Commonwealth Games: Cyclist Abi Smith drawing inspiration from childhood dreams as she gears up for Team England debut
Most kids dream of representing their country at major sporting events – Abi Smith of Ripon actually drew herself doing so.
“We used to draw in art and crafts and I remember drawing myself in a Team England skin suit,” says Smith, whose vision with crayons will come true this week when she represents the host nation in the road cycling events at the Commonwealth Games.
“The drawing was actually of me on a track, so it’s not quite the same, but it’s been a dream since I was 10 or so to be a professional athlete whatever sport that is.
“To be at a Commonwealth Games which only comes around every four years is really special. It’s a huge honour for me.”
Back then the likely vessel to satisfy Smith’s thirst for a sporting career would have been triathlon, after she followed her brother into Yorkshire Regional Triathlon events.
But by the age of 16 the realisation dawned on the Ripon Grammar School pupil that if she was being left behind in the swim leg of the triathlon and then tearing past the field on the bike, maybe cycling would be the sport to best suit her.
The transition was rapid. Top-10 finishes on the national youth series in that first summer of 2018 led to being scouted by British Cycling coaches and then debuting at the UCI Road World Championships in nearby Harrogate the following year.
This year, she has stepped up to World Tour level and rode the 10-day Women’s Tour of Italy in the past month.
All this by the age of 20 and with a year lost to a pandemic followed by a serious injury and illness curtailing much of her winter programme.
“The world has stopped for the past three years, I’ve had time to train, time to gain fitness, time to gain experience,” says Smith, who will be supported in Birmingham by her parents and close family.
“Life has spiralled really quickly and there’s a lot of people to thank for that.
“It’s not so good having so few events, but I’ve been able to use my time wisely.”
On the bike, that time was used to develop her skills as a road racer.
At 20, and with only those punctured four years of focused cycling behind her, Smith acknowledges that she is a long way from being the finished canvas, hence why she has been using the races she has been involved in this year – even in 40-degree heat in the Sardinian hills for the Women’s Tour of Italy – to gain experience.
“I’ve been practising my domestique skills; going back for water, taking things back to the cars, jobs for other people, covering attacks, which may well be my role in the road race in Birmingham.
“Knowing what UK roads are like, with potholes and gravel everywhere, being used to that is really important.”
Off the bike, Smith fell back on another passion of hers to keep her mind occupied when injury and then a bout of Covid robbed her of the back end of last season and much of her winter training programme.
“Painting and drawing is so important to me,” she says. “I did it at GCSE but for A-level had to choose between PE and art, and because they both take so much time I chose PE.
“But I still use art to relax, it’s been particularly important for the first part of this year when I was ill or injured quite a lot, and I had to find other things to do to occupy my time.
“It’s a nice way to not think about bikes when I see everyone else riding and you can’t.
“I like to paint on canvas, doing landscapes of places I’ve been or places I’d like to go, mostly outdoors places such as the Lake District or where I live in the Yorkshire Dales.
“When I was stuck at home with Covid with just a pen and paper, I was getting people to send pictures of their pets for me to draw to alleviate the boredom.”
A keen academic student – Smith deferred going to university to concentrate on cycling but harbours ambitions to continue her studies in some form – there was also a lesson in those idol few months.
“The injury taught me patience,” she continues, “not expecting to just be able to jump back on the bike.
“I had to accept that this was going to take a long time to get back from.
“It’s something to learn from, ways to deal with recovery better, this was the first big injury and illness I’ve had so if there is a next time I’ll know of a better way to deal with it.”
Encouragingly, Smith comes into the Commonwealth Games in good form.
She was ninth in the women’s road race at the British Championships in Dumfries and Galloway, fifth in the Under-23s individual time-trial and completed all 10 stages in the scorching heat of the Women’s Tour of Italy.
Her Birmingham programme consists of the time-trial on Thursday and the road race next Sunday.
“The time-trial was a little unexpected for me,” she admits of a race that offers the Yorkshirewoman her best chance of a medal.
“I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity for that, and I’ve been working really hard towards it.
“My team-mates will be among the strongest competition, we’ve got a very strong team in Joss Lowden and Anna Henderson, and the ideal situation would be a one, two, three, but New Zealand, Australia, Wales and Scotland are the teams to keep our eyes on.
“It’ll be down to who’s got the legs and who’s recced the course the best, because there’s a few technical bits and a few lumps as well so it will be very, very interesting.
“Joss and Anna are very experienced, very good time-triallists and I’ve been picking their brains a little bit.
“There’s always that pressure on you at the big events but they do help; we’re all in this together. We’ve got to go into it with the mindset that we can achieve gold.
“We’re very driven and determined to do that. The pressure is good, as long as it doesn’t get too much.”
For the road race, which takes in some stunning views through Warwick and over the River Avon, Smith will be a lead-out rider, hoping to get an England team-mate into position to win the gold medal and emulate the feat of another Yorkshire rider in Lizzie Deignan, who won Commonwealth Games gold in Glasgow eight years ago.
“The road race is pretty flat, it might not be a bunch sprint but if it is I will be on lead-out duties for that, covering attacks, and helping our sprinters,” explains Smith.
Beyond this next few days, a very exciting career lies ahead for the 20-year-old from Ripon.
She has already rode a world championships and now contests a Commonwealth Games.
“Back when I was drawing out my dreams I drew a GB kit as well as the England strip, I don’t think I quite understood the difference in the two events back then,” she laughs.
“But I wrote down Olympics and Commonwealths. I’ve ticked the Commonwealths off now, we’ll see if I can tick the Olympics off at some point as well.”