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Becoming a key worker: Teaching kids to ride bikes during lockdown

UK likely to prioritise private motor vehicles over the health of the nation post-lockdown, but with Bikeability there's hope for the future

Trevor Ward
5 May 2020

The continuing coronavirus lockdown measures have put the spotlight on active travel and raised the question of whether cycling as a mode of transport can finally be given the government recognition and funding it deserves.

During the last three weeks, I’ve found myself on the frontline of this debate as a Bikeability instructor.

As I watched my work and earnings as a 'globetrotting cycling writer' dry up overnight, I was suddenly presented with new opportunities when a local school hub for the children of key workers decided it wanted to give its students some cycling lessons.

I found myself thrust into the role of 'key worker', given an official letter authorising my travel between home and the school – a 28-mile round trip – and issued with a batch of disposable gloves.

Twice a week I cycle to the school, lay out progressively complex patterns of multi-coloured cones in the playground, and drill a group of kids ranging in ages and abilities from a six-year-old with stabilisers to an 11-year-old riding an adult-sized mountain bike.

Even before I arrive at Lochside Primary in the handsome Angus coastal town of Montrose, I’m made aware of the importance of active travel by the volume of car traffic on the A92 – in the last three weeks I have seen it increase significantly, as if the 'flattening of the curve' has made the local population prematurely complacent and oblivious to the threat of a second wave of the pandemic.

It’s an attitude not helped by comments by high-profile TV journalists such as Kay Burley, who declared on her Sky News programme this week: 'I don’t understand how anyone can get excited about cycling. I’d much rather drive'.

Enthusiastic about active travel

At the school, head teacher Lynette Mimiec is an enthusiastic convert to the cause of active travel. 'There are some things about the lockdown that have been positives, such as the reduction in traffic on the roads,' she says.

'We can’t go back to how it was. Most of our kids are dropped off at school by their parents. We need to reverse that, so they are arriving here on foot or by bike.'

When I mention to her the 'bike train' I’d seen on social media – a convoy of kids on bikes being escorted to school by a parents – her eyes lit up.

'Yes, yes, that’s exactly what we need. We have a parents’ liaison representative. This is just the job for them!'

The 30-odd kids in Lynette’s charge during the lockdown have parents who work as carers, nurses or at the town’s biggest employer, pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which is producing inhalers for global distribution.

Hers is the first school in Scotland – possibly the UK – to offer Bikeability lessons during lockdown.

'We had an "Un-Togetherness" meeting with the kids – like an assembly but with social distancing – and asked them what they would like to do,' she says.

'Two of them, Mia and Lucy, came up with the idea of Bikeability. So we emailed all the parents and got their permission that day, then contacted Angus Cycle Hub in Arbroath [which co-ordinates Bikeability on behalf of Cycling Scotland] and they asked us how many bikes and helmets we would need for kids who didn’t have their own.'

Which is when I received the call from local coordinator, coach and bike-fitter John Bremner. After warning me of the risks – principally that my young students wouldn’t be the most conscientious about the two-metre rule – he assured me the school and Cycling Scotland would make sure all health and safety protocols – gloves, hand sanitiser, etc – would be in place.

I work with another instructor, Martin Harris, a coach with Dundee’s prestigious Discovery Juniors CC. For those of you not familiar, Bikeability is the modern incarnation of what older readers might remember as the Cycling Proficiency course.

Normally I deliver Level 2 or Level 3 lessons to older primary school kids on the road, but during lockdown our lessons are confined to the playground. The biggest challenge has been the range in ages and abilities, but our charges have responded enthusiastically to having 90-minutes of officially-sanctioned outdoors time to ride their bikes.

While official Bikeability policy is awash with clunky jargon about 'outcomes' and 'national standards', I prefer to use words like 'adventure' and 'independence'. I’ve seen kids respond to this positively when practising 'a right hand turn from a major to a minor road' during Level 2 lessons on the road.

Confined to the playground by the pandemic, however, the emphasis is on fun. We set up courses and slaloms, 'slow races' and 'bicycle limbo', all designed to drill home the core skills of control and balance.

Yes, social distancing has occasionally been an issue. I’ve had to adjust saddles, pump up tyres and tighten helmet straps while an eager-eyed child pants perilously close to me, but on the whole they understand and respect the two-metre rule.

The lessons have been such a success – as much because of head teacher Lynette’s enthusiasm – that three more of the region’s hub schools have been in touch, and I’ll shortly be delivering lessons in Arbroath and Carnoustie.

There's still a long way to go

From an instructor’s point of view, I get a real thrill being able to pass on my passion for cycling to the riders of tomorrow. It’s not perfect, however.

Getting the children engaged is the easy bit. But when they tell you that, despite successfully completing their Level 2 or Level 3 course, their parents still won’t let them ride to school, you know there is still a long way to go before cycling becomes recognised as a viable and safe form of transport.

In the meantime, there are small consolations in every lesson. This week, we watched with pride as six-year-old Isla took her first pedal strokes without stabilisers.

Head teacher Lynette was moved to comment: 'She’ll remember that moment for the rest of her life, like we all do. I remember the first time I rode my bike unaided. My dad had taken me out on a cloudy day because he knew when it was sunny I was always looking for his shadow for reassurance.'