Meet our groups: COG Cycling

Members of COG cycling at the 2022 London Youth Games
This Cycling UK-affiliated club in a deprived area of north-east London is working with young people who might not otherwise get to join a cycling club. Digital officer Rebecca Armstrong spoke to club leader Dave Sparks about how he’s using cycling to support the kids

Dave Sparks was working as a police officer for the Metropolitan Police when he decided he wanted to find a better way to engage with young people – realising that cycling could be the key. It was 2015 and he had returned to work after recovering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  

“I felt that whenever I was dealing with young people it was either arresting them or their parents,” he says. “I was already a trail leader for a children’s club, so had a keen interest in cycling. The problem was the children at the club were very different to the young people that maybe needed some positive interaction from me.” 

Dave spoke to a local councillor of the London borough he was policing about his idea for creating a local cycle club aimed at young people who rarely get the opportunity to join cycling clubs. She was supportive and knew of an old bowling green on her ward, for which a local community group held the lease. 

“I approached the group. They were elated that they could be involved in such a project and COG Cycling was born.” 

From humble beginnings 

Based in the north-east London borough of Waltham Forest, the group initially offered cycle coaching on that old bowling green; the sessions were free and held during the school summer holidays. “The sessions were aimed at various levels of ability and were about having fun on a bike,” Dave continues.  

“I managed to get hold of a few bikes from donations from local people, giving those who didn’t have access to a bike the opportunity to take part. We went from having one to three young people for the first few days to 20-25 young people by the end of the second week.” 

Things grew further when Dave heard about a disused BMX pump track close by. The youngsters were keen to try it out. “I spoke with the local youth offending services and managed to get all the mattresses, drug paraphernalia and other unsavoury items removed from the track. I submitted a grant application to purchase some race BMXes and our weekly club started.” 

Dave is now a British Cycling level 2 BMX coach and qualified cycle mechanic, and with the help of other local adults the club got even bigger. “The club has grown now beyond my wildest dreams and has interacted with more than 2,000 young people since its inception; we regularly have more than 100 young people attending our weekly sessions.” 

Over the years, the club has expanded the sessions on offer based on what the members have asked for. Weekly sessions now comprise balance to pedal, BMX beginner, intermediate and expert, and MTB under and over 10s. 

“We also offer bespoke sessions to some of the very vulnerable, at-risk young people in the borough. These include BMX coaching, cycle mechanic lessons, Bushcraft Bikers (think Bear Grylls on two wheels!). We offer sessions to cover learners to experts, with a big emphasise on special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and vulnerability. 

“We also discovered another disused pump track in a nearby borough and set up another wing of our club with similar activities.” 

A recent addition is a clubhouse for “our young people to come and chill out in”. Many of them don’t have access to a youth centre, “so we purchased two containers and created the clubhouse”. 

Since 2019, the club has been taking its members to the London Youth Games, giving them the opportunity to take part in competitive racing. Some have even become regular competitors. 

Our volunteers have been amazing over the years. We have a lot of young people helping at the sessions

Dave Sparks, club leader, COG Cycling

Challenging times 

As might be expected, one of the biggest challenges facing COG Cycling is funding. Dave comments: “As a community club with a big emphasis on inclusivity we struggle to fund our sessions. We do have some coaches that volunteer their time but to have continuity we do pay some coaches.  

“We only ask our young people for a donation of £2 per session which includes the use of our bikes and helmets and a qualified coach. We are constantly writing funding bids to whoever is offering opportunities at that time, but with all the sessions we offer and the number of different styles and sizes of bikes it costs about £20,000 a year to run.” 

Waltham Forest is one of the most deprived boroughs in England. Dave explains that some parents struggle to pay £2 for a session, never mind the cost of clothing, buying a bike or attending regional club races.  

Community clubs rely on their volunteers and COG is no different. “Our volunteers have been amazing over the years,” Dave says. “We have a lot of young people helping at the sessions, from handing out the bikes and helmets to using our club registration system and booking riders onto the sessions.  

“We have some parents who help not only with time but also using work connections to get small sponsors to help keep our young people in our club jerseys. Anything to do with cycle clothing is expensive, so we always try to get local sponsors to keep our club jerseys at £10 rather than the cost price of £30. 

“We have invested in four young people, and with funding grants paid for them to obtain their own cycle qualifications.” 

Medals to awards 

Dave rightly has many proud moments, but something that is particularly important to him is the club’s success at the London Youth Games. When the club first went in 2019, none of the riders had ever raced competitively and they were amongst some "great London clubs”. In that first year, the club came eighth, with some riders winning medals.  

“The second year we came fourth, and last year we came fourth again, with more than half of our medal winners being young girls. This is a great accolade as we are competing against giants such as Peckham, Brixton and Hayes, who have been running for years and have a full-size BMX track. Our young people have done so well.” 

It’s not just medals the club has won. In 2022, COG was presented with the Access Sport Inclusive Club of the Year award. “This was a very unexpected award,” Dave says. “We have never looked at winning an award for what we feel is the right thing to do.  

On building an inclusive club Dave says “we would never turn anyone away from our club. We have built our sessions around what the young people or their parents have asked for, and feel that we can adapt to most. The award is now sitting with pride in our clubhouse.” 

Looking to the future, Dave says: “We are hoping to build a regional-size track in the borough. We have had meetings with Sport England, British Cycling and Sporting Assets, who fully support our dream. The problem is being an inner London borough, land is precious so we are trying to work with the local authority and create a track that the young people deserve. 

“We are always on the lookout for any volunteers who may just wish to help and work with young people or who have dreams of being a coach and we can mentor through the long qualification process.”