CY­CLE OF CHANGE

Willie Smit rose above his cir­cum­stances and climbed to the top.

Men's Health (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - MAURO MATALONE WILLIESMIT OC­CU­PA­TION CY­CLIST LO­CA­TION JOBURG, SOUTH AFRICA BY ME­GAN FLEMMIT

WILLIE SMIT GREW UP ROAM­ING THE STREETS OF LYDENBURG, MPUMALANGA. WITH THE SUP­PORT OF FRIENDS AND FAM­ILY HE MAN­AGED TO RISE ABOVE THE CIR­CUM­STANCES HE WAS BORN INTO. NOW THIS PRO CY­CLIST RIDES WITH THE WORLD’S BEST ATH­LETES. HERE’S HOW HE CLIMBED TO THE TOP.

Cy­cling through the moun­tain­ous re­gion of south­ern Por­tu­gal, Willie Smit was fo­cused on one thing: to fin­ish the Volta ao Al­garve with the high­est rank pos­si­ble. The stage race had been tough, but the pro cy­clist was de­ter­mined to suc­ceed. Sur­rounded by the world’s best cy­clists, Willie be­gan de­scend­ing one of the moun­tain peaks. When some of them crashed in front of him, Willie had to make a de­ci­sion in a split sec­ond: he had to choose which way to veer, to miss the car­nage. But Willie made the wrong de­ci­sion – and found him­self on the side of the road, bat­tered and bruised.

A sharp pain in in his col­lar­bone sig­nalled a pos­si­ble frac­ture. Willie was out of the race. But while he felt a twinge of dis­ap­point­ment, he didn’t stay down for long. He’d been in­jured many times be­fore. Each time, he came back stronger than ever. “Peo­ple think that when we break a bone, we’re out for a long­time. But in the World Tour team, their fi­nances are good. So when I broke my col­lar­bone, they or­gan­ised an op­er­a­tion the very next day.”

Willie was flown to Bel­gium, where a team of doc­tors op­er­ated on him. An os­teopath ma­nip­u­lated the bone to al­low his body to heal quicker. “It’s very painful, but it’s very safe, and then you’re al­lowed to con­tinue.” Two days later, Willie was back on his bike.

Be­ing a pro cy­clist re­quires an enor­mous amount of ded­i­ca­tion. Each day is as im­por­tant as the day be­fore. “You can’t miss a day, other­wise you don’t get the ben­e­fits of adap­tion. You’ll ride for a few hours, and then do physio ses­sions, chiro ses­sions and dry-needling ses­sions to get your body loose, be­cause you’ve been sit­ting on the bike for a long time.”

Willie also in­cor­po­rates yoga and pi­lates into his train­ing. They’re cru­cial to pre­vent­ing in­juries. “We do ev­ery­thing that can be ben­e­fi­cial to your body. The more you fo­cus on your body as a whole, the bet­ter you’ll be as a cy­clist.”

ROUGH RIDE

Stand­ing on the podium at the Velokhaya Life Cy­cling Academy, Willie regales the chil­dren with tales from his youth. Willie grew up in tough con­di­tions. He knows

first-hand how dif­fi­cult it can be to stick to a good path when your cir­cum­stances don’t al­low it.

When he was grow­ing up, his mother strug­gled with al­co­holism. She rarely kept tabs on her son. In­stead he wound up roam­ing the streets, join­ing a gang, and do­ing what­ever he wanted to. Even­tu­ally Child Ser­vices placed him in the care of his pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents.

“It was weird, be­cause all of a sud­den I had to sleep at a cer­tain time, there was dis­ci­pline. The en­vi­ron­ment with my grand­par­ents was so much bet­ter, but I wanted to go back to my mom.”

