Tuesday, July 27, 2021
HomeInterviewsRobert Smail - "I just can’t get enough of those dead straight,...

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


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.

Related Articles

James Shaw – “This year has been about putting down foundations”

It was the tailend of last year when we last spoke to 2014 junior Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner, James Shaw; he’s spent this season with the Lotto-Soudal U23 team - we thought it was high time we had a word.

Scots selected for UEC Junior and Under-23 European Track Championships

Four Scots have been selected for the Great Britain Cycling Team heading to the UEC Junior and Under-23 European Track Championships taking place in Montichiari from 12 – 17 July. Under-23 riders Mark Stewart and Jack Carlin will be joining Juniors Lewis Stewart and Jenny Holl – who were also selected for the UCI Junior Track World Championships earlier this month.

Llewellyn Kinch – Two Wins from 13 Starts in Belgian Kermises

Our man with his finger on the Flanders pulse, Vik, first tipped us off about this gentleman at the end of the 2011 season. Llewellyn Kinch was getting up there on the Belgian results websites and onto Vik’s radar. Here are the background questions we asked, from the end of the 2011 season.

Ben Swift – a Rider with a Future!

How do you become a pro? If you’re lucky enough to have some talent and you’re born in England, then you might just end up taking the same road as 20 year-old Ben Swift; he’s won three U23 ‘biggies’ in Italy this season, so we thought we better have a word.

Oscar Onley – Racing in 2020 with Van Rysel – AG2R La Mondiale

It’s not long since we since we spoke to young Scot, Alfie George who’s making a name for himself on the international junior stage. Another young Scotsman who’s doing the same is Oscar Onley who recently landed himself a ride with French ‘feeder’ team, Van Rysel – AG2R La Mondiale. Best ‘have a word’ we thought...

Jez McCann – First Elite Kermis win at Zedelgem

It’s a while since VeloVeritas last spoke to Steve Skuse; Vik and I used to bump into him on our trips to the kermises. Steve got in touch the other day to tell us about another young man he’s looking after and who’s pulled off that difficult trick of winning a kermis in the Flatlands. And the better news is, he qualifies to ride for Bonnie Scotland... Jez McCann is the man; 19 years-old, raised in Gravesend, riding for Richardsons-Trek.

At Random

Craig Hardie

It was with great sadness that we learnt this week about the passing of Craig Hardie, a living legend in Scottish cycling and beyond as a successful rider, true character, and popular bike shop owner, but so much more than that too. Originally from Dalgety Bay in Fife, Craig was a long-time member and stalwart of the Dunfermline Cycling Club and enjoyed a stellar cycling career.

“Pre” – Giro Catch Up

Back! Just a quickie before the Giro starts (well, only three days after the Giro started, but near enough). March and April saw a nice turnaround in the fortunes of the team: only two fractured collarbones and two major concussions! MUCH less hectic! We also put in some very good results, popping up with wins in both individual stages and overall races (on one memorable day we won three times: two stages and an overall race. Very nice!). We also had some very strong showings in some of the biggest one day races on the calendar. Very nice indeed! March also saw a grand turnaround in the life of Tobias, with the arrival of Mands to sunny Girona. Good times!

Slim To None

Slim To None. The chances of Cav getting beaten two days running in a sprint. Today is a guaranteed bunchie. It's a flat stage heading to the base of the Pyrenees, and the third last opportunity for the sprinters to shine. There's nary a categorised climb to be seen, so everyone's favourite caraccident victim Johnny "Breakaway" Hoogerland will remain in the King of the Mountains jersey for one more stage, although how much longer he can survive in the race itself is anyone's guess.

Danilo Di Luca Scores Again at Montevergine and Reclaims Pink

The Giro's pink and Liquigas' green - that's the gaudy colour combination that characterises this first week of the Giro d'Italia. "The Killer", Danilo Di Luca's strong sprint took him to Giro success again in yesterday's Stage 4, finishing at Montevergine di Mercogliano.

Volta a Portugal 2012 – Stage Three: Vila Nova de Cerveira – Fafe

176.1km, 2100m ascent from Vila Nova de Cerveira to Fafe. We’re in the Minho, in the far north western corner of Portugal. It’s a wonderful place and feels like home away from home. It’s tough for racing though, it’s extremely hilly; you never go well, you’re never comfortable.

Close Run Thing (TdF 2012 Stage 5)

Close Run Thing... the “Guaranteed” Bunchie that I mentioned yesterday did indeed eventuate on stage 5 today, but it was looking touch-and-go as to whether they’d be sprinting for the win, or lower placings! People always ask why teams get into a break if they know they’re only going to be caught in the lead-up to the bunch sprint, and today’s stage was a great example of the answer: you never know.