Writtle University College, near Chelmsford, Essex, has launched a new cycling academy with local team OnForm – the first of its kind in the UK. The innovative partnership means Cycling Performance students can participate in organised cycling races and events, whilst receiving the support and guidance of industry experts as they continue their educational journey. Cycling World spoke to course leader and coach to elite cyclists, Mark Walker.
“The industry has developed beyond recognition in the last few years. I bought my first bike magazine in 1983, joined a local club and started racing. My friends thought I was very strange! Even ten years ago, you couldn’t launch a course like this; it’s a very recent phenomenon. It’s been fuelled by the Olympic success, the accessibility of cycling and the fact that, for some people, cycling has become a status symbol. There is a real spectacle around cycling now – the bikes have become more comfortable and more attractive, so there are opportunities in technology and retail that weren’t there before. Then there are a lot more people who want advice about cycling as they take on greater challenges. The result is that we have youngsters who want to make it as professional cyclists or coaches and, typically, more mature students who want a career change and to break into this industry that supports their amateur racing. WUC has been responsive to that and it fits with our history in delivering courses that are specialist and land-based. We are interested in giving students the opportunity to pursue their cycling ambitions, whether that is racing, coaching, cycling development, working in charities, retail or new technology. It’s a very vibrant industry with a lot of exciting opportunities for graduates with the right skills.
“We’ve offered the Foundation Degree for three years now. What makes it attractive is that it is structured around the cycling season. We have youngsters who are studying A Levels or BTECs and it’s their dream to pursue cycling careers. For the well-able cyclist, this is a reality, but it’s risky going into professional sport. There are lots of talented people around but very few make it through to elite or professional ranks. They are aware that they need a ‘plan B’ and keeping up with their education is key to that. The course offers them the possibility to study in a way that facilitates them as a developing cyclist, as it is based around the summer season and some of the teaching is compressed, so students leave at the end of February and undertake work-based learning in a variety of roles within the cycling industry until they return in September. They have seven months where they are balancing cycling and studying. The academic side – which is applied Sports Science with a strong flavour of cycling delivered by tutors with a pedigree in coaching
– enriches their work in the industry. Their work-based experience is then reflected in their coursework. It gives it a good balance.
“Our strength is in our collaborations. We work with local facilities such as the Velodrome in London and Hadleigh Park Mountain Bike Circuit, as well as the local clubs and teams. OnForm gives our students a further opportunity. Team riders, which include current and former world, national and regional champions, are already participating in high-profile national series events across the UK. The team gives them the chance to become involved and develop wider skills such as event management, interpersonal skills, building relationships with people and showing leadership. So, for example, WUC students are organising a road race on 24th September. These softer skills are incredibly important. It’s about developing our graduates so they are ready to step into employment. Many people graduate from university and it is not a ticket to a job. Employers like to see that they have actually achieved in real-life situations and gained experience. There are also people who have heard about us through their association with OnForm and have decided to progress to a course here. So it’s of mutual benefit.
“Likewise, we are working with Oaklands, an academy for Further Education students. Any student who wants to pursue cycling and wants an education orientated towards cycling can now start that at 16 – they can study for two years with Oaklands at Level 3, then join us for two years on a Foundation Degree and then top up to a BSc (Hons) degree. They have five years in total of studying and pursuing cycling.
“Writtle University College is fast-becoming a hub for cycling. We already hold cyclocross education events here; we’ve had British Cycling here for their Level 1 coaching courses; and we’ve got good links with the British cycling officers, the local coaches, team owners and professional cyclists. I hope that we produce graduates that find careers in the cycling industry in whatever capacity that might be: a professional cyclist winning national titles or at elite level, but also, equally, it would be good to have graduates who become elite coaches, leaders in retail or product development, involved in revolutionising bike manufacturing, promoting cycling in their area, changing attitudes of local authorities in town planning, or working with charities to share the benefits of cycling. The key is that your ability as a cyclist doesn’t matter. Our view is that individuals can bring a variety of different skills to the course – they might have fantastic people skills that makes them great coaches – but we will support them with that and provide the educational foundation and industry links they need for a rewarding and successful career.”
