I remember my daughter’s first bike race. She was four years old, and we had travelled up to Carrbridge where the local club had organised a youth Dirt Crit mountain bike race.
Around 80 other youngsters lined up at the start in the pouring rain. The off-road races were graded for each age group and the gender split between boys and girls was matched evenly.
My daughter won her first medal that day, a second place, but achievements weren’t really the purpose of our day trip north. The objective was to have fun on the bike with lots of other young people and that goal, judging by the huge smile on my daughter’s face (and everyone else’s) was well and truly achieved.
Some might say that taking a four-year-old to race on their bike is being a pushy parent, but that definitely wasn’t the intention. There is definitely an element that is hard to avoid – I love cycling and used to race, so it follows that my kids will end up doing the same, in the same way a child of a football fan will end up playing for the local club, or going to matches with their parents.
Since that first race both of my kids have been to many other races. In fact, as I am away working so often they complain that I don’t take them to enough. But when they do go they love the challenge, the occasional success, but above all they love being around lots of other kids who are also there to have fun.
For my son, this seems likely to continue. As an under-12 rider he can expect to line up at the start with 30 or 40 other boys. A few years ago it was the same for my daughter, but as she has progressed to older age categories the number of girls she has had as competition has shrunk significantly.
At one series of races the under-10 category had around 20 girls racing, the under-12 had shrunk to around three and often the under-14 and under-16 age categories hardly ever had any girls competing. I’m not quite sure why this is the case, but it seems to be significant, not just in cycling, but in many sports.
As soon as girls start to reach their teenage years they start to drift away from sport. The ones that don’t often find their progress in the sport can slow. Without competition to push them to the next level they will find themselves reaching a plateau.
There also seems to be a cultural stigma related to older girls participating in sport. I know of one parent whose daughter races on the track and road at a national level. He once told me that she gets bullied at school by other girls who see her as “weird” because she’s rather go training on her bike than hang out with them in her spare time. Such behaviour is learned and is worrying in that it is perpetuated by girls themselves, thus sustaining the cycle of inequity.
Perhaps one way forward is for more women to become role models for younger girls. In the youth cycling club I coach with we have several women who have progressed through their coaching qualifications and now not only mentor a number of girls in our club, but also show the young boys in the club that women are as actively involved in sport as men are.
Whatever the way forward – and there needs to be an active progression from grass-roots right up to professional level – it is important that we encourage more girls to participate and compete in sport. As our society becomes more sedentary and succumbs to more illness we need to let our children know that an active lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle.
Where to ride: The Big Tree Campervan Youth Race Series
Details: This series of off-road races for young people is an ideal way for children to get introduced to cycle racing. The events are laid-back, easy to enter and fun.
The 2018 events are as follows:
September 22 – Mineralwell Park, Stonehaven
October 14 – Hairy Coo, Comrie Croft
October 28 – Mini Downhill, Kinnoull Hill, Perth
November 4 – Lochore Meadows
November 11 – Templeton Woods, Dundee