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Robert Smail – “I just can’t get enough of those dead straight, pan flat concrete roads”

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It’s not been a good year for VeloVeritas chief cycling soothsayer, observer and talent scout, Viktor.

First there were Brad’s new tattoos, then the beard; David Millar’s shoes were hard to bear – and then someone mentioned ‘Jensie’ in the same breath as Eddy Merckx.

It was all too much …

But our man Dave Chapman has been scanning the Belgian kermis results for us and a name he’s spotted making the prize lists time and again is that of Englishman Robert Smail.

When Dave says; ‘you’d best have a word with that laddie!’ we jump to it:

Robert Smail
Robert attacks on the last lap, Hooglede kermis. Photo©Martine Verfaillie

What have you been riding in 2014, Robert?

“Sure, I’ve done quite a few Belgium Interclubs including;

  • 2-daagse van de Gaverstreek
  • GP Etiene De Wilde Laarne
  • Schaal Schoeters Beveren
  • Romsee-Stavelot-Romsee
  • Averbode
  • Ichtegem
  • Geluwe

A selection of French Elite National races including;

  • GP des Hauts-de France – Prouvy – Douchy – les -Mines
  • Tour de Moselle 3-day
  • GP de Boussieres
  • Boucles de L’Austreberthe
  • Midden-Brabant Omloop (Holland)

” And, of course, a whole world of kermis races, too many to name.”

You’re 29 – how come we’ve not heard much about you ’til now; what’s your ‘back story’?

“Simple answer: I’ve not really done that much to stand out.

“I’ve raced on the UK scene for around four to five years on some of the larger domestic teams and I’ve had the odd good result, but until last year I was studying full- time towards a PhD and had a part time job as well, making it hard to find the sort of consistency which attracts attention.

“I’m looking to change that…”

Robert Smail
Robert (second in line) loves the large bunches in Belgium. Photo©Pat Demefere

We see you rode the Tour of Morocco in 2013 – what was that like?

“Pretty amazing, I was riding for Metaltek-Kuota at the time and the guy’s there put together a really interesting calendar which included quite a few stage races abroad.

“Morocco was 10 days straight, taking-in some of the most spectacular and varied terrain I have ever raced across.”

Is 2014 your first Belgian adventure?

“I did my first races in Belgium last year when I visited for a month in August, but 2014 has been my first full season in Belgium.

“Committing to moving to Belgium and racing there for the whole season was a little daunting, but it’s been a great experience.

“On my first visit I found Belgium races hard to figure out, the racing just seemed to be so chaotic.

“Now that I’ve spent more time in Belgium I’ve started to notice that the calendar has its own rhythm.”

Who do you ride for and how did you get set up?

“I ride for CT Tomacc – CTB Italia, which is one of the smaller Belgium Club teams, but has a pretty diverse calendar.

“Of course there are plenty of kermis races, but we also do a lot of Interclubs and a fair few French Elite Nationals, as well as the odd race in Holland.

“I’d been thinking of riding in Belgium for a while, but had to wait until I finished my university studies. A friend put me in touch with Tomacc over the winter and it went from there…”

Robert Smail
Robert and pals enjoyed the Belgian temperatures – outside and inside the flat.

Where’s home in Belgium; what’s the cooking, cleaning, washing deal?

“The Team has strong roots in Poperinge, which is in West Flanders just on the French border.

“The sponsors, the team management and the riders all live in or nearby, which gives the team a really nice feel.

“I live in a team house with seven other guys, which has been a lot of fun. I’ve spent many years living in student houses and this is much the same. Everyone helps to keep the place clean and tidy.

“The only difference is instead of going to the library I get to ride my bike!”

Do you have a coach – what’s the Smail training philosophy?

“Yes, I work with Jon Baker of Palmares, which has been great.

“I’ve thought about a coach for several years, but held off until this year.

“I guess spending so long at university has made me a little fussy. I wanted someone with close ties to academic level exercise physiology and therefore the expertise to interpret developments in experimental research.

“But it was also really important they themselves had experience of riding and racing, and so understand the physical and mental demands required.

“Jon ticks both boxes. I suppose that sums up my ‘philosophy’, good old fashion grit and determination, but with a scientific underpinning.”

Robert Smail
Free coffee? Team outings to Colruyt supermarket became a frequent event.

How’s the equipment situation been – do you do your own spanner work out there?

