Visit just about any cycling race and you’ll invariably see school-age children wheeling around on bikes costing several thousand pounds. Wander around the green acres of rejuvenated Stratford, though, and you'll spot all kinds of kids on all kinds of bicycles.
London’s Olympic Park is located on the northern edge of Newham and butts up against the eastern edge of Hackney. Both boroughs have changed massively thanks to redevelopment driven by London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympics. Yet while the number of million-pound properties in the area has increased exponentially, both remain neighbourhoods with high levels of deprivation. Like many things in east London, it sometimes seems that any Olympic legacy hasn’t necessarily been shared equally.
This disparity is partly why British Cycling has picked Hackney and Newham as the home for the first of its City Academies, supported by the Rapha Foundation. “The City Academies programme looks to do two things,” explains British Cycling’s Lauren Forrow. “The first is to try to change the face of cycling locally. So we’re looking to recruit coaches from local communities to deliver free and accessible cycling activities in the area. The second part is about creating local opportunities to develop riders.” If this eventually widens the cohort that might end up representing Great Britain at the elite level, then that’s a fantastic extra benefit.
Tre Whyte, a former national BMX champion and brother of recent Olympic silver medallist Kye, will be one of the first coaches working across the City Academies’ initiatives. A product of Peckham BMX Club, the 27-year old Londoner believes accessibility is key to getting a more diverse range of young people cycling.
“Take Peckham,” says Whyte. “Because of the area, cycling wasn’t accessible to a lot of people. Once I had my first sponsor-provided bike, if kids were coming down to the track, I’d let them have a go on it. There wasn’t a lot of money in the community, but once they saw how we were helping the kids, it became like a family. At one point, a woman across the road was letting us use her electricity to plug in our generator so we could run our sessions.”
This bike-based community also fostered interactions that might otherwise have been difficult. “There were things in the area you didn’t want to get caught up in,” explains Whyte. “Being from a different estate wasn’t a great thing. But with the BMX track, kids were just flooding over without worrying who’s from this estate or that estate.”
Looking to promote this kind of community spirit, one of the Academy’s essential beliefs is that to attract a more diverse group of young people to cycling, they first need to have relatable role models. It’s something Whyte himself feels he would have benefited from.
“I’m not saying the coach has to look exactly like you,” Whyte says. “It’s just being able to relate. Sometimes it’s hard to understand someone if you don’t know what they’re going through. In any community, people face different challenges. And if you can relate to a kid and say ‘I’ve been there and I’ve had to deal with it’, it makes a big difference.”
The ability to learn from similar role models also extends to addressing cycling’s uneven gender split. “I think increasing the number of female role models, in terms of both coaches and riders, will have a big impact on female participation,” explains City Academy coach Isobel Whiteley. “For some girls, even something like wearing Lycra might not be the done thing. It’s important we change the perception of who a cyclist is if we want to increase girls’ participation.”
Having a female lead can also be a benefit in more practical ways. “As a young female athlete, you’re not going to want to go up to a male coach and ask them about wearing pants under your shorts,” Whiteley says. It’s why making young women feel comfortable in a frequently male-dominated space will be high on the City Academy’s agenda.
This is one of the most serious challenges the City Academies face. Across UK cities, men are still almost twice as likely to cycle as women. At the same time, while 46 per cent of UK cyclists belong to less wealthy socio-economic groups, 85 per cent of British Cycling’s talent pathway riders come from the country’s most affluent areas.
Looking to make a dent in these figures, the initial City Academy will be building on successful schemes and clubs already operating in Hackney and Newham. Often held up as a model for active transport, council-backed training provision in the borough already has an impressive track record in helping a diverse range of residents to start cycling. Producing riders like Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart and former Team Sky man Alex Peters, Cycling Club Hackney has also provided a model for cultivating the sport at a grassroots level. Also supported by the council and built up by local people volunteering their time, the club’s community schemes have seen a diverse range of young people learning bike maintenance skills and earning bikes through participating in its programmes. Often seen training on the football pitches adjacent to the Olympic Park, along with Hackney BMX Club, CC Hackney is unusual as a club for being well-known within the community. It’s partly this visibility that the City Academy scheme will aim to expand on.
“Over the last 12 months, we’ve connected with several groups across Hackney,” says Forrow. “We’ve talked to people like Badu Sports, which promote community development through sport. We’ve also recently built strong links with CC Hackney and the volunteers there. The idea isn’t that we’ll suddenly come in and swallow up everything cycling based in the area. If we’re going to create hubs in community spaces, we know we can learn from people already there when it comes to building that community.”
Working with existing clubs and schemes, the first phase of the City Academy initiative will see hubs created in the London boroughs of Hackney and Newham aimed at children aged ten to 14. Working with local community groups, they’ll provide fixed locations in parks and commons where people can borrow bikes and get involved with cycling. Making cycling almost as accessible as kicking a ball “Although it’s changed quite a bit, cycling is still predominantly male, slightly older, and middle class. I’m sure lots of people just don’t see themselves doing it. The City Academy approach is going to break those barriers down” ROULEUR 124 No 106 around, the hope is that this, in turn, normalises it within the community. At the same time, removing the need to travel should cut down another barrier to participation.
The scheme’s second, more performance-focused phase will be developing City Academy Clubs and Talent Centres. These will support those interested in racing competitively and potentially lead to professional participation through British Cycling’s existing development pathways. The idea is that by expanding grassroots support, the City Academies will provide guaranteed widespread benefits and elite level exposure that can reinforce the idea that cycling is a sport for everyone.
“How a rider looks, what sort of background or ethnicity they have, I hope eventually it’s not going to be a talking point anymore” - Kye Whyte, BMX British champion, 2014 (Image credit: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
The Rapha Foundation is funding the City Academy scheme. Founded in 2019 to support underrepresented cycling communities worldwide, its sponsorship is an example of this happening close to home.
Spending more than £1 million each year, the charitable organisation has already funded grassroots initiatives, including the Rayner Foundation, which helps aspiring athletes to turn professional, and beloved, venerable Herne Hill Velodrome in south London.
“After all the progress cycling has made in the last 20 years, it’s still not relevant to many people,” explains Rapha founder Simon Mottram. “It still has all these barriers, including representation. Although it’s changed quite a bit, it’s still predominantly male, slightly older, and quite middle class. I’m sure lots of people just don’t see themselves doing it. The nice thing about the City Academy approach is that they’re going to break those barriers down. And rather than being tucked away somewhere, they’re going to be doing it right in the middle of the city. Our ambition at Rapha is to make cycling the most popular sport globally, which means it has to overtake football at some point. A few City Academies aren’t going to be the answer in themselves, but they’re helping things move in the right direction.”
For City Academy coach Whyte, a significant shift towards this goal would be a situation where any child can roll up to a cycling club and feel comfortable. “At the next Olympics in Paris, I’d love to see a black or mixed-race track rider, or just anyone with a different background. Within ten years, I am pretty confident that it’ll happen. At the same time, how a rider looks, what sort of background or ethnicity they have, I hope eventually it’s not going to be a talking point anymore. That would be success for me.”
Produced in association with Rapha