Oli Smee, 19, from Derby, chose to enrol on the FdSc Cycling Performance at WUC so he could develop his knowledge of the athlete’s body and enhance his racing skills, with a view to moving up through the ranks since starting racing in 2015.
“I think the academy is a great way of bringing the students from the Cycling Performance Foundation Degree together with Team OnForm. The partnership gives us all great opportunities to establish contacts within the sport, such as people working in the trade, or teams and riders abroad. Through the course, I have been lucky enough to live in France with another member of the Cycling Performance Degree to gain racing experience on the continent. This has helped me gain a vast amount of racing skills as the style of racing in Europe differs from that in the UK.
“Through contacts we have made through the course, we have all had the opportunity to meet and get in touch with all sorts of professionals, ranging from British elite team managers and elite cyclists, to people working in the sales industry and even charity workers. The course enables us to train and race while we study and the sports science side teaches us valuable skills that we can use, not only when coaching ourselves, but they also set a solid grounding for the skills needed to become a sports coach.”
Gráinne Hanley, 19, from Ireland, is a second-year senior Irish cyclist on track and road. She has won medals in youth and junior regional and national track events and was also second in the Irish National Duathlon race last year.
She said: “By being on the academy team and attending the course, I am able to complete my education and gain contacts in the industry while still maintaining the time and energy needed for training and racing throughout the year. There is always support and guidance available from Mark Walker, our course manager, and from within the academy.
We have gained a vast amount of knowledge from the OnForm team, including how they set-up and manage the team, and will be involved in the running of an event hosted by the team and WUC in September. I will have the opportunity to race as the OnForm Academy team in British Cycling events and, ability-dependent, guest with the main team. The academy allows for the transfer of management and rider knowledge and experience, providing valuable connections throughout the world of cycling.
“I have been fortunate to gain work experience coaching at Derby Arena and Dublin’s Sundrive Velodrome and to travel to Belgium with junior women for the Ghent race with the Irish Cycle Sport Development Project. I look forward to working with the OnForm team as an Academy Rider, on team support and race organisation.
“At Writtle University College, I obtained my British Cycling Level 1 Coaching in February and, with my Cycling Ireland Foundation Track coaching course, Child Protection and Garda (Police) Vetting, I now enjoy putting the skills learnt from these and my first year at WUC into practice by coaching regularly at Sundrive Velodrome, in Dublin.
“The academy provides me with opportunities I wouldn’t have at home in Ireland. It gives me a degree in Cycling Performance (while also expanding my coaching) that nowhere else in the world currently offers cyclists, while allowing me to train and race all year. I’m also able to get valuable work experience giving me an insight and contacts in various areas of cycling for my future career.”
Team OnForm and Oaklands Academy
Simon Howes, Team Principal for Team OnForm, said: “The partnership between Team OnForm and WUC is our way of putting something back into the sport. We will take great pride in having created a pathway for riders to progress and develop as bike racers.
“To see riders achieve their potential will give support staff and sponsors a great deal of satisfaction. It’s a fantastic opportunity for all the riders involved to gain experience racing in a team environment. I have no doubt the riders will make great ambassadors for team OnForm and our partners.”
Jez Cox, Oaklands Wolves Academies Manager in Sport, said: “There’s never been a full-time junior academy for 16 to 18-year-old students interested in cycling. This is unique. We have five other academies and have been running the academy system for 12 years, so it’s quite a well-polished system now.
“Through the East of England Cycling Academy Pathway (EECAP), students can join Oaklands at age 16-18 on a BTEC Level 3 Sports Science course and progress well through their cycling and then come onto a programme at WUC. This enables them to get the best out of themselves as cyclists as well as building some really applicable qualifications.
“Currently, most young cyclists have to train in the evenings after a full day at school, college or work and inevitably their education suffers as well as their training and ability to recover effectively. This system prioritises their training – but if they fall behind in their work then they are banned from training. They come to us for the sport and the quality of the coaching we offer, but the education is critical to that.”
For more information about the FdSc Cycling Performance, please visit: