The Ride Around London – a new 115-mile sportive looping the capital on Sunday 25 September – always looked like a good bet. But dig a little deeper into the work done by Access Sport, the charity organising it, and the ride becomes even more compelling.
Access Sport works with business, community groups, sporting bodies and grassroots sports clubs to channel money into community sport, improving access to sports and sport facilities for disadvantaged kids and those living in the inner cities. A large part of its focus is on cycling, and the Ride Around London is a key fundraising event.
“This isn’t just another bike ride,” says Hannah Miller, the charity’s event organiser, explains. “It’s cycling for cyclists. We’re trying to create opportunities for kids who don’t have bikes, or facilities on their doorsteps, but who want to go out and ride.”
Looked at from one angle, the picture of cycling in the capital’s inner boroughs is bleak. The Olympic Boroughs – despite promises of regeneration and that slipperiest of words, legacy – still suffer from some of the highest levels of children living in poverty and youth obesity in the country. Until CC Hackney and Tower Hamlets CC were set up, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, there were no cycling clubs in those boroughs, which have a combined population of 430,000. There are relatively few faces from ethnic minorities in the elite sport, and, while there are Olympics athletics hopefuls who have grown up and trained in the streets adjoining the Olympic Park, there are no cyclists.
Access Sport CEO Mark Hardie wants cycling to become an aspirational sport among inner-city youth, in the way that athletics and football are currently. He believes cycling has a massive potential for growth – and not only among the MAMILs who are currently driving the UK industry forward. “It’s growing exponentially, but it’s growing in certain areas, and not in others as much as it could be. Can we bring more kids in… can we diversify this a bit?” he says. “In deprived areas, access to sports is markedly worse than in better-off areas. Sports participation is markedly worse.”
The situation is not helped by cuts in local authority youth services, which many have seen as contributing to the recent trouble and looting – and which have badly affected some of the neighbourhoods Mark is talking about. Yet he’s keen to point out that Tower Hamlets CC and CC Hackney, which Access Sport supports, provide community services and summer clubs for local children and teenagers.
“Community sports clubs are really, really important,” he says, referring to places such as the riot-affected Hackney and Haringey. “I suppose they always were, but they’re even more important now that other services are being lost. Although there are heavy cuts hitting local authority sports development teams – and school sports have been cut by two-thirds – we think what we’re doing can make a difference.”
The charity has proved effective at pairing grassroots sports clubs with big business mentors, to help them become more savvy at accessing funding. It is currently helping build five BMX tracks in the five Olympic Boroughs, and also works with the London Mayor, British Cycling and others. Chain Reaction Cycles is the Ride Around London’s lead sponsor.
“With the Ride Around London, we’re raising money that will go into building new BMX tracks and supporting clubs – predominantly but not exclusively cycling clubs” Mark says. “It will make a difference on the ground, helping cycling clubs engage with more kids, do outreach in schools and reach more vulnerable young people.”
Good causes aside, the Ride Around London should be a blast. Starting at Herne Hill velodrome, it loops over Box Hill, and travels clockwise along the North Downs. It then passes through Windsor, into the Chilterns and through Hertfordshire to finish at the Lee Valley White Water Centre, a 2012 venue. There’s also a 60-mile option, trail rides and a jam-packed ‘Festival of Cycling’ – a village of attractions at the end. Organisers are currently trying to source a big screen to show the UCI Road Race World Champs in Copenhagen, which take place on the same day.
A few weeks ago Access Sport held an awareness-raising ride, with members of CC Hackney, and Maurice and Germain Burton of Streatham’s De Ver Cycles, joining the organisers to take on a section of the Ride Around London course.
Maurice is a former pro and a British record holder at 20km on the track. For him, encouraging cycling with urban youth is a question of expanding horizons and finding talent: “I was once in that position myself,” he says. “When I was a young boy, I used to go with school to Herne Hill track. There was a coach called Bill Dodds – I remember one of the things he said: ‘From here, today, you can go to the Olympic games.’ And with that I knew: this was where I need to be. I knew I had ability, but before that I didn’t know how to go about it.” He continues: “Take Germain, or his brother. If I wasn’t a cyclist, most likely they wouldn’t be either. There must be a lot of ability out there.”
Germain, his son, is a 16-year-old hot prospect (and current Bec CC hill climb champion), who’s been outpacing the seniors at Crystal Palace this year, and cutting his teeth on the continental youth circuit. And Tao Geoghegan Hart, CC Hackney’s 16-year-old star, is on the Olympic Talent Programme, proving Maurice’s conjecture. Germain, too, is enthusiastic about the Ride Around London’s aims: “It’ll raise awareness of cycling and will get more riders interested in racing – and indirectly raise the level of competition in the UK,” he says. “It’ll be good for the sport and for the community in general.”
But what about those without elite potential? The community benefits – and benefits to cycling – are powerful enough. “Cycling does have a very powerful endgame in that there’s a number of ways it can spin off,” Mark Hardie says. “It’s one of the few growing industries. People can become interested in bike maintenance, there are apprenticeships out there. We’ve also supported L-Dub BMX in Bristol, a club that’s come from absolutely nothing and that’s now engaging hundreds of young people. It’s been helping them learn bike maintenance skills. Some have been learning carpentry, building ramps; others have progressed to work in and manage bike stores.” Looked at from this angle, the prospects might not be so bad after all.
To book a place on the Ride Around London and to fine out more about Access Sport visit their website www.accesssport.org.uk