Kadeena Cox: Lack of diverse faces in cycling is creating ‘barrier’ for others to enter sport

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Kadeena Cox is seeking to increase diversity in British cycling through her KC Academy - Heathcliff O'Malley /Heathcliff O'Malley 

Kadeena Cox is seeking to increase diversity in British cycling through her KC Academy – Heathcliff O’Malley /Heathcliff O’Malley

Given Kadeena Cox already has two sports to juggle and a three-times weekly commute from Manchester to Loughborough, via Leeds to drop off and pick up her dog, she could be forgiven for not wanting to overburden herself with additional commitments.

But taking the easy option would have meant Cox not winning cycling and athletics gold medals at the Rio Paralympics five years ago, so the idea of creating her own academy to add to an already hectic schedule “seemed sensible”.

“I like to overfill my life,” she says, with a laugh.

By claiming gold in the velodrome in 2016, Cox became the first black British cyclist to win an Olympic or Paralympic medal. Last year’s Tour de France featured only one black cyclist, Frenchman Kevin Reza, out of the 176 who started the race.

An anomaly in a sporting world that claims to reward talent over anything else, Cox is adamant that ability is not the problem holding black people back in cycling; it is a lack of inspiration, opportunity and support. Invigorated by the Black Lives Matter movement, she decided to do something about it.

The new KC Academy has the simple aim of bringing greater diversity to elite cycling. By helping young black cyclists progress onto the international stage, Cox wants to ensure the “odd one out” feeling she experiences so frequently ends. “How can we do something that is going to try to get more people from a similar background to me into cycling?”

Her solution comes from lived experience. A talented able-bodied sprinter before developing multiple sclerosis after a stroke in 2014, Cox says cycling was “never on my radar” in her youth.

Kadeena Cox won gold in the velodrome at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, only taking up cycling two years prior - Tom Dulat /Getty Images Europe Kadeena Cox won gold in the velodrome at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, only taking up cycling two years prior - Tom Dulat /Getty Images Europe 

Kadeena Cox won gold in the velodrome at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, only taking up cycling two years prior – Tom Dulat /Getty Images Europe

“It’s hard to get into something if you don’t see someone like you who has done it,” she tells The Sunday Telegraph. “In athletics there are so many great elite athletes who look like me, so it was easy to fall into. I would never have looked at cycling as something I could do had I not got ill and lived in Manchester where British Cycling is. The potential is there – there’s just a barrier of not being able to see anyone like you.”

In her initial academy intake, she has four young black cyclists with aspirations – and potential – to represent Britain at the highest level.

As well as a sense of community and Cox acting as a mentor, academy members benefit from elements of support they might not otherwise have access to such as nutrition advice and mental health tools.

“It’s helping them to be a rounded athlete so that when they get to that elite level they’ve got all the tools in their armoury to be great,” Cox says. If further funding – which currently comes from sponsors – can be generated, the ambition is to provide each academy member money to allow them to essentially train as elite athletes.

Another academy strand is to expose more black youngsters to cycling through talent identification days. Cox fell into the sport after spending time on a Wattbike when her multiple sclerosis initially prevented her from running. Only when it was pointed out that her power output was impressive did she consider trying to ride at elite level.

“We want to do testing days so people can talent-transfer to cycling,” she says. “So people who wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to cycling as a sport could find they are good at it. We have our first wave and then hopefully, after the Tokyo Paralympics, we can host some testing days to get people in from different sports or other places.”

Cox hopes the delayed Tokyo Paralympic Games will provide a platform to further boost the exposure of the sport - Andrew Matthews /PACox hopes the delayed Tokyo Paralympic Games will provide a platform to further boost the exposure of the sport - Andrew Matthews /PA

Cox hopes the delayed Tokyo Paralympic Games will provide a platform to further boost the exposure of the sport – Andrew Matthews /PA

Imani Pereira-James, 16, is the youngest of Cox’s crop and a rare black face on the British Cycling programme after acceptance to the governing body’s junior academy last year. Encouraged by her mother to try a range of sports after moving from London to Glasgow aged five, Pereira-James is embracing the weight of expectation that comes with being a black face in cycling’s sea of white.

“At a younger age, I didn’t really notice it because I was oblivious to different colours,” she says. “But as you grow up you realise you are the only one and you do stand out. I just try to hold my head up and not make it a big deal.

“Hopefully I can be that person that shows people there are others in cycling who have come from different ethnic backgrounds. I want to make it for many reasons and being the first black person to do whatever is top of my list.

“I want to be on the Olympic team and for someone in the junior academy to see me and not feel like that can’t be them. Hopefully I’ll get there.”

If Cox can open doors by showing Pereira-James how to succeed, and Pereira-James can do the same for the next generation, the goal will have been achieved. Food for thought on those long commutes.