I have a great job with Sustrans. My remit is to do anything I can to get school children interested in, and having fun on their bikes. Of course, I enjoy telling the children about my own riding, and in particular the long distance stuff…
‘Fun’. Endurance Riding. Let’s not beat around the bush. Many of you ‘old hands’ will smile wryly at this pairing of words. We all know that endurance riding is not just about fun… It can be just plain tough. It’s often boring and frustrating. But it’s also very exciting and satisfying to step over the mark and keep pushing when you feel toasted.
In my job, as satisying as it is, I don’t often get the opportunity to really show children what this means beyond the odd slide show and tall tale. We do lots of leisure rides and skills sessions for example, but nothing portrays that feeling of seeing a wall of a road in front of you when miles from home, or staring down a valley, wondering just how fast you can go in a good tuck.
There are many reasons why less school children get to have these experiences than would really like to. Other less challenging activities often competing for their attention. Health and safety. Liability. And, lets be honest, many parents and teachers without the knowledge or interest to make it happen.
Step in Mike Bell, head teacher of Morpeth Road Primary School in Blyth, Northumberland. I have worked with the school for the last year and Mike has been incredibly enthusiastic about cycling generally and my intervention with the school. He discovered the joys of cycling quite late in life and has recognised it as a valuable focus for the school; not just the children but the staff as well.
It has long been a dream of Mike to take a group of yr6 children (ten and eleven years old!) on the Coast to Coast, Workington to Tynemouth, all 130 miles of it. In just four days! (I admit to being unsure whether this would be possible!).
Along with Blyth Valley Arts and Leisure, school staff, and M Steels Cycles, we all pitched in to make it happen. With the arrival of our son, I couldn’t spend the week away so on Tuesday I drove over, and left my car in Keswick to ride the two ‘big’ days with the group who had left Workington on Monday.
Tuesday was forty miles. The sting in the tail was the ascent of Hartside. All 1900ft of it! Remember, many of these children have legs like spelks, were wearing plimsols (we provided a great deal of kit but couldn’t provide everything) and riding good quality, but still relatively heavy mountain bikes. And they had already ridden twenty five miles to start the seven mile climb…
There was a lot of pushing done. A lot swearing (that was just the teachers). And a lot of what we would call ‘digging deep’! But they eventually made it. Exhausted but elated. (See; Endurance Riding).
After an overnight in the Youth Hostel at Alston, the second day loomed. Very few protestations were heard at breakfast, which was encouraging as the day had two killer climbs by anyone’s standard; out from Nenthead and over to Kilhope, and up Crawleyside Bank (the National Hill Climbing Championships has taken place on here) to join the Waskerley Way. Yet again, despite plenty of complaining and convincing “I’m going to die” statements of fact, nobody threw in the towel and refused to go on. Very impressive.
After cresting Crawleyside, we had the fun swoop down to Consett for the day’s end. They only then had the twenty five miles to Tynemouth to complete on the Thursday, which was dispatched with ease. Needless to say the group was greeted like heroes at the school in the afternoon.
This left me in Consett to make the return eighty mile trip to Keswick to pick up the car…. It was a beautiful late sunny afternoon. I returned via Blanchland, Edmundbyers, Allenheads, Alston, Penrith, and Greystoke. A classic ride of incredible scenery and big climbs (and that’s what I call a perk of the job!). As I climbed past Kilhope Mines it reminded me what tough ground the group had covered….
A great week and a fantastic achievement. We talk about ‘heroes’ of our sport; Mike Bell is right up there in my mind. Not many head teachers would have taken on such a big responsibility and pushed children to do something so edgy, raw and challenging. He retires in three years time; I wish I could be on the interview panel for his successor. One of the essential criteria would most definitely be, ‘Must be prepared to continue the relentless promotion of cycling at the school, including the annual yr6 Coast to Coast trip’.
It’s also worth mentioning that the ride was also a great challenge for Mike, the other teachers, and the Blyth Valley staff; it was a tough ride for most people at any age.
And big respect to the children for being real Endurance Riders. It was a real achievement to be proud of. They may not realise it now, but that experience will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Hopefully some of them will fall down the slippery path of Endurance Racing….. I know they can do it!