Willie’s wish was ful­filled when he was al­lowed to live with his mom once again. But things at home were no bet­ter than be­fore. “She was al­ways drunk, and she had a lot of boyfriends, who would beat her.” With­out suf­fi­cient parental guid­ance, he went to school less and less. On Fri­days, Willie would put in a brief ap­pear­ance at school – he knew his grand­par­ents would leave R15 for him to spend at the tuck­shop. “So I only went to col­lect that, and then I would dis­ap­pear again.”

But de­spite the hard­ships he faced while liv­ing with his mother, he still counts him­self lucky. There were al­ways fam­ily mem­bers around who would of­fer their sup­port. “When­ever we didn’t have money for rent and the land­lord came knock­ing, some­one would step in and help us.”

But the next time Child Ser­vices took him from his mother, it was for good. Un­der his grand­par­ents’ care, he was once again forced to be dis­ci­plined – a qual­ity that would serve him well later in life, when he started cy­cling.

Willie went back to school. While most kids his age were start­ing grade five, Willie’s lack of at­ten­dance meant he had to start in grade four. But de­spite be­ing a year be­hind his peers he never let that stop him from go­ing af­ter what he wanted.

WHEELS IN MO­TION

Dur­ing high school, one of his best friends per­suaded him to en­ter a cy­cling race the school was host­ing. “It was only 35km, but we pushed half the way be­cause we were so un­fit,” he laughs.

It was only when he en­tered an ad­ven­ture race with his un­cle that he started tak­ing cy­cling se­ri­ously. “It was one of those events where you cy­cle for a bit, swim for a bit, you do a lit­tle bit of map­ping to fig­ure out where you should go. It’s al­most like a trea­sure hunt.”

It helped that his friends be­came in­ter­ested in cy­cling at the same time. Their home town, Lydenburg, was small. Cy­cling gave them some­thing to do. “I didn’t want to just sit at home. Cy­cling be­came in­ter­est­ing be­cause we could cy­cle from town to town.” The group would cy­cle to ei­ther Sa­bie or Dull­stroom. “It was re­ally hilly there, so it was per­fect for cy­cling.”

For at least three hours a day, the teenager would ride his bike. And the more time he spent on his bi­cy­cle ex­plor­ing the towns around him, the more he grew to love it.

But while his pas­sion grew, his grand­par­ents weren’t fond of the idea of him spend­ing all his time cy­cling. At the end of ma­tric they gave him an ul­ti­ma­tum: If he didn’t study fur­ther, they would stop sup­port­ing him. “I thought, how am I go­ing to get around this curve­ball?”

Willie com­pro­mised. He en­rolled at univer­sity, where he fo­cused on ob­tain­ing his de­gree while squeez­ing in a ride when­ever he could.

Dur­ing his third year at univer­sity, his fo­cus started to wane. His pas­sion for the sport over­took ev­ery­thing else. “I thought, it’s now or never. I lived just for cy­cling. I had no so­cial life, which was prob­a­bly not healthy. But we all have a pas­sion for some­thing. You don’t de­cide it – it’s just there.”

Willie wasn’t delu­sional about the prospect of suc­ceed­ing as a pro cy­clist. He knew that his chances of join­ing the World Tour were slim, but he had to try.

That year he signed his first pro con­tract, with Boni­tas. The year af­ter, he signed with an Ital­ian team. Through hard work, and a ded­i­cated train­ing plan, the young cy­clist raked in the wins. He won the 94.7 Cy­cle Chal­lenge, won the Mpumalanga Tour twice, and in 2017 be­came the African Con­ti­nen­tal Cham­pion. “I had a lot of good

re­sults lo­cally, and in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions.”

Willie was liv­ing his dream. The only thing elud­ing him was an in­vi­ta­tion to join a World Tour team. Only 18 teams ex­ist around the world, with 20 mem­bers in each. Get­ting into one would be tough, but Willie was re­silient.

As a South African, Willie had his eyes set on Team Di­men­sion Data. But de­spite his ded­i­cated train­ing regime, and fin­ish­ing on the podium at races, no in­vi­ta­tion was ex­tended from the team. “I thought, what more do I need to do to make it onto the team?” At the time, be­ing part of Di­men­sion Data seemed like the only way he could reach the World Tour stage. But with­out an in­vi­ta­tion from them, he had to think of other ways to make a name for him­self.

