Feature Interview: Imani Pereira-James

Brother UK Cycling talks to Olympic Junior Academy rider Imani Pereira-James who will also race for Team Brother UK-OnForm in 2021 

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Feature Interview: Imani Pereira-James
Brother UK Cycling talks to Olympic Junior Academy rider Imani Pereira-James who will also race for Team Brother UK-OnForm in 2021. As a member of British Cycling’s vaunted Olympic Junior Academy, Imani has also enjoyed training rides through the Scottish Development Team with Katie Archibald MBE, a gold medallist at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Imani Pereira-James. Photo: Huw Williams 

Born in London, and a resident of Glasgow for 11 of her 16 years, Pereira-James has a fascinating cultural heritage and could represent a host of nations. India, Jamaica and Tanzania’s loss, to name only three, is clearly Great Britain’s gain.

“I want to be the first black woman in the women’s team pursuit squad going for the Olympics,” she says. “I feel that if I can do that, it will open up way more opportunities for other girls and boys who are black or from other ethnic minorities. I feel like a little bit of change could be good.”

Pereira-James’ potential clearly extends beyond the athletic prowess that made her part of the victorious junior women’s road team at the 2019 European Youth Summer Olympic Festival, despite being the youngest athlete in the entire Great Britain squad, and the youngest rider of all in the cycling disciplines.

It speaks volumes too that she is already strong enough to often train on the road with friend and former Glasgow Riderz clubmate Anna Shackley, despite an almost four-year age gap. Shackley, a graduate of the Senior Academy, is about to begin a debut season as a professional with SD Worx, one of the strongest teams in women’s professional cycling.

Despite her obvious talent and potential to inspire young BAME athletes, should her career continue on its current trajectory, Pereira-James is no prima donna, but a reassuringly typical teenager. She was attempting to remove a spider from the bathroom with elder sibling Maya (“the smart sister”) when news arrived by email that she had secured a place in the Junior Olympic Academy. Her reaction?

“I just started crying. There’d been so much tension in the house, just from not knowing what was going to happen. That message lifted so much stress from my shoulders. I was so happy.”

She worries whether pursuing a cycling career will cause her to miss out on university and the opportunity to make friends for life, and admits to being star-struck in the presence of Laura Kenny, the four-time Olympic champion with whom she shares a talent for explosive sprinting late in a race.

The journey to achieving Kenny’s status is long and offers no guarantee that its golden horizon will ever be reached. Such is Pereira-James’ potential however that to play even a small part in its beginning, as Brother UK will do in 2021, already feels auspicious.

Imani Pereira-James. Photo: Huw Williams 

Explosive ambition

Pereira-James’ remarkable ascent began with the Glasgow Riderz: the youth cycling club she joined, aged five, at the instigation of a mother keen for her daughter to make new friends. Within three years, she had started to race. Despite showing early promise as a swimmer and a runner (“I’m quite tall, so it was one of those things that I just got put into,” she says, laughing. “I even won a Glasgow District 400m running title in my first ever race,”) before cycling swiftly took hold.

Her first two races are a microcosm of her progress: she was last in the first and won the second. She now wins regularly, if not routinely (“Zoe Bäckstedt beats me in nearly every race,” she admits, in a tone of good-natured complaint) but such is the breadth of her talent that it might take time to find her true calling. Able already to produce a 1200w sprint on the track and to train on the road with Olympic champions and graduates to the UCI Women’s WorldTour, she will not lack options.

“I’m quite an explosive rider. I can be in a bunch or an attack but still have the energy for a full-on sprint at the end and for it to be a good sprint. Say, if I’m in an elimination race, I know I can stay to the end and still have a good punch to finish. That’s been a huge benefit. I didn’t realise how much, but it really does give me a good advantage.”

She enjoys the anxiety of an outcome yet to be decided, a future yet to be written, as she lines-up for races. She is driven by the constant desire to improve, to be better in the next race than she was in the last, but tempers such essential ambition with realism. A self-confessed “data geek”, Pereira-James is reassuringly aware that while an athlete’s urge for comparison is an occupational hazard, it is not entirely healthy.

