We Chat to Andy Barlow About the Dirt School Academy.

Dirt School’s Academy aims to provide the full spectrum of coaching for young riders all the way up to their BASE courses.

Pete had a chat with Dirt School’s Andy Barlow to find out more about bridging the gap between their Little Rippers courses and the Advanced groups to create the Dirt School Academy.

Photos by Dirt School.

How did the Kids Academy idea come about?

We wanted to create an opportunity for young riders to make progress safely and with confidence. We’ve always worked at the sharp end of the sport, and being able to relate those same key pieces of advice back to younger riders at the start of their journey saves them years of bad habits.

Why now?

We’ve actually run kids courses for some time now, but we found that we were always being asked for more progression by the parents. Kids pick up our sport so quickly nowadays, and there wasn’t really an opportunity for them to develop their technique past a certain level. We launched our Advanced Academy around six years ago to give kids at that high level the chance to continue to progress and eventually feed into our BASE college course.

Youth Academy then came in to bridge the gap from Little Rippers to Advanced, giving our more experienced youngsters a place to go and develop their skills. The standard is so high these days, Youth Academy is now what Advanced Academy used to be, and Advanced Academy is at a whole other level.

Through Dirt School Academy, we now have a solid, diverse and progressive program that starts with Little Rippers for keen riders aged 6+ and allows them to keep coming back over the years to follow, all the time meeting new friends and improving as riders.

What are the challenges of coaching kids compared to adults?

In some ways kids are easier to coach than adults. They don’t have any bad habits yet and are really receptive to what we’re saying. We have to cover things like what to take in your bag, riding responsibly, and how to be respectful of other trail users. Most of the challenges we face are actually to do with how they perceive the sport.

Some of them have never ridden with any spares, packed a waterproof, or read a map before. All of our courses convey that there’s more to it than just being a capable bike rider. After all we want to create a better generation of competent mountain bikers for the future.

How do you go about creating kids’ specific courses?

We make them fun. The content of the courses is straight out of our regular adult day courses, and other than having a bit of a muck about between sessions we don’t dilute the content one bit. Running back to back days like we do at the Academy helps a lot as well because you can make such good progress with a group over consecutive days.

How does this feed into the BASE courses and the other Dirt School projects?

The language that we use, techniques that we cover, and ethos behind how to conduct yourself as an individual, all transition seamlessly into our BASE performance mountain bike program. Some of our current BASE riders started their Dirt School tuition on our Little Rippers course many years ago, and it’s amazing to see how capable they’ve become in that time.

TLD A3 Helmet

What do you want to achieve with the Kids Academy programme?

Getting faster on your bike, or riding more challenging trails and features, doesn’t have to carry more risk. We wanted to communicate this to a younger audience and allow them to make progress through our sport faster and safer than any generation that’s come before, so we start to cover responsibility on Youth Academy. The goal is that they can help grow and evolve the sport as they get older. After all, the secret to going fast is confidence, but the secret to confidence is control.

How has COVID affected the running of the academy?

On the whole, it’s actually been very positive. Children have been missing so much school this last year, and the Academy is a perfect way for them to have that important social connection with other kids. They can learn through doing something they love while spending time outdoors. Being able to provide that for youngsters in the current circumstances is amazing.

We did have to close last Easter during lockdown, but research has shown that outdoor sport is relatively safe from transmission; the government guidelines meant we could operate safely all of last summer and during the October holidays too. We’re fully booked for Easter this year, and of course that’s restriction dependent, but we’re offering full refunds if we can’t go ahead or if our riders are prevented from travelling to us.

As a business, we have COVID specific operating procedures in place for all our courses and our team are trained accordingly. We’ve made a lot of changes to reduce the risk of transmission, for example: all paperwork is now completed electronically and since that’s much more environmentally friendly we’ll be sticking with it going forwards.

There’s certainly been a lot of positives to come from the pandemic, the huge increase in the number of people cycling and taking up mountain biking locally is just brilliant to see too.

Favourite moments?

Perhaps the Puddle Jumping World Champs we had on Little Rippers in 2017. Or any of the times that the Advanced Academy kids outride the coaches.

Any disasters?

Thankfully not. We make sure that the kids are riding with control. That way they can progress safely and with less risk. I love when they explain this back to the parents at the end of the day and you can see dad scratching his head and wondering if he should be taking notes.

Any plans to expand this further?

The fact that our Kids Academy courses keep selling out is a good indication to us that we’re doing something right. We have a lot of repeat custom from our regular academy riders, and it would be amazing to continue to develop that and make a bigger difference.

People to thank?

Mountain biking might be an individual sport, but it’s ongoing success is a team effort. There are more opportunities for kids to get involved these days than ever before. That’s down to volunteers that run local races, parents that drive their kids to events, regular weekend clubs that kids can get involved with, and all the mums and dads give up their time so that their kids can ride their bikes. It’s thanks to them that the future of mountain biking looks so good.

You can check out the Dirt School Academy Courses on their website here.

Check out Andy’s Wise Words interview over on our Features page here.