INTERVIEW: WILLIE SMIT
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