Gears and pulleys are being discussed in a primary school science lesson at Wadebridge Academy in Cornwall, but instead of the children reading about how it works in a textbook, they’re learning about it in a far more memorable and applied way, by riding their bikes on the school’s brand new pump track.
According to teacher Tom Slater, the track, which opened in December 2016, has been a massive asset to the school. As well as being used for PE, it is being utilised in other curriculum subjects to make learning fun; it provides a sporting resource that has almost universal appeal and has improved fitness levels and inspired the children to cycle outside school hours.
Wadebridge Academy used the sugar tax to pay for the track. Unlike other schools who have invested in pump tracks, they chose not to buy any bikes for the children to use at school. “I wanted to build the desire in the children to have their own bikes,” explains Slater. “We finished the pump track just before Christmas and whereas previously lots of children had wanted an Xbox, loads of them asked for bikes instead. We used to have just two or three bikes in the shed, but now we often have 70 to 80 that the kids have brought to school.”
The school has capitalised on this enthusiasm for cycling by opening up Bikeability sessions to its Year 4 kids, which give them the safety skills to cycle to school. It also runs after-school clubs for different age groups, makes the track available at lunchtimes, uses it in the morning to walk the Daily Mile and as ‘golden time’ for Year 6 kids on Friday afternoons, if they have worked hard.
“Cycling is a very inclusive sport,” says Slater. “Even the four-year-olds are landing jumps on balance bikes. We’ve also found it’s good for building resilience, as they have to get back on when they fall off.”
One of the brilliant knock-on effects of the pump track is that it is encouraging the children to go out riding with their families at the weekends. The school recently organised for 32 children and their parents to go to a local cycling venue on a Friday evening. “I love the fact that on Mondays lots of the children come in with videos and pictures of cycling jumps and tracks they’ve built themselves at the weekends,” says Slater. “It’s like my childhood!”
Wadebridge Academy isn’t the only school in mid-Cornwall lucky enough to have a pump track. Another school in the same town, St Breock, was the first to take the plunge, in the wake of the 2012 Olympics. Its development was driven by three parents who were all keen cyclists, one of whom persuaded the school gardener, Dave Angel, to build the track.
“My Dad and I built it by hand,” says Angel. “We spoke to the local leisure trust about the health and safety guidelines and then designed a track with jumps, rollers and berms.” This has led to a business diversification for Angel, who has expanded his team with two pro-riders, has built five tracks in schools to date, and is now in talks with further schools, leisure centres, the Forestry Commission and parish councils about building pump tracks all over Cornwall.
Angel says that one of the advantages of pump tracks is that they can be situated in land that often doesn’t get used for other purposes, such as the perimeter of playing fields, or through scrub or woodland. “We work with the topography of the site to create an interesting track with multiple lines, which offers progression as the kids improve,” says Angel. “The idea is not to pedal, but to use the momentum of the lumps and bumps.”
The parents who were keen to see the development of the St Breock track all attended a British Cycling coaching day and started an after-school club to train up a team of riders. “This wasn’t about teaching children to ride bikes,” says parent and coach, Simon Miller. “We wanted to give the kids another competitive sport to engage with. Cornwall used to be out on a limb in terms of elite athletes, but with the likes of Helen Glover, our children have seen that Cornish athletes can get to the top.” St Breock’s team has indeed been very successful in inter-schools tournaments and even medalled at the South West School Games.
Another local school, St Petrocs, in Bodmin, received £9,500 from the Big Lottery Fund to develop a track. Premises manager, Jason Gordon, was the driving force behind it. “The school had bikes that were only used occasionally for Bikeability and a big school field that wasn’t fully utilised,” he explains. “The middle of the field was used for running and games, but the outside wasn’t used at all, and just attracted stinging nettles and rubbish, so it was the perfect place to build the track. Now we’ve planted the hedges with wild flowers, brought another area into use and have another great sporting facility for the kids to use.”
Gordon says another incentive to improve the children’s cycling skills was because it linked well with what was going on in the town. Bodmin, which has a number of cycling resources on its outskirts, aims to link them all up through some cycle-friendly infrastructure, to become Cornwall’s first cycle town (see Sports Management August 2016).
It’s clear there is a lot of buzz around the pump tracks, which seem to be loved by girls and boys alike and appeal to the sporty and non-sporty. It is also creating a new form of inter-school competition, which can engage children who might not participate in team sports.
Outside of school, participation in the South West cyclocross series, which is held in the autumn across Devon and Cornwall, has doubled since it started in 2011. There are five different age categories for under 16s and almost as many children as adults now take part.
Although research shows that cycling is currently dominated by white, middle-class males, the installation of free-to-access pump tracks located in parks, open spaces, and school and leisure centre playing fields could be a way of changing this, helping to introduce more girls and bring about a return to the 1970s, when playing outside on a bike was the default activity of children everywhere. As Slater points out, you don’t have to be a sporty kid to love cycling and anyone can appreciate the thrill of riding on a pump track!