IN­TER­VIEW: WIL­LIE SMIT

Procycling - - CONTENTS - Writer: So­phie Hurcom Im­age: Chris Auld*

The South African who de­fied the odds and made his de­but in the World­Tour this sea­son

South African Wil­lie Smit spent his youth strug­gling to turn pro. In­cred­i­bly, aged 25, he re­alised his dream and signed with Ka­tusha-Alpecin in 2018. But eight months into his first con­tract, he tells Pro­cy­cling that turn­ing pro was sim­ply the start of his next bat­tle for sur­vival

When Wil­lie Smit was grow­ing up in postA­partheid Pre­to­ria, South Africa, in the late 1990s, all of his friends were from the black com­mu­nity. At the time, when he was a child run­ning around, play­ing, he didn’t no­tice any­thing about it, didn’t give it a se­cond thought. But when he got older, be­came a bit more aware, he re­alised that par­ents from the white sub­ur­ban fam­i­lies in his neigh­bour­hood stopped him from so­cial­is­ing with their chil­dren. They thought he was dirty and poorly dressed. Smit’s mother strug­gled with al­co­holism. Some­times he didn’t eat prop­erly, he of­ten didn’t brush his teeth. There was no one mak­ing sure he went to school. His fa­ther was away, work­ing in war­zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. They spent some time to­gether when Smit was a teenager but his fa­ther passed away not long af­ter.

At age 12, child ser­vices put Smit into the cus­tody of his grand­par­ents. They were stricter, cared for him, and were good for him, re­ally good for him, but they weren’t his mother and fa­ther. He learned from a young age that he had be the one to look af­ter him­self.

Liv­ing on his grand­par­ents’ farm, the eas­i­est way to get around and have any in­de­pen­dence was by bike. Smit en­tered some moun­tain bike and ad­ven­ture of­froad races, and took a lik­ing to it. In the back of his mind, this dream started to form: to be­come a pro­fes­sional cy­clist.

In those early years at his grand­par­ents, Smit had a lot of missed school­work to catch up on, and the first few years were a strug­gle. But grad­u­ally, over the years, he caught up. Even­tu­ally he was in a po­si­tion to go to uni­ver­sity. His grand­par­ents pres­sured him in a good way to ap­ply him­self and ex­plore his other pas­sion, law. In par­tic­u­lar, fam­ily and com­mer­cial law, which opened up the­o­ries about how the world worked. It would mean putting the pur­suit of his cy­cling dream on hold for three years, but he didn’t re­sent it.

Aged 18, he moved into a uni­ver­sity hos­tel. It was ter­ri­ble. The rules were strict, but some morn­ings he’d be wo­ken up by peo­ple kick­ing open the doors. Some week­ends an ini­ti­a­tion ses­sion would see him cuffed to his room-mate. He’d go out

"AT MY AGE IT'S COM­PLETELY RIDICU­LOUS. THERE'S NO WAY YOU'RE MAK­ING IT IF YOU'VE NOT BEEN A PRO FROM AGE 18 TO 23"

par­ty­ing. It was an easy life­style to fall into, and night af­ter night he would go out, get­ting drunk. But he quickly stopped see­ing any mean­ing in it. Most of his friends car­ried on, but the only thing that made much sense was cy­cling, so Smith would get up at 5am to go train­ing, go to class, train again, and then re­turn home and carry on study­ing.

The train­ing started to pay off. In 2013, aged 21, Smit fin­ished third in the U23 time trial at the Na­tional Cham­pi­onships. Later that year, he was run­ner-up at the African Con­ti­nen­tal Cham­pi­onships TT. His re­sults caught the at­ten­tion of the Vini Fan­tini -Nippo Con­ti­nen­tal team in Italy, and Smit put his stud­ies on hold and moved across the world. Sud­denly be­com­ing a pro cy­clist didn’t look so out of reach any­more.

He was given starts in the Dubai Tour, Coppi e Bar­tali, the Tour of Ja­pan and Tour de Ko­rea. But prob­lems hit. Health is­sues Smit ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing his child­hood were re­ac­ti­vated: in­fec­tions from never brush­ing his teeth came back. He con­tracted the Ep­stein-Barr virus. His sea­son stalled. A gas­troscopy even­tu­ally con­firmed he had a can­dida growth, a type of yeast in­fec­tion. He left the team at the end of the sea­son. It took two years for his health to prop­erly get back on track.

A year on, back rac­ing in Africa in 2015 at La Trop­i­cale Amissa Bongo, Smit crashed and broke his hip. Yet more time off the bike. But he re­fused to give up and got back to fit­ness. He ap­plied for a place on Di­men­sion Data’s Con­ti­nen­tal team but he was told he didn’t meet their re­quire­ments.

If he wanted to get back to Eu­rope, Smit needed to act fast. He spent four months rac­ing on the U23 scene in France in 2016 but hated it – he couldn’t speak the lan­guage and the weather was ter­ri­ble. In­stead, he en­listed a new coach and put all his ef­forts into the na­tional champs the fol­low­ing Fe­bru­ary. A good per­for­mance here, he thought, and Di­men­sion Data may still come knock­ing. Third place in the time trial be­hind Orica-Scott’s Daryl Im­pey was good, and then third again in the road race, sur­rounded by Di­men­sion Data riders, was even bet­ter. A few days later, Smit won the African Con­ti­nen­tal Cham­pi­onships. But the call still didn’t come.

It would have been easy to give up, but he con­tin­ued plug­ging away. With the South African rac­ing sea­son wind­ing down, he got in touch with an old di­recteur sportif. Mar­cos Ser­rano, a for­mer pro, was run­ning a team, Rias Baixas, in Spain and Smit could race with them for the sum­mer. He didn’t ex­pect any­thing other than the chance to com­pete some­where new. Rac­ing in Eu­rope came with a cost though, and Smit had to fund it him­self. He paid his own back-and­forth travel from Eu­rope to Africa. But he was okay with that. It was progress.

Things started to go well. Re­ally well. Span­ish rac­ing suited him. It was open, un­con­trolled and he could at­tack, roll the dice as he liked. The wins started flow­ing: the Volta Ó Ribeiro Ter­mal, Vuelta a Se­govia, Vuelta a León. He won the Tour Me­les Zanawi in Ethiopia and ended the year at the top of the African Tour. Mean­while Ser­rano had con­tacted José Acevedo, his for­mer ONCE team-mate, who was now man­ager of the Ka­tushaAlpecin squad. The team looked at his blood val­ues and train­ing data. Acevedo was in­ter­ested to see if this rough, over­looked South African di­a­mond could be cut and pol­ished into a pro.

At the Worlds in Ber­gen, com­pet­ing in the elite road race for the first time, Smit was one of the last break­away riders to be caught. Six­teen wins and now a prom­i­nent show­ing on the world’s big­gest stage - it had been his best year yet. But best of all, he would turn pro with Ka­tusha in 2018.

Smit spent 200km in the day's main break­away at Am­s­tel Gold this springSmit has taken time to adapt to the tough­ness of World­Tour rac­ing

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