“Really good. As one of our title sponsors is a bike manufacturer, CBT-Italia, we’re in a bit of a rare position for a Belgium club team in that we get given the frames.

“The components and wheels are my own. I generally work on my own bike which suits me just fine. I’ve spent years working in bike shops so I’m always happiest working on my own kit.”

How about those cobbles – how do you get on with them?

“Love ‘em!

“The rougher, the wetter, the muddier the better!

“It’s not just the cobbles I like as the way they can shape the whole race.

“The fighting for position leading into a cobbled sector, and the chasing and re-grouping which takes place after each sector animates a race in a unique way.”

What was your best ride of 2014?

“Westouter Kermis for sure.

“I’ve done bigger and harder races; I’d even go as far to say that I have felt stronger in a couple of other races this year.

“However, Westouter is the first race I’ve won outside the UK and the first kermis I’ve won and so it will always be a bit special.”

Robert Smail
Robert celebrates victory in the Westouther kermis. Photo©Katrien Quartier

And what was your worst day?

“I’d have to say Gent-Wervik Interclub.

“It’s one of the only Interclubs I’ve done before so I knew the format, I knew it suited me and was looking for a good result. The race is a lot of fun, with a large peloton, numbering more than 200 riders, and some very narrow roads.

“Throw in two ascents of the Kemmelberg and some cross-winds and it can get pretty wild.

“I was having a great race; I’d managed to stay near the front and made the front selection over the Kemmel.

“Running into the finish I was feeling pretty good, then, inside the final three K I got caught up in a big crash.

“I destroyed almost everything on my bike; frame, forks, wheels, both tubs, rear mech, front brake, saddle and I lost a lot of skin, but mainly I remember feeling totally gutted at the loss of such a good opportunity, but then that’s racing…”

What are your favourite things about Belgium?

“I would have to say the passion that surrounds cycling in Belgium.

“Having spent years racing in the UK you get used to bowling around empty roads in the middle of nowhere trying to dodge the odd car.

“But in Belgium people are generally excited and interested both on and off the bike.

“Cycling seems to be ingrained in Belgium culture to an extent I never appreciated until I moved here and I love being a part of that.”

And least favourite?

“It sounds strange, but everything in Flanders is a little too clean, a little too tidy for my tastes. I’ve spent the last six years living and training in the Peaks and studying in Manchester and, well you know what they say, ‘It’s grim up North’.

“I’ve always loved the open moorlands of the Dark Peak and the South Pennines, I like their bleakness and the feeling of space.

“In Belgium training is a never-ending stream of neatly ploughed fields, it takes some getting used to.”

Robert Smail
Large bunch sprints are fairly normal in Belgium, but take some getting used to. Photo©Martine Verfaillie

I hate to ask – but is there still a ‘kitting’ problem with the amateurs?

“To be honest I really don’t know.

“As this is my first season in Belgium I have no point of reference, so can’t say if things are better or worse than they used to be.

“I haven’t seen or heard anything suspicious, but then my Flemish is still very basic, so someone could be talking right in front of me and I’d be none the wiser.”

What’s your plan for the winter?

“I’m going to hang around in Belgium.

“I just can’t get enough of those dead straight, pan flat concrete roads.

“If I’m lucky it’ll be super windy too.

“Most Belgium races are spent lined out in the gutter so I could use the extra practice!”

And for 2015?

“For 2015 I’m looking to get in the mix much more at the bigger races.

“I always knew 2014 was more about gaining experience of the races in Belgium and figuring out how they unfold than chasing results.

“The Belgium Interclubs and the French Elite national races I did this year where ace, but unfortunately it felt like I was riding in the dark a lot of the time.

“Not knowing the roads, the teams or the riders meant I was often on the back foot.

“Now I’m a year wiser, I’m really looking forward to going into races with a definite plan of attack and a set of targets.”

And the ultimate goal is?

“To continue riding and racing in Belgium, and to work towards riding the bigger one day races and stage races there.

“Ultimately I would like to ride the semi-classics.”

Here at VeloVeritas we like this boy’s style and will be keeping an eye on him in 2015.

Ed Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 45 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, team manager, and sponsor of several teams and clubs. He's also a respected and successful coach, and during the winter months can often be found working in the cabins at the Six Days. Ed remains a massive fan of the sport and couples his extensive contacts with an inexhaustable enthusiasm for the minutiae and the history of our sport.

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