It was last Autumn when we last heard from Robert Smail, one of those ‘forgotten men’ out there jousting with the Eeckhouts, Willems, Smets and Caethovens of this world in the land of the frites, cross winds and kermises.
High time we had another word…
Robert, 2014 when you look back – are you happy with it?
“Yes, by and large, I’d have to say I was pretty happy with how 2014 went.
“When I hopped on the bus in February I didn’t really know how I’d fare.
“It took a while to get used to the narrow roads, larger pelotons and aggressive style of racing, but these were all things that attracted me to Belgium in the first place so I relished the challenge!”
When we spoke to you late 2014 you were thinking about staying in Belgium over the winter?
“Yes indeed. I was having so much fun riding and racing that it seemed like a good idea at the time! Looking back, I’m glad I stayed.
“I was a little worried it might be a bit too quiet, but thankfully the family I stayed with were really friendly and that made all the difference.
“It was also interesting to see how the Belgians train over winter.
“Before January most seem to hardly ride a bike. Some do core work, but the majority do cross training such as running or in-line skating.
“I was amazed at the number of strange looks I got for wanting to ride my bike before Christmas!”
Are you with Team Tomacc for 2015 – tell us about it.
“Yep, still with Tomacc. Everyone on the team is really sound, and as pretty much everyone from the 2014 squad returned it was an easy decision to stay.
“Staying with Tomacc for a second year definitely helped my confidence also.
“In the UK, changing team isn’t really such a big deal. Obviously each team has it’s own idiosyncrasies, but you pretty much know what you’re getting. You know the calendar, the races, the rides etc. etc.
“There are a million little things which you’ve done so often they’ve become second nature.
“In Belgium everything is an unknown making it easy to feel totally lost. Even signing-on can be hard if you don’t speak the language very well.
“In such instances it’s easy to lose focus on the actual race as you end up worrying about other details.
“Staying with Tomacc, with the same calendar, riders and support staff was a big help as it made everything a little more relaxed, which meant I could focus more on racing.”
Where’s home for 2015 – still in Poperinge?
“Yes, I’m still living in Poperinge.
“The town itself is very pleasant and the roads are great for training so I couldn’t ask for much more.
“This year I’ve also spent a bit more time exploring the roads of Northern France and venturing into the Parc Naturel Régional des Caps et Marais d’Opale which has helped to keep training interesting.”
What’s the bike for 2015 – how’s it handling the cobbles?
“Bit of a change this year on the bike front.
“Late in 2014 the guys at KTM Bikes UK got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in riding one of their KTM Revelators.
“I’ve been genuinely blown away with their help and support over the season. Even when I was side-lined through injury they were always super supportive and never put any pressure on me to rush my recovery.
“The bike itself is ace.
“We’ve been lucky enough to do a fair few cobbled races this year, not just in Belgium, but in Northern France also, and it takes everything in its stride.
“I couldn’t ask for much more.”
What have been your best rides of the season thus far?
“A couple spring to mind. I was stoked to take the win at Gullegem Kermis.
“I was also chuffed with fifth at the Grand Prix d’Escaudoeuvres because I felt I rode well and because it was my first top five in a French Elite National. The lap took in a two kilometre section of cobbles each lap and I just loved it.
“The race that really stands out for me though is Zillebeke InterClub.
“I’d felt strong in the days leading up to the race, but I was still pretty nervous as I’d had a terrible day when I raced it back in 2014.
“As it turned out I needn’t have worried.
“It was just one of those very rare days when you feel strong from beginning to end. It felt like I cruised into the front group, which doesn’t happen very often. Even when the big names began to apply the pressure, splitting the break to pieces, I felt good and had plenty in the legs to make the final section of seven guys.
“Coming into the finish, I attacked going into the final corner and was only just overhauled in the final twenty meters. In the end I came third.
“After coming so close to the win I was pretty gutted, but at the same time I was thrilled to get my first podium in an InterClub.”
What’s been the low point of 2015?
“Nothing out of the ordinary, all the normal ones: the odd illness, crashes, mechanicals etc. etc.
“At the time they always feel like the end of the world, but in reality such snags are just part and parcel of racing.
“By far the most frustrating problem was a knee injury which I picked up in the first half of the season. From what at first appeared to be an inconsequential crash, losing the front wheel on a muddy corner at very low speed, turned into almost two months away from racing.
“Two months is a long time to live in a small town in Belgium if you can’t race or train, there is not a lot else to do!
“On the plus side, when I did finally start racing again it was the best feeling in the world.”
What’s been the toughest race thus far?
“Toughest day on the bike was Boucle de L’Artois stage race. I’d been looking forward to the race for weeks. Three stages covering some great roads in Northern France.
“Even the weather was in my favour; cold, wet and windy. Unfortunately, my knee was having none of it.
“After struggling through the first stage, I was forced to abandon early on the second.
“I then had to spend the rest of the time in the team van watching the race go by, that was pretty tough.”
How has the Flemish summer been?
“I’m still waiting for this famously bad Flemish weather; gale-force winds, horizontal rain and the like, but for the second year running it’s been warm and largely still.
“I guess I’ll just have to hope for better luck next year…”
Are you still with Jon Baker as a coach – how do the 2014 numbers compare to the 2015 ones?
“Jon has been really good this year, even when I was struggling with injury, he was upbeat and full of sound advice.
“In terms of the numbers, they are ok.
“After such a long enforced break with my knee injury I had to be somewhat realistic about what was possible for this season, but I’m quietly pleased which what we have achieved.”
Who’s winning all the kermises in 2015 – Mario Willems? Rambo?
“There are a few guys; as always Mario Willems has won a lot, (14 at last report, ed.) and so has Steven Caethoven.
“It’s impressive just how often they’re able to win.
“Sometimes I’d get in a break with one of them and find myself asking the question how the hell I was going to beat them.
“I’m still working on the answer.”
Have you ridden any UK races in 2015 – how did they go?
“I got over to the UK for one race this year, the TMG Horizon Trophy. One of my teammates wanted to go back for it and somehow I got roped into going. It was the first race I’ve done in the UK for almost two years so I was actually pretty nervous.
“Once I got over the initial terror of racing on open roads again I enjoyed it.
“It was also nice to come away with the win.
“What struck me most was how different the race flowed and how much I’ve succumbed to the Belgium style of racing.
“In Belgium the racing is much more aggressive, with a lot of attacking. Even when a break does establish itself there are still lots of surges to dislodge any weaker riders.
“In the UK riders seemed to be queuing up to pull long turns on the front, even if they knew it would be detrimental to their overall result.
“At one point, when the break was already well established, a lad came up to me and said “I’m done-in, I’ll do as much work as I can before I blow”.
“If he’d sat-in he might have got to the finish, but after pulling a couple of super hard turns, sure enough he got shelled. That would never happen in Belgium.”
Have you had a chance to watch any pro races this season?
“No, I meant to but never quite got round to it.
“I’d rather be racing than watching and I figure there will be plenty of time to watch prof. races when I eventually decide to stop racing.”
“Back to Belgium.
“I know I want to race more of the InterClubs and to try my hand at the week-long stage races.
“I’d also like to race some Profkoers.
“A major goal is to win an InterClub.
“It’s definitely do-able, it’s just a case of chipping away at it, making small improvements tactically and physically and moving from the bottom step of the podium to the top step.”