Two wheels

July is here, traditionally the time of year when children see the Tour de France on television and say, “How do I get to do that?” to whichever parent happens to be nearest. Resist the urge to mutter something cynical about performance-enhancing drugs: be reassured that your kids can race bikes, without risking themselves on the open road, and without negotiating mountains. Best of all, they can do it under your watchful eyes.

One of the best-kept secrets of British sport is that at grassroots level, children’s cycle racing is thriving on closed circuits and velodromes, both indoor and outdoor. One track I know is operating a waiting list because the demand is so high, while most others are reporting a boom in under-12s. Several factors have brought this about: cycle racing is one of the few sports where girls are able to compete with boys at least until their teens; there is a plethora of role models – male and female – from Lance Armstrong to current Olympic cycling team stars such as Victoria Pendleton; and, at last, children’s bikes have some oomph about them.

There is a thriving trade in scaled-down racing bikes, from major manufacturers offering miniature versions of adult machines to specialist builders such as Islabikes, the steed of choice at my local track. The important thing about these bikes is that they are tailored specifically for children, with properly sized handlebars, carefully selected gears and brake levers that are designed to fit smaller hands. Most critically, however – and in contrast to kids’ bikes of yore – they are light. And a child who has been put on a lightweight, properly sized bike is usually hooked at once.

The starting point for the putative Tour winner and their parent is British Cycling’s website, which includes a club finder and a list of off-road racing venues around the country. This includes BMX and mountain bike tracks, but what you are looking for is either a velodrome (banked oval track) or a closed circuit, which is a tarmac course up to a mile round. On most velodromes, if you can’t use a bike with gears, fixed-wheel machines are available for hire, while some clubs have their own kids’ track bikes.

A certain amount of detective work is needed, but there are two guidelines: clubs accredited to BC’s Go-Ride scheme are those that have qualified coaches offering programmes tailored to children, of all abilities, at off-road venues. It also helps if the club is linked to a specific facility, for example the Slipstreamers based at the Hillingdon circuit in west London and the Palmer Park Velo in Reading. The most successful youth clubs are those that have unlimited access to such a facility.

What’s on offer varies from club to club and circuit to circuit, but as a parent, what you are looking for is properly coached “drop-in” or taster sessions where you simply turn up with your child, their bike and a crash helmet, and see if they like it. This is a better way in than simply turning up and riding a race. Paradoxically, going straight into racing probably works better for younger children, because there is no element of riding in a group involved – up to about 10, they seem to get on their bikes and go as fast as they can.

More importantly, however, the skills learned are not only useful for racing. Two of the key factors when it comes to riding safely on the road are confidence and bike-handling ability. The “flying hours” gained when training on a closed circuit or a velodrome, in close proximity to other youthful wannabees, are invaluable: if your child can look behind while on his or her bike without wobbling, or if they can flick their front wheel around an obstacle on the track without losing control – or perhaps as importantly, without worrying that they might lose control – it all helps when they get on real roads.

And if you can get your son or daughter to a banked velodrome, it will prompt a different reaction this August when the track cyclists should be among the best British performers in Beijing. “Hey Dad/Mum, that Chris Hoy/Victoria Pendleton is doing what I do.”

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