Returning unused birthday vouchers was what first kick-started Rhianna Parris-Smith’s cycling journey. The Wellingborough-based star has endured a bumpy ride in her sport since first investing in a road bike as a 14-year-old, struggling for early funding as she swapped her athletics prowess for the glittering velodrome lights.
Rhianna, now 18, has been on an impressive journey ever since which has seen her finish fourth in the female 500m individual time trial at the National Youth and Junior Track Cycling Championships, where she also soared to an impressive fifth-place finish in the female sprint.
It was vouchers not velodromes for Rhianna at the beginning, however, and the precocious star knows her journey to the top is far from conventional in the track cycling world.
“I’d always done cycling as a hobby since I was five, but I didn’t get my first road bike until I was 14,” said Rhianna - who is supported by the Elton John Sports Fund through SportsAid. “I begged my dad to get me one and paid him in vouchers and leftover birthday money! It was basic, but it was just so cool as I really wanted one.
“I’d always wanted a bike but my dad always said ‘will you actually ride it?’, so I gave him some vouchers from Milton Keynes shopping centre! There were some John Lewis ones and some Next ones, and then I topped that up with about £30 in cash and just said ‘please dad!’
“Eventually he said I could get one, so we drove up to Wembley, found one the right size and straight away I just fell in love. I moved down to Oaklands College, in St Albans, and just got started from there - Jez Cox was my coach who took me under his wing and realised that I had a bit of potential.
“It was hard at the start and I did think about quitting, but I ended up winning my C category event at the Black Line Open - my first indoor competition - and to me, that was my big breakthrough.”
Rhianna’s burgeoning cycling journey was underway, soon joining forces with coach Adey Dent who begun to work closely with her and helped engineer her rise to the National Youth and Junior Track Championships in Newport.
And it was Adey’s intensive six-week training programme that propelled Rhianna into the spotlight as she supplemented those fourth and fifth-placed finishes with 11th in the keirin.
Rhianna was acutely aware she would be in the minority in south Wales, however, with the dominant demographic - similarly to elite-level cycling - being white, middle-class families with expensive equipment.
Cycling remains a sport with a limited black and ethnic minority presence, and Rhianna wants to be a trailblazer who can bring about genuine change.
“I don’t have a big enough platform at the moment, but if I did end up having major success, I’d definitely want to get more black and minority ethnic people into the sport,” she added.
“I want to try and make it a more accessible sport, and it’s about looking at ways of attracting athletes from other sports as the skills required for cycling are so transferable.
“It’s important for the younger generation to have a role model they can relate to - in cycling, you don’t get many black people at all so the prospect of inspiring more people would be really cool.
“You just don’t relate cycling to black people at the moment - all you see is white, middle-class people on a bike, and for someone like me, it was intimidating to see that.
“If I do become successful, I want to try and find ways of getting people like me, and others from black and minority ethnic communities, into the sport.
“I think it’s so important - we could be so successful but people don’t realise, and we could be just as successful as we are on the athletics track in track cycling in terms of diversity.
“I just want to inspire the next generation and try and create a better platform for other people from minority backgrounds, and make it easier than what I’ve experienced.”
Rhianna is a diligent analyser of her own performances, studying other sports in meticulous detail to look for new tactics and skills that can be implemented.
It’s that level of analysis that has helped propel British cycling into a recent unprecedented era of success, with the likes of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Laura Kenny and Victoria Pendleton setting the yardstick that Rhianna wants to follow.
And the Northamptonshire starlet hopes that assiduous preparation of her own can propel her to glory when cycling returns.
“If you don’t analyse your performances then you’re not going to get anywhere, so it’s important that you analyse things,” she said.
“You need to find out your strengths and weaknesses and then once you identify your weaknesses, you go out and work on them at the next opportunity.
“Adey is really good at helping me put things into perspective - looking back at videos is key as you can reflect on tactics, what works and what you could have done differently.
“I also try and implement things from other sports - people don’t realise how transferable skills can be on a bike, and how different components can be implemented from other sports.
“Inspiring more people to get into cycling is 100 per cent just as important to me as achieving success myself, but in order for that to happen I know I need to create a good profile and platform.
“You can never say never about the Olympics and Paris 2024 - from being a little kid, going to the Olympics has always been a dream so if that happened that would be amazing.
“Right now it’s about focusing on the now, but the Olympics and World Championships are always the dream.”
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