Words by William Fotheringham | Photo: SWpix.com
With relatively little fanfare, it was announced last week that there will be no junior races for either men or women at the upcoming cyclo-cross world championship in Ostend due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The organisers had wanted to run the events, apparently, but were over-ruled by the Belgian government, for reasons which remain unclear. That followed the cancellation of the junior men’s and women’s and men’s under-23 races at the hastily re-organised road race World’s last September.
The loss of the junior ’cross World’s may have seemed like just another race cancellation due to the virus that has cost the sport so much competition but for anyone with half an interest in the lower ranks of the sport it looks like the final kick in the teeth at the end of a year where the young have been disproportionately affected in so many ways.
The UCI’s relaunched mens and womens calendar last year attracted many plaudits and rightly so. The racing was above the usual WorldTour standard; new heroes and heroines emerged, the precautions put in place were enough to ensure that there was minimal disruption. But amidst the general joy at the mere fact we were able to watch the best racers in the world on our television screens, there should have been a simultaneous reality check.
While those with most economic power – men’s WorldTour – emerged largely unscathed, those with least – the less well resourced women’s teams and junior and amateur racers – were disproportionately most affected. That, unfortunately, reflects the economic reality of Coronavirus in our society as a whole.
I read the below the line reactions to the cancellation of the junior cross worlds, particularly the ones speculating about the effect on the riders’ mental health, as someone with more than a passing interest. For the last six years I’ve run the academy at the Halesowen Cycling Club in the West Midlands. It basically means I have the job of sorting sponsorship plus a collective race and training programme for the under-23 and junior riders.
What that role has made me more and more aware of over the years is the beneficial effect sport can have on young people. Of course, we all love it, at any age, and it’s good for all of us in different ways. But when you work with riders in that age group you realise that if the pressures are managed and the environment is sufficiently supportive, for young people it can bring far more, particularly the fact of being part of a peer group stimulated by the bonding and shared experience that you get from racing and training together.
In cycling that can cover the full gamut from competing and training as a team to shared learning sessions, and helping organise an actual race. Being involved in sport can work wonders for a young person’s self-esteem, their confidence and identity, particularly if you measure success in various ways; it should be not merely about being the best, but about setting yourself targets and trying to reach them.
That’s why I’ve never been that bothered about if any of our riders end up at WorldTour level: you can get the benefits that sport can provide in physical and mental terms without ever doing more than winning a third category criterium. Often, the results that give me most pleasure aren’t the biggest, but involve the riders who’ve (metaphorically) travelled the furthest, over whatever personal barriers might be involved, and who I may have been able to help a little on that journey.
It’s been tough maintaining any sense of that in the last 11 months, given that since March last year, the maximum that has been possible in the UK has been the odd race prior to lockdown 2, and training at best in a group that’s limited to six riders. There is total uncertainty about when racing may or may not happen again, how much to train, about what riders are even training for. People like me can offer possible objectives, pull together putative race programmes, but it’s all provisional.
The loss is not just limited to one set of races on one day, but an entire year. One in four young people across the piece in the UK are saying they have “felt unable to cope” at times during the pandemic; the loss of of things that bind life together, such as sport, is a key part of that.
In your late teens, the experiences you can get can be unrepeatable, whether that’s a post-exam prom or second-year junior bike racers – five of our Halesowen riders were in this category last year – who have been unable to train and compete as they would want and will get no second chance: you only get one crack at being a second-year junior racing the toughest races in your category with the benefit of physical growth and competitive experience.
So we should regret the fact that there is no junior racing at Ostend, but we need to remain aware that the loss of the biggest races such as this is the tip of an iceberg of great difficulty for all young people.