“I am quite obsessed with my watts and comparing myself to other people, which can be bad, but I can’t help it. It’s one of those things. I always look at the power I’m putting out, how fast I’m going on a road ride or how long it’s taking me to ride up a hill. I’m constantly challenging myself. I think that’s one way I keep going.”

…. continued after the advert.

An Olympic education

Combining training and school work is arduous, and Pereira-James might even have benefitted from the unprecedented conditions of a national lockdown. The youngest in her school year, she is two weeks from turning 16 when we speak in November 2020 and fresh into her “Highers” – Scotland’s year-long prelude to four years of university study.

Such are the historic circumstances of her education, that Pereira-James is one of millions of British teenagers not to have sat a final school exam. She is not un-academic, a fact proven by her enrolment for five ‘Highers’ (Maths, English, History, PE and Modern Studies), but it’s clear that cycling (‘a once in a lifetime thing’) is her priority.

Indeed, she seems more intimately acquainted with the formal structures of youth and junior cycling, and her achievement in exchanging Apprentice status for membership of the Junior Olympic Academy, than academic pathways. Should she continue to impress, matriculation to the Senior Academy will follow: a full-time undertaking that will necessitate a move to Manchester, Brother UK’s home city.

“The head of British Cycling’s Women’s Junior Academy monitors Training Peaks data from the Apprentices to track their progress. In August, I think, two of us were selected – Grace Lister and me – and now we’re on Junior Academy training camps. Usually, the process would be more interesting, but this year it was assessed from Training Peaks.”

The Junior Academy training camps have already provided a lifeline. As a Team GB member, Pereira-James has enjoyed access to Manchester’s National Cycling Centre throughout lockdown; a significant bonus, given the enforced closure of her local track, Glasgow’s Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome. In her monthly visits to Manchester, she mingles with Olympic champions and trains with the best of the new generation.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of her enrollment onto such a prestigious programme. The name of the pathway has changed since it was embarked upon by Kenny, née Trott, Archibald, Elinor Barker and other household names, but the destination is the same for those who remain upon it: the Olympic Games. Little wonder, then, that Pereira-James was overwhelmed by a single message.

“I’d come home from a training ride, and I was with my sister, Maya, trying to get a spider out of the bathroom. My phone pinged with an email. I read it, and it said: ‘You’ve been accepted.’ I just started crying,” she remembers.

“The women’s endurance programme is a big focus now for British Cycling, especially the women’s Team Pursuit. I didn’t realise how big the focus would be.”

The absence of racing means the Junior Olympic Academy’s new cohort is the smallest yet, for men and women. Pereira-James believes the federation is still recruiting. As with all training, however, smaller might yet prove better. Reduced competition and greater individual attention are advantages in any context. Her early selection offers further validation of an undeniable talent.

Imani Pereira-James  at the start of her time trial at the European Youth Olympic Festival  (2019)

Manchester calling

Admission to such a venerated finishing school naturally brings pressure. The National Cycling Centre is more widely known as “the medal factory”, and for good reason, but medals do not come cheaply, a fact proven by British Cycling’s latest award from UK Sport of a cool £35.5m. The government, naturally, will expect a return on such a sizable investment.

It would be deeply counterproductive to weigh down an athlete, and especially a teenager, with the implied responsibility of multi-million-pound funding programmes, but those who select the riders in the hope they will win gold are keenly aware of the stakes. For Pereira-James, a 16-year-old living a dream of athletic success and interactions with her heroes, passion is a more vital commodity. Hard yards lie ahead, and times will be plentiful when she will need to draw on her inspiration to complete them. Fortunately, the well is deep.

