Last year, the Qatar Cycling Federation launched a women’s cycling development team with the aim of fielding a squad at the 2016 UCI Road World Championships in Doha.
An ambitious programme for a country where women’s cycling has been non-existent, and a sizeable challenge for their Finnish coach, a former road and mountain bike professional for whom cycling is second nature.
After 15 years as an athlete, Pia Sunstedt found herself in charge of young women, recruited from various schools and academic institutions, who were being confronted with a bicycle for the first time in their lives.
“I was dealing with girls who had never ridden,” says Pia. “In the beginning there was no way I could let them get on the bikes. I had to start with really basic things like how to ride a bike, how to brake… I had to explain the gears.”
Emphasis on practical skills
As confidence grew the new young cyclists, aged 13 to 24, progressed to riding a short 11km loop where Pia never let them out of her sight. Even now, every session begins with practical skills: “They didn’t know how to crash, how to get out of the saddle, how to corner,” explains their coach. “We start with the practical stuff and then we can start training. It is challenging but I really like it.”
Meeting the challenge has been rendered more realistic thanks to the UCI’s Coach Development Programme which last September organised its first ever course exclusively for women coaches. Pia was among the 10 women from nine countries who obtained the UCI Coaching certificate after the four-week course at the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland. She is currently back at the WCC to complete the more advanced Coach Diploma also led by the Centre’s Education and Training Coordinator Belinda Tarling.
“The coaching course taught me a lot,” confirms Pia. “I have been involved in professional cycling for 15 years as an athlete so I know how to ride, but I did not know how to explain it to others. Belinda is a great tutor and has given me a lot of knowledge that I have used myself as a coach.”
“Sport is about having fun”
Not all of Pia’s athletes in Qatar have lasted the distance. Some gave up, others joined. At one point the group grew to 30, but Pia works with around 10 regular riders, who twice a week travel between 60 and 90 minutes to get to training then face the same journey home again.
“You can see their motivation. They want to learn. They are excited to be there,” says Pia. “Sport is about having fun. The good ones want to continue because they have an inner motivation that doesn’t necessarily come from the coach.”
Their increasing ability is accompanied by a growing awareness of, and interest in, cycling in general.
“When they started they did not know anything about cycling. They did not know the difference between a mountain bike and a road bike. I took them to the Ladies’ Tour of Qatar and I always send them the links to the UCI Women Road World Cup on YouTube. Many of them come back to me with something they have learned from watching the videos.”
Pia’s most promising “students” are aged 13 to 15. They will be Juniors at the World Championships in Qatar and the road ahead it still long. But she is confident.
“For 2016 there will be a decent team in Qatar,” she announces boldly. “And it is possible that in 10 years these young riders could be very competitive. I could help them be number one among the Arabic countries.”
She describes their first race, a mountain bike race, with pride: “It was a great moment for them but also for me.”
Coaching course in Dubai part of worldwide WCC programe
Pia is helping ensure continuity in the region by training coaches. She recently conducted a Level 1 UCI Coaching Course for 25 women in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. Ten of them were primary school teachers who will start cycling programmes in their schools. Plans are also underway to open a training centre in the UAE.
“The region is putting effort into women’s sport and that is really good.”
The coaching course delivered by Pia in Dubai is part of the UCI’s and WCC’s work with National Federations to raise the level of coaching worldwide. Each year, the WCC receives 10 – 15 requests from Federations to conduct such courses in their countries. The WCC has a bank of experts it can draw on to conduct these courses, depending on the language spoken and the discipline requested. Courses have been conducted so far in 2014 in Mauritius, Liberia, Puerto Rico, Congo, the United Arab Emirates and Madagascar.
On completing her Coaching Diploma in Switzerland Pia will return to Qatar, but also plans to put some of her energy into coaching back in Finland where she is already organising some training camps for the summer. This autumn she will study by correspondence with the University of Abo Akademi in Finland to complete her teacher's qualification.
“The future is full of unknowns but I love learning, I have a lot of experience and I have a lot of ideas.”http://www.uci.ch/Modules/ENews/ENewsDetails.asp?id=OTk4NQ&MenuId=MTYzMDQ&LangId=1&BackLink=%2FTemplates%2FUCI%2FUCI8%2Flayout%2Easp%3FMenuID%3DMTYzMDQ%26LangId%3D1