CYCLE OF CHANGE
Willie Smit rose above his circumstances and climbed to the top.
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.”
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.
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.