At first glance the DHL Sprint School looks like an attempt to nurture a new generation of British track talent, but dig a little deeper and it’s clear that this a secondary consideration for the creators of this unique initiative.
In terms of international success, track cycling is easily Britain’s most successful sport at present. The British team stunned the track world with a tally of seven golds among the 11 medals it won at the World Championships in April, and hopes are now sky high for an impressive haul from the Beijing Olympics.
The three year project has just come to the end of a first season which saw six Sprint School meetings take place at the Newport Velodrome in South Wales. The project sees organisers inviting each of the UK’s track leagues to send two boys and two girls aged 12 – 15 to the day-long events.
At each Sprint School the youngsters work on their bike-handling skills, learn to identify and maintain bike components, compete with each other on static roller bikes, get advice on nutrition and training from elite British riders and coaches, and – best of all as far as they are concerned – spend plenty of time riding the Velodrome track.
The idea for the school is a simple one according to the man behind it, Guy Elliot, CEO ofthe North European arm of logistics giant DHL. “There are already rugby skills schools for youngsters and David Beckham has his soccer academy, this is basically the only track cycling equivalent,” he explains.
As a club cyclist, a well connected fan of track cycling and the head of a major business, Guy was in a position to provide the impetus – and the finance – to get the Sprint School concept off the ground. However, he insists that the programme operates as a three-way collaboration.
“We couldn’t have made it happen without Face Partnership [an events and management company specialising in cycling] and [British Cycling’s] Talent Team. At DHL we are very proud of the fact that we are not simply a sponsor, it was our idea and with our partners we run the programme.”
Up to 70 children attend each event and Guy insists that there is a high degree of rotation among the youngsters, with leagues sending as many different faces as possible to each event. “It’s not just about athletic ability,” he explains. “While we do give talented youngsters who are not part of British Cycling’sdevelopment programme a second chance to show what they can do in front of our national coaches, we are just as happy to see children of lesser ability here, learning how to ride on a track and enjoying themselves. Sprint School is intended to be as inclusive as possible, it’s about the kids reaching their own potential, so we positively welcome those of lesser ability.”
Inevitably, however, talent will out and British Cycling’s National Youth Sport Coach Geoff Cooke says he has been particularly impressed by some of the girls who have attended the school. “They have improved out of sight,” he says. “But it helps when they’ve got champions like Vikki Pendleton, Anna Blyth and Craig McLean riding alongside them, offering them advice!”
Geoff, himself, has a wealth of high level experience to pass on the youngsters. With 28 national track titles to his name, the first of which was gained in 1963, he has been an Olympic coach for decades and is clearly revelling in his present role, one which put his retirement plans on hold.
Of the present generation of British Stars, Commonwealth gold and Olympic silver medallist Craig MacLean is just one of the mentors providing expertise and no small measure of inspiration to the kids. “It’s great to be able to help the riders with practical advice and it’d be nice to be able to inspire some of them to future success,” he says. “The mentality in the UK is geared towards time trialling but if we can get more kids to go down the sprinting route then even if they don’t specialise in it, it’s always a useful attribute to have for other forms of bike racing. You just have to look the Australian system which has produced the likes of McEwen and O’Grady to see that.”
As for the kids themselves, it was clear that they were having the time of their lives at Sprint School. A trio of boys from the Solihull Cycling Club; Joe (13), Ben (14) and James (13) were relishing the chance to race on the boards.
“It’s exciting out on the track and we get loads of tips about racing and nutrition,” said Ben. They even said they’d given up on burgers based on the advice of their Skill School mentors, so clearly they are taking the advice seriously!
Laura, aged 13, and 11 year-old Megan from the Kirkby Cycling Club were also enjoying the opportunity to ride at speed on the banked track. “It’s fun, we get to make new friends but the best thing is that we do loads of riding” said Laura.
Parents of course are the unsung heroes of this type of project, and for many like Tina and Ian Latham from Bolton, that has meant many hours spent on the motorway ferrying son Chris to and from all six of Skill School events. “You’ve got to be dedicated, as parents, to do all this travelling but Chris has learned so much that’ it’s definitely been worth it,” said Ian.
Half of the meetings were originally scheduled to take place at the Manchester Velodrome – much handier for the Lathams – before refurbishment of the track meant they were reallocated to Newport.
Those based in the north will potentially have one more trip down the M5 this year in October, when the Sprint School riders will get the chance to show what they’ve learned in a Keirin competition during the Future Revolution meeting. It will be a chance to see some potential stars of the future, but more importantly as far as the Skill School project is concerned, to see a group of young riders having fun while striving to reach their potential, whatever that happens to be.