Words: Andy Stewart / Images: Ellen Isherwood
Andy Stewart is not a coach. He’s not even a bike rider. In fact, whisper it, but he doesn’t even really like cyclists, or so he might have you believe. But when his lad joined the local bike club Andy supported his boy as much as he could. This year he was one of several volunteers that helped organise a trip to the Isle of Man Youth Tour.
That was always the target: the Isle of Man.
For the uninitiated the Isle of Man Youth Tour happens every year over the Early May Bank Holiday weekend. There are three races for all age groups from 8 to 15, starting with a perfectly set up, pro-style time trial on the Friday evening along Loch Promenade in Douglas. There are then two stages on closed roads, one each on Saturday and Sunday. The final stage this year was run over the Billown motorcycle road racing circuit.
Ramp starts, electronic timing, support bikes from Brother, the whole shebang. A taste of pro cycling for the youngsters, all organised by the mega-competent girls at the Isle of Man, Emma and Erica. Indeed, the reason the Isle of Man is so good at this is because the people behind it are enthusiastic, inclusive, passionate about cycling – particularly kids’ cycling – and because they understand their own history.
History is important to the story because our club is a historic one too. Liverpool Century Road Club was 100 years old last year. It has produced dozens of great road cyclists over the years with the latest being the just-retired Matt Brammeier of the UCI WorldTour’s Team Dimension Data, Mark McNally of Belgian Pro Continental outfit Wanty–Groupe Gobert and Johnny McEvoy of the UK’s Contintental-level Madison Genesis. This club has history.
Trouble was, we had few kids.
The club, although rich in heritage, was in danger of losing its future.
So the question arose last year, “What does this club do for kids?”
The question came from some of the parents of the few. The answer was “Not an awful lot.” And that was the start of the adventure. The parents got together and asked if they could start an official youth section. The club agreed.
We decided on the following goals:
- To draw kids into cycling in an area dominated by football;
- To show them the benefits of cycling;
- To keep it as cheap and as inclusive as possible for the parents to enable them to help the kids to compete; and
- To get the kids racing as far afield as possible.
And finally we set ourselves the target of taking a group to the 2018 Isle of Man Youth Tour, then just 11 months away.
ON OUR WAY
The first stumbling block: under British Cycling rules we had to set up separately to the senior club, as an academy. This we did.
Secondly, we needed a sponsor to help out with costs. We ticked that one off quickly by drawing in Integral UK, a major UK and international facilities management group who were looking at community initiatives in our area when we went fishing for sponsors. They have been fantastic, not simply financially but also in wanting genuine involvement.
Lastly, and the key to longevity, we set up a HSBC UK Go-Ride programme at the club, to give it a future. This allows kids from a young age not only to learn to ride but to see and want to become involved in racing too.
We were motoring now. From our original 6 or 7 kids, we rapidly moved to 12 or 13. We set up a kit structure, whereby a level of kit was given to the kids free, depending how actively they raced, at what level, and how far afield they went.
We offered assistance with travel and gave as much advice on entries, coaching and race riding as we could.
We got some club coaches engaged with kids and eventually even got an area coach from British Cycling to throw in his lot with us.
Some of our kids went all over the place last year, with their brand new, gorgeous Bioracer kit on show in lots of national as well as regional races.
And the plan? Oh, the plan. That’s right, the Isle of Man.
We took 10 kids, with parents and helpers on top, in a masterful raid on the place. We travelled by air and sea and stayed for four days and three nights.
Everything was set up by the club, who provided support vehicles, minibuses, cars, bed and breakfast and our very own photographer, the lovely Ellen Isherwood of Lancs Racing Scene.
Our club was one of the largest participants in a brilliantly executed weekend of racing.
It was fantastic.
WORDS TO LIVE BY
Our kids were given three very simple instructions. We all know what they were, do we not?
We don’t care where you finish but:
- Do your best;
- Don’t DNF; and
- Enjoy it!
And enjoy it they did.
We had some great rides over the weekend. Niamha got a top-ten finish in her category, Girls Youth A. Thomas, a first-year in the Junior category, finished in the top half of an ultra-competitive field containing the full Great Britain squad including the winner of Paris–Roubaix Juniors. He was just 1’43” down on the winner after three stages.
“You’re gonna get killed, mate. But it’s how you get killed that matters.”
But the best performance of the weekend was from Liam.
Liam is 15 and brand new to cycling. He had taken part in only two local crits, getting murdered in both – as happens when you are new, as the initiated well know.
Liam asked a question of one of the more experienced kids on the Sunday morning before the last stage. The hilly stage.
“How do you think I’ll do Tom?”
“Liam,” said Tom. “You’re gonna get killed, mate. But it’s how you get killed that matters. We’ve all been there. Keep going, don’t DNF. If you get through this, you’ll get through everything else.”
Liam went out and went over that steep, brutal climb 12 times that morning, covering the 30-odd miles, and finishing. He had never ridden that far before, and had never climbed that much before.
He finished stone cold last, and when cresting the peak on the last two circuits he almost came to a stop – in a word, knackered.
But his guts, and the cheers and applause from that knowledgeable crowd, who had all watched their own kids go through the same struggle before, got him over the top.
That boy was ecstatic. Ecstatic and proud. His dad was proud too. So were all of the club’s parents and, I think, so were all the competing kids’ parents, such was the generosity of the response he received.
But the very best quote of the trip came from the mouth of one of the youngsters after racing, when all the travellers ate together in Douglas on the Sunday night.
“Dad? This has been the best weekend I’ve ever had!”
And that’s the real reason we did it.
So that kids who wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to bike racing; who maybe wouldn’t even ride a bike; who wouldn’t understand the health benefits, or care; who perhaps wouldn’t ever go away for a weekend – would get to do all of those things and maybe develop a passion for cycling that they will carry with them for life.
“Look out for the next Matt Brammeier in a Century jersey”
We started this season with 12 or 13. We think next season we may have 19 or 20. The HSBC UK Go-Ride initiative is bearing fruit. We are drawing kids in dribs and drabs as we progress through this season.
Integral are on board again as are one or two other smaller sponsors.
John Wych, our British Cycling coach is heavily involved locally and is a marvel.
Our coaches and committee are fully engaged, with the Go-Ride in particular.
We have also now reinstated an adult racing ‘squad’ for the kids to gravitate into naturally after they pass through juniors and leave the academy.
And Liverpool Century is racing the road again.
We have a structure. A pathway.
Next year we will return to the Isle of Man, and with more kids if possible. We will also try and target another big race elsewhere and get the kids travelling together somewhere else too if we can get it together. You have to have goals for them to aim for.
But whether they race nationals, regionals, locals at Litherland, ride road, CX, track, TTs, or mountain bikes, we are giving them an opportunity they didn’t have to get a bug for the toughest and most gripping of sports.
Look out for the next Matt Brammeier in a Century jersey. It won’t take 20 years this time.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 19.