As a club, Maindy Flyers has a history to be proud of. A Tour de France winner, four Olympic gold medals, eight world championships titles and five medals at the Commonwealth Games. Few countries, let alone clubs, can match that. Not bad for a grass roots club set up in Cardiff only 30 years ago as somewhere young cyclists could go and have fun. A new book – The Maindy Flyers, the world’s most successful cycling club – details that rise, but for Elinor Barker it’s the future that’s just as important as the past as she tells Graham Thomas.
Elinor Barker has stressed the need for the survival of grass roots sports clubs across Wales and the vital role they play in the health and social development of young people.
As pupils across the country return to school, the world and Olympic cycling champion has paid tribute to her own junior club – the renowned Maindy Flyers in Cardiff – for putting her on the right track.
Barker, who won her fifth world title in March of this year, is set to compete in her second Olympic Games next year in Tokyo after striking gold in Rio in 2016.
At the age of 25, she already ranks as one of Wales’ greatest ever sportswomen but she believes Maindy Flyers did far more than nurture her sporting natural talent.
“I was quite a sporty kid, but I was quite shy, too, and so the club provided me with a positive social environment to be in, which was really nice,” says Barker.
“With kids now going back into school after so many months and months away, for some of those kids things can be quite overwhelming. So, although there is obviously a sporting and fitness element to local clubs, they have a big role in providing different social groups as well, which is really important when you’re growing up.”
The current Be Active Wales Fund, administered by Sport Wales, is striving to ensure that clubs under threat due to the impact of Covid-19, can keep their heads above water and continue to fulfil their crucial community role.
That’s a function Maindy Flyers have been carrying out for three decades – golden years that have broadened the sporting experiences for youngsters in Cardiff, but also produced elite stars Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Owain Doull as well as Elinor and younger sister Megan.
It’s a history that has been stylishly detailed in a new book – The Maindy Flyers, the world’s most successful cycling club – written by Juan Dickinson and in which Barker has contributed an affectionate foreward.
“What was great about the Flyers as a club was that it was really engaging to everyone who went along,” she says.
The amazing story of how #Cardiff‘s @MaindyFlyersYCC cycling club created by @DebbieWharton produced world class cyclists @GeraintThomas86 @elinorbarker @LukeRowe1990 & @owaindoull, and more🏴Olympic🚴♀️🥇medallists since 2008 than 🇫🇷
Out Aug 2020-Order now: https://t.co/53mXNP6r8T pic.twitter.com/r8Vj3W9144
— St. David’s Press (@StDavidsPress) June 8, 2020
“The sessions they put on always seemed to have a lot of variety – whether that was concentrating on the skills side of cycling, or sprinting, or longer distance rides – there would be something for everyone.
“The atmosphere was always really welcoming, too. The training camps were always fun weekends away, with lots of activities going on that would include the parents as well as the kids.
“One time, we went to watch the Tour de France and we made a weekend of it. It was all very social and all about a community feel.”
The consequence of that warm welcome and fun activities has been a steady procession of hundreds of young cyclists who have all enjoyed their sport, even if they were not all able to reach the heights of the club’s star riders.
For Barker, Maindy Flyers ensured cycling gained, while women’s football lost out.
“I really, really wanted to be a footballer when I was younger, but there were just no clubs around where I could train and the boys wouldn’t let me play football with them at that time.
“So, I just never really found any community for football, whereas I did for cycling. The football opportunities started to open up by the time I was about 13, by which time I was over it and into cycling.”
The idea of variety – a wide choice of sports on offer to kids – is something that Barker feels should be determinedly pursued by decision-makers in sport and education.
The former Llanishen High School pupil recently felt moved to condemn on social media what she felt was a bad idea put forward by the National Obesity Forum, that children should be weighed in school to ensure they lose any weight they may have put on during lockdown.
“I just thought was a really awful idea – that kids should be weighed and a colossal amount of time would be wasted in keeping all that information.
“That time could be far better spent educating kids about nutrition and making sure that there are loads of different sporting activities available. That way you make sure that there is some kind of physical activity that a kid will really enjoy and might want to carry on for their whole life.
Instead of shaming kids for being heavy, why not look at *why* that is happening? A healthy diet is an expensive luxury that not everybody can afford. A small punnet of blueberries is £3. A multipack of crisps is pennies.
— Elinor Barker (@elinorbarker) August 10, 2020
“It’s completely backwards thinking you can motivate people by showing them the consequences of behaviour – instead of showing them ways of having a fulfilling life that’s healthy. It’s obvious.
“Finding the sport or activity that fits the person is the right way to go about it.”
Cycling filled that brief for Barker as a child and thanks to the start given her by Maindy Flyers she has not just stuck with it for enjoyment’s sake, but also become one of the best in the world.
“It’s absolutely vital that grass roots clubs survive and get through the current problems,” she adds.
“They allow sport to be a social activity and mean social interaction, rather than it ever being just a chore that you do on your own.”