Coaching Column with Alison Dunlap: What Age Should Children Start Training?

Question: At what age do you think it’s ok to start really structured training and racing?  What would you focus on for a young teenager or pre-teen?

Answer: Cycling is a challenging sport as we all know.  The emphasis with young kids should be on the pure joy of riding and the fun that can be had cruising up and down the alleys around your neighborhood.  Go on an “urban assault” with your kids and show them all of the obstacles that can be ridden on a bike.  During these younger years it is important that kids be exposed to many kinds of activities, not just cycling.  This will help develop coordination, balance, movement and cognitive skills.  The emphasis should not be on structure, but the fun and enjoyment of being active with friends and family.  It is not appropriate to ask a young child (pre-puberty) to “train”.  Kids at this age should be allowed to play for the sake of enjoyment and not have to follow the rules and regimens of adult level sport rules. [1]

Once a child reaches puberty she can start engaging in more specialized opportunities with an emphasis on organized and personalized training.   Kids should learn how to train properly in this phase with the focus on development, not outcome.[2]   Competition can be introduced but it is not the main objective.  A child’s love of sport and her internal motivation to participate become stronger and more developed during this phase.   Help your child experience the joy and fun of cycling while giving them a healthy understanding of how to train.

Make cycling a social activity.  Friends are everything to kids at this age.   Remember it is all about the process, not the results.  You are trying to develop a lifelong love of the sport that will keep your child active well into her adult years.

The amount of time spent in this development stage isn’t determined by a specific age.  It will vary with every child and depends on maturity and interest level.[3]  Kids that fail to develop a strong intrinsic drive during this time period will usually quit the sport before reaching the elite ranks.  So don’t rush it or convince your child he/she may be the next cycling superstar at the ripe age of 17.

We want our children to love to ride.  And we want them to carry that passion with them until they are too old to get out of bed.

For more information I highly recommend Kristen Dieffenbach’s book Bike Racing for Juniors; A Guide for Riders, Parents, and Coaches.

Happy Trails!


[1] Kristen Dieffenbach, Bike Racing for Juniors: A guide for riders, parents, and coaches (Boulder, CO: Velo Press 2008) p.72.

[2] Dieffenbach 2008 p.73

[3] Dieffenbach 2008 p.74

Alison Dunlap is a superstar in the sport of cycling.  She competed in two Olympic Games, won the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, the UCI World Cup Overall, and is the holder of thirteen US National Championships in road, MTB, and cyclocross.  Since retiring in 2005 Alison has been working full-time coaching cyclists and running skills camps and clinics. She is a USA Cycling Level I coach, a certified Professional Mountain Bike Instructor out of Whistler, BC, a Wilderness First Responder, and a very proud mom to her 4-yr-old son, Emmett.  Alison is a Colorado native and lives in Colorado Springs with her family.