Monthly visits to Manchester place her in as close a proximity to British Cycling’s (third) golden generation as possible, given the restrictions of lockdown. The public is barred from the National Cycling Centre, and admission is granted to athletes only if they provide daily health updates via an app, wear a mask when walking through the building and try to maintain a distance from their team-mates, even when training. Pereira-James hopes that the worst is over.

“It’s easier now than a couple of months ago, but at the last camp, we had to breakfast solo in our rooms. It is hard, but it’s worth it because we can train together. It’s so different to training on your own,” she confides.

“In January, all the Academy groups are going to have a big day ‘hit out’ in Manchester, and I’ll be racing against Laura [Kenny] and Katie. It’s going to be weird. I’ve ridden out with Katie and watched Laura on television, racing and giving interviews. I passed her at the velodrome recently, walking in the opposite direction, and she smiled at me. I was like: ‘Oh my goodness! That’s Laura Kenny.’”

Kenny is a key influence. As mentioned, Pereira-James shares the multiple Olympic champion’s ability to unleash a powerful sprint, deep into a race. Kenny’s range offers further inspiration. An Olympic champion in the Omnium and the Team Pursuit, her career is a touchstone for Pereira-James, who enjoys wheel-to-wheel combat as much as the more synchronised endeavour of pursuiting.

“I look at how Laura wins in the Omnium and the Team Pursuit. That’s the type of rider I want to be. I’ve only started doing the Team Pursuit since joining the Junior Academy, so it’s quite a big step up. I’m, realising now how hard it is. But I don’t want to stop riding the Omnium because I like bunch racing as well.”

An international assignment

Bunch racing on the road will account for most of Pereira-James’ duties with Team Brother UK- OnForm. It provided the forum too for her most significant engagement to date: racing, in 2019, as a member of Great Britain’s U17 women’s squad at the European Youth Summer Olympic Festival in Baku, Azerbaijan.

She made a low-key debut to her international career with a sub-par performance in the U17 women’s time-trial but buried her disappointment with a strong showing in the U17 women’s road race, finishing sixth on the road and third in the bunch kick behind solo winner and team-mate Zoe Bäckstedt.

Imani, Zoe and Millie. Photo: Team GB @TeamGB (Twitter)

For such a young athlete (the youngest in her squad, as well as in the U17 women’s road race), the experience of international competition, especially in a multi-discipline event, is invaluable. The racing is only one lesson in a broader curriculum that includes team bonding, travel, kit deployment and the unforgettable experiences of opening and closing ceremonies.

“The time-trial is probably my weakness, and it was my first race for Team GB. I didn’t do as well as I’d wanted to, and that brought me down. I didn’t want to let down Great Britain, who are known to be good at cycling, so it was kind of frustrating, but I went into the road race with a positive mindset,” she remembers.

“I just thought, if I can keep up with all these girls, I can produce the position they want me to. In the end, I came sixth. We rode for Zoe, and Zoe won. We helped her go in a solo attack, so it felt like a team win.”

From the pre-event gathering to a flight in which Team GB athletes heavily outnumbered the paying public, Pereira-James gathered a wealth of experience that will serve as vital currency should she realise her Olympic dream. If the opportunity arises to perform on sport’s biggest stage, she will value her time in smaller productions even more.

“I got to meet riders who are on the Junior Academy now – Milly Couzens, Josh Charlton, Finn Pickering – and athletes from other sports. We met up at Bisham Abbey for workshops, got kitted up and went on buses to Gatwick, where we caught a flight to Baku,” she recalls.

“It was a great experience, to go to the opening ceremony and the closing ceremony and to meet loads of people from other sports. It’s great to have memories that will last forever. It’s so valuable, I think, to take young riders to events like that.”

Imani Pereira-James in winning form in the North West Youth Tour. Photo: Huw Williams 

The power to inspire

Listening to Pereira-James describe the pressures of performing for a nation known to be “good at cycling” is a reminder of how far Great Britain has travelled on the road from also-rans to world-beaters. It is reassuring too to hear that while success is expected, it is not assumed.

