John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada
Two photos caught my eye Thursday morning when I was flitting through my twitter feed. One came from Le Tour Yorkshire and showed three young English children, probably second-graders, holding packets of flower seeds, with some bright yellow daffodils in front of them. Two of the kids, a girl and a boy, are grinning; the other, a shy-looking girl in glasses, has a slight smile on her studious face. The other photo, taken by my old VeloNews colleague Andy Hood at Paris-Nice, depicts Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas in the yellow leader’s jersey signing autographs for 10 French youngsters, half boys, half girls. They’re all smiling, and probably making that high-pitched racket that most kids make when they’re very excited.
On digging deeper (so to speak), I found out that the three children in Yorkshire—where the opening two stages of this year’s Tour de France take place on July 5 and 6—attend one of the 240 schools on the upcoming Route du Tour. Each school has been given 500 snapdragon seeds to sow in any pattern they like to produce 500 yellow blooms. The kids can add seeds of their own to give their displays the look of, perhaps, Le Tour’s white-and-red polka-dot jersey. Whatever the schools choose, they should make this year’s Tour start even more colorful than usual.
Like those children mobbing Sky’s Thomas before the Paris-Nice stage start in Crêches-sur-Saône on Thursday, the Yorkshire kids may also get their chance to see cycling’s highest profile racers in July—even though actually meeting the stars will be challenging among the 2 million spectators expected to show up for the Tour’s first two stages. More certain is that the thousands of students exposed to all the thrills will remember the Tour came to their town or village in 2014.
Getting kids hooked on cycling is perhaps the most important goal for everyone in this beautiful sport. When I began reading cycling magazines, I was influenced by a photo on the cover of Coureur, the British magazine that later changed its names to Sporting Cyclist. It was a shot of a young Italian boy in Milan, perhaps six years old, sitting on a tiny race-replica bike made by Bianchi. Cool!
On my first European assignment for that magazine’s successor, International Cycle Sport, in 1968, I wrote a story about a cycling school for children under 10 in Troyes, France. The coach taught them bike-handling skills on a school playground and helped them prepare for their first races.
My own daughter was just eight when she joined me for her first big bike ride. It was England’s largest fun ride, from London to Brighton, with more than 20,000 starters of all ages and sizes. When I asked her recently what she remembers from that hilly 50-mile ride, which takes in the double-digit gradient of Ditchling Beacon before a last drop down to its seaside destination, she said: “I had one of those ‘I can’t go any more’ moments, right?” She did. But she still valiantly pushed on, and made it to the finish, before we returned home by train, sleeping most the way.
The cycling boom currently happening in Great Britain can partly be attributed to the efforts that race organizers made over the years to get children interested in the sport. Following races such as the Tour of Britain back in the 1960s and ’70s, I would often be surprised when turning a corner and seeing hundreds of cheering shoolkids lining the road—thanks to the organizers making pre-race visits to schools to publicize the event. And I’ve since seen similar enthusiasm from young people at bike races in Asia, the Americas and all over Europe.
Volunteers (mostly teachers who were members of cycling clubs) founded the English Schools Cycling Association (now called the British Schools Cycling Association) in 1967. It expanded slowly, but became fully established before the national federation began taken an interest in youth riders under 16. Many of today’s British pros, including Thomas and Mark Cavendish in the 1990s, came up through the schools cycling system—which has regional and national championships for age groups from seven and younger up to 15 and older.
In recent years, the Tour de France has made great strides in attracting young people to the event. Every day, a group of two-dozen teens, all in the same uniforms, ride the last part of the stage in formation, giving them a true taste of professional cycling; short-distance sprint races for kids are held at stage finishes; and the Tour is followed by the Young Reporters, a group of students who do interviews and write articles for a daily newspaper they produce. All these are things that develop children’s interest in cycling and will likely keep them lifelong fans of the sport—even if they don’t go on to become bike racers.
Just over three months from now, when the Tour makes its Grand Départ in Yorkshire, England, the peloton will race past those 240-or-so schools where the kids will have sown their seeds, tended the blooms, and weeded the flower beds for what I’m sure will be stunning displays. And should Cavendish win the opening stage in Harrogate, where his mother lives, then all those schoolchildren will carry with them strong memories of the Tour. And, hopefully, the experience will have sown seeds of passion for a sport that can be enjoyed by everyone.