Dirt School has been delivering the Borders Academy of Sporting Excellence (BASE) Mountain Biking course in conjunction with Borders College for an incredible ten years now - but not many people will realise the rich history behind the course.
Dirt School, founded by Chris Ball, started the Scottish Downhill Academy in 2007 and saw instant success with one of its very first students, Ruaridh Cunningham - who would be crowned the UCI Downhill World Champion that same year in Fort William.
By 2009, after two hugely successful years, the Downhill Academy was brought in house at Scottish Cycling to ensure its legacy could continue, and Chris was appointed the National Downhill Coach. At the same time, Dirt School was looking for an innovative way to replicate the residential performance programs being operated by British Cycling in other cycling disciplines such as cross-country and road.
By coincidence, not far from Dirt School’s base in the South of Scotland, Richie Gray was in the process of creating the groundbreaking BASE Rugby course at Borders College. The parallels were obvious from the start, and in September 2009 the world’s first performance based mountain bike academic qualification was born as a joint venture between Dirt School and Borders College.
In its first year just five students enrolled, four of which came directly from the Scottish Downhill Academy, including Lewis Buchanan and Greg Williamson. It wasn’t long before word spread, and the course numbers quickly increased and the coaching team expanded. Well known Scottish downhill racer and coach Andy Barlow stepped into the role, and the program came full circle when Ruaridh Cunningham assisted him with the coaching for a number of years.
Andy’s vision saw the course expand from a simply performance based course into something much more. Students now spend two days a week out on the hill honing their bike skills and the rest of their time is devoted to learning everything from how to put together strength and fitness programmes, to nutrition and sports psychology.
"In my time coaching the Downhill Academy I saw so many young riders who want to leave school as soon as they can to become a pro rider, but unfortunately not all of them are going to make it."
"And that’s where the BASE course comes in perfectly - it offers students the chance to not only leave college a better mountain biker, but with a recognised academic qualification and skills that are transferable to work within the wider bike industry and beyond."
Of course, some of the students have turned their dreams into reality and are now competing at the highest levels of the sport.
Trek Factory Racing’s Reece Wilson was a Base student from 2013-2015, and credits Dirt School and Borders College as an important part of his journey towards his downhill career.
“Dirt School and the BASE course provided me with a program and structure that allowed me to learn and progress from my early days of riding, right up to my current professional level. It’s a great environment to be in, no matter what your level. Being surrounded by like minded people trying to achieve similar goals on or off the bike is what makes the BASE course so special for me.”
Greg Williamson was in the very first intake of students, back in 2009 and is now riding for UNNO Factory Racing on the Downhill World Cup.
“I’m so thankful for my opportunity to study with Dirt School and the college. Chris and Andy created such a good balance of training, class work and riding all to a very high standard which led to my first ever pro contract with Trek Bikes. It’s awesome to see how much BASE downhill has grown and how many successful guys and girls have come up through the program.”
Greg’s classmate Lewis Buchanan is also at the sharp end of the sport, riding for Ibis Cycles in the Enduro World Series.
Over 100 students have now passed through the course, and the graduates are scattered far and wide. From trail builders in New Zealand and snowboard instructors in Canada, to Cyclocross World Cup mechanics and digital marketers, the course is continually expanding - with 30 students already enrolled for the next intake after the summer.
“The evolution of the program has been amazing to watch. Borders College put their faith in us to deliver this new style of learning and we sincerely thank them for that trust - not every institution would be willing to put their resources into a non mainstream sport like mountain biking.
“Ten years ago Chris developed the concept for this course, and along with the college, delivered it to five students. Today we have five coaches working with over 20 students every week. It’s gone from a purely performance based concept to a recognised academic qualification that gives young people the skills they need to make it - be that in or outside the bike industry. The last ten years have been phenomenal, here’s to the next ten and beyond.”