care and most of all I am interested to hear thoughts and feelings, but I have also given them some space.
Again, if your lucky enough to have your club coach around at races like we are, the coach is often the better person for them to engage with – the coach has a better understanding of the race, the tactics, the training they may have been doing and can support them, good or bad!
This final section is aimed kids growing up
For kids growing up you need to consider that children grow at different rates, for a given age, some look younger, some older and some about right. This physiological difference for the same age makes a huge impact on their performance. Consider long legs (levers) vs shorter legs and the ability to turn the pedals. Also consider muscle sizes, more muscular children will be able to ride a bicycle harder.
The point of all this – if your child is in the bigger than normal category – they might do very well and you (and them) may get carried away with this fantastic performance. Only to find in 1 or 2 years when their peers catch up – they are not as good as they were and lose faith and spirit and ultimately give it all up because they cannot perform like they once did.
And vice versa – the smaller child who never quite manages to get on the podium catches up and starts doing well – also gets carried away with this new level. You have to help your child find that desire to compete for enjoyment regardless of result. Ultimately you want your child to learn from being competitive and that life is competitive – be it for a new job, or a promotion, or even to buy or sell – everything is competitive. They need to understand that you don’t always win, and that doing your absolute best, in a fair environment, is all that matters.