The School Games are one of the pinnacles of the youth racing season. Teams of 4 boys and 4 girls are selected to represent each region across the UK and Ireland.
This year the event returned to Loughborough university with cycling just one of 10 sports making up the games, complete with opening ceremony and athlete village accommodation. For most riders this would be a first taste of a major event and team-based competition, and for the older riders, one of their last major youth races.
Track racing took place at Derby Arena and featured familiar elimination and scratch races, as well as an unusual track stand competition and mechanics challenge intended to showcase facets beyond just being able to ride a bike fast!
The scratch races were first, with heats and finals. At only 10 laps the races were designed for fast and furious racing. Eastern's Sophie Lewis won the girls final treating the short race more like a keirin, coming to the front in the final 2 and a half laps and gradually ramping up the speed to keep everyone on her hip. National Scratch Champion Oscar Nilsson-Julien was the only rider permitted not to wear team colours in favour of his national champion stripes and did the jersey proud, chipping off the front of the bunch with 3 laps to go and just holding off the charging bunch lead by 3 North West riders.
Eastern won the Mechanics Challenge, taking just 6:27 for all 8 team members to remove both wheels, chainring and sprocket and re-fit them. Special mention to the Ulster team who were one of the most novice teams in the track events, but with a 3rd place 7:12, proved you don't need regular access to a track to practice your mechanics!
The Trackstand competition involved all 8 team members trackstanding for 30 seconds, moving on to trackstand again for 45 seconds before a standing start lap with bonus seconds awarded depending on how many riders were left! Many rider who were confident with their trackstand ability were found out by the pressure of the pulsating heartbeat soundtrack, and the spectators. It was South East who retained 6 of their 8 riders who took the honour of the top team at going slow!
The girls elimination was won by Scotland's Imani Pereira-James, who was one of only a few Youth B riders in the competition but rode maturely in the early stages of the race, staying near the coveted rider 2 position before using up her sprint in the latter stages.
In the boys, it was a second individual win of the day for Oscar Nilson-Julien who rolled across the line with Eastern team-mate Oli Stockwell having defeated riders from all other regions.
The second day was based on campus, with a 400m "Street Sprint" course being constructed along the twisty access roads. After a qualification time trial riders competed head to head in heats of 4 riders. There were a few inevitable spills as riders were rewarded for fast starts, and daring cornering technique.
Central’s Maddie Wadsworth defied her 12th place qualification by rising through the heats to win the final. Her experience as a mountainbike and cyclo-cross rider clearly visible in her confident cornering.
Kieran Riley won the boys event, with half a bike length on North West’s Matti Egglestone. It was also great to see two Youth B riders, North East’s Ben Partridge and Scotland’s Imani Pereira-James making the boys and girls A finals.
After a day of practice at New College circuit in Leicester, the para tandem riders competed in head-to head races, testing their communication, balance and control skills to the limit in order to negotiate the technical course. Muhammad Ibraheem Iqbal piloted by James Hughes took the win from Ryley Hector piloted by Louis Evans.
Disciplinaries for various teams for not following the high standards expected of athletes representing their sport and their regions meant overnight scores were close, and the final standings would come down to this final day.
Riders were bussed an hour south to the Leicestershire countryside for a their first taste of road racing thanks to special permission to close a quiet 6.7km circuit of rolling countryside, and featuring the daunting "Slawstonberg" climb.
The girls 45km race was up first. East Midlands and Yorkshire were active early on trying to get riders clear into a breakaway. North West's Eve Barrow launched the most decisive break of the race lasting the most part of a lap out front before being brought back, but earning herself the combativity prize in the process. Subsequent solo attacks from South East's Izzy Escalera and Central's Eva Calinan came to nothing - unfortunately failing to find company to help them stay away. Scotland's Morgen Yoeman and Central's Maddie Wadsworth rode well on breakaway chase-down duties on behalf of their team – usually a derisible habit of youth racing, but allowable on this team racing occasion. The winning move came 1.5km from the finish on the final ascent of the Slawstonberg, with Central's Miller Couzens counter-attacking East Midlands' Amelie Wayte and soloing to victory.
Next up was the para race. Most pundits expected the race to blow apart from the start, but a peloton of 7 tandems completed the first of 3 laps before the Slawstonberg took its toll and forced a split. As the group whittled down it was left to Iqbal/Hughes and Hector/Evans to attack and counter-attack each other before Iqbal/Hughes crested the Slawstonberg ahead and made it to the finish line to take the win.
The 60km boys race saw early solo attacks come to nothing but after 3 laps 7 riders got clear. With most of the favourite team represented, the peloton eased up allowing the break to get a near 4 minute gap at one point, until national champion Oli Stockwell attempted to bridge across solo. With 2 laps to go the break split into 2 with Yorkshire's Max Poole, Scotland’s Oscar Onley and Eastern's Oscar Nilson-Julien making the selection. The front break tried, but failed to drop each other up the final ascent of the Slawstonberg and came in for a sprint with Max Poole not only taking the honours and associated point bonuses but also the combativity prize for his efforts to force the initial break he ultimately benefitted from.
Thanks to the organisers at School Games, cycling event organiser Tom Leivers, British Cycling's Talent Development Coaches, and all of the other volunteers, team managers, coaches and attachés who made this event possible.