Talk of international competition leads us to a more complex area: Pereira-James’ nationality and heritage. It’s a topic on which we’ve been briefed, helpfully, by step-father Greig Scott, and which we agree to discuss only if Pereira-James wishes to. No teenager should be forced to discuss such a complex issue, but she does so lightly, and with the glorious insouciance of youth.

“My mum is…” She pauses, then laughs. “I don’t even know where my mum was born! I know that I could ride for so many different countries that I can’t even remember them all. Jamaica is an option, via my biological dad. I can ride for GB, obviously. I think India is an option, too. Portugal and France, maybe, are others. Greig knows, obviously, but I’m not 100 per cent sure. All I know is that there are a lot of other countries I can ride for, so if GB doesn’t work out, maybe it’ll be Jamaica!”

This last observation is accompanied by more laughter. Clearly, Pereira-James does not imagine an international career with any nation other than Great Britain. Equally, British Cycling would be negligent if it allowed such a precious talent to slip through its fingers. For now, these are mere talking points. A more definite matter lies in the fact that, beyond Paralympic champion Kadeena Cox, Pereira-James is the only woman of colour on Team GB’s endurance squad.

Cycling is notoriously monocultural, even at the highest level. The 2021 Tour de France’s final stage began with an intended show of solidarity with Kévin Reza, the peloton’s sole black rider, but even this was bungled. World-class athletes carry a rarely-matched power to inspire; a fact acknowledged by British Cycling in its skilful use of Kenny, the girl next door who rose to be Olympic champion, to promote its Breeze programme. It is not hyperbole to suggest that Pereira-James could inspire a generation of young, BAME athletes.

“I want to be the first black woman in the women’s Team Pursuit squad going for the Olympics,” she says. “I feel that if I can do that, it will open up way more opportunities for other girls and boys who are black or from ethnic minorities. I feel like a little bit of change could be good.”

Imani Pereira-James in the North West Youth Tour. Photo: Huw Williams 

Finding (On)Form

The conversation moves to topics more typical for an interview with a promising young rider: ambitions for a new season with a new team. Pereira-James will combine a track programme with the Junior Academy with duties on the road for Team Brother UK-OnForm. Simon Howes’ development team has become a byword for success in recent seasons, and its reputation has not gone unnoticed north of the border.

Pereira-James is a close friend of Senior Academy rider Sophie Lewis, another of Howes’ protégés. Further, she is a long-term admirer of the team’s harlequin kit. When she contacted Team Brother UK- OnForm, Mark Botteley, manager of the senior women’s squad, wasted little time signing her for a domestic programme that will – Covid-permitting – include some of the biggest races on the British calendar.

She is desperate to escape the monotony of solo home training in British Cycling’s road programme for youth and junior riders when racing restarts and hopes to supplement her duties for Team Brother UK-OnForm with rounds of the Nations Cup for Team GB: a series of ferociously competitive U23 races. Asked to identify the domestic races of which she’s grown so tired, Pereira-James responds with a chuckle: “There are so many!”

“I’ve ridden the youth race on the Redbridge circuit near London five times, I think. I’ve ridden the North West Youth and Junior Tour since I was in the Youth D category, and it still goes on when you’re a junior, so I can’t even tell you how many years I’m going to have to do that,” she says, exasperated.

“I did like it for the first few years, but when it’s the same course every year, and you don’t like the course of a stage race, it’s always demotivating. I did well in the North West Tour for the first three years, I won it twice, but then I stopped doing so well on the hilly stage. From then on, I just started to dread it and never did well again, so riding the same course can be mentally debilitating too. I guess I’m just ready for a bit of change.”

Change, according to received wisdom, is as good as a rest, and so perhaps the best option for Pereira-James, given the abundance of opportunities and commitments that await her in 2021. From academic study to Olympic training programmes, from banking base miles in the Scottish winter to racing with Team Brother UK-OnForm in the high days of summer, the year ahead will be busy indeed.

Good luck to Imani Pereira-James for what looks like being an exciting cycling career …

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