CHAIN RE­AC­TION

In May 2017, Willie moved to Spain. It was his last chance to make a name for him­self. The coun­try pro­vided the per­fect con­di­tions for him to im­prove his cy­cling. “Peo­ple are re­ally friendly there. The weather’s good, and the roads are safe. Spain is a re­ally nice place to train, es­pe­cially if you’re rid­ing five to six hours a day.”

He joined a small team and stayed with their di­rec­tor. “They said, no, you can’t rent a house if you’re only go­ing to be here for six months – come and stay with us.”

Even be­fore he moved to Spain, Willie’s per­for­mance on the bike was out­stand­ing. “I told my fi­ancé this was my last chance, so I started di­et­ing, I was the light­est I’d ever been.” The move to Spain el­e­vated his per­for­mance. It helped that he was liv­ing in a for­eign coun­try where he barely knew any­one. “I was just re­ally fo­cused. I couldn’t go and walk with my friends in the mall. I couldn’t go to so­cial events.”

Cy­cling be­came the only con­sis­tent thing in Willie’s life. He would eat, sleep and breathe cy­cling. “I think that re­ally helped. I re­alised that this was the sac­ri­fice I needed to make to be good. But it’s not just a tem­po­rary sac­ri­fice – it’s a lifestyle. You need to be good for nine months of the year, and then there’s maybe one month where you can re­lax a bit.” It was a sac­ri­fice all Willie’s com­peti­tors were mak­ing. To thrive among the best, he had to train and live like them.

“It was a big adap­tion. When I would pitch at a line-up here in South Africa, there’d be about five riders with a chance of win­ning the race. When you start there, you start in a bunch of 200. And the dis­tance you’re cy­cling is dou­ble; but af­ter 150km, you still have all 200 riders to­gether. Ev­ery­one still looks good, and you’re suf­fer­ing.” It was some­thing Willie had to get used to.

But Willie was used to overcoming chal­lenges. He didn’t let the thought of his com­pe­ti­tion stop him from play­ing the game. Soon his ded­i­ca­tion to the sport and de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed were recog­nised. Af­ter win­ning a num­ber of races, the di­rec­tor he stayed with put in a good word with the di­rec­tor of Team Ka­tusha-Alpecin. Once they’d met, Willie un­der­went tests to see if he would be a good fit for the team. “You do blood tests, they go through your med­i­cal files to see if you have a his­tory of dop­ing... it’s a re­ally com­pli­cated process.”

Willie passed all the tests they threw his way, and fi­nally found him­self part of a World Tour team. “It’s been a long jour­ney. It took me eight years to get into a team like that, since I started cy­cling. It’s got a lot to do with not just your per­for­mance, but your eti­quette as well.”

Sign­ing with Team Ka­tusha-Alpecin was the break the pro cy­clist needed. It was proof that the sac­ri­fices he’d made over the years weren’t in vain. “I spent a lot of money fund­ing my ca­reer, a lot of my re­la­tion­ships were ru­ined; and if I didn’t sign on with a team like this, it would have been all for noth­ing.”

It’s been over a year since he started rid­ing with the team. Now, he has his sights set on big­ger goals. “I want to start win­ning more races, and not just be a do­mes­tique, where you help your team­mates win.”

While he has high hopes for the fu­ture, Willie is con­tent with tak­ing things one day at a time. He knows how quickly an in­jury can oc­cur, or how one’s health can de­te­ri­o­rate. For now he’s just fo­cus­ing on be­ing the best he can be.

“I had a lot of good re­sults lo­cally, and in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions.”

While on hol­i­day in Cape Town, Willie Smit cy­cles through Khayelit­sha with the Velokhaya Life Cy­cling Academy.

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