Saturday, May 28, 2022
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 Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 47 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, a team manager, and a 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 for some of the world's top riders. 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

Ian Boswell – “A three year deal with Sky gives me confidence”

Baby Giro winner, Joe Dombrowski is just half the story when it comes to rising US stars joining Team Sky for 2013. Dombrowski’s friend, countryman and Bontrager-Livestrong team mate, Ian Boswell is another young man who’s been busy this year, attracted a lot of attention and will be joining the Team Sky juggernaut.

The VeloVeritas Years – 2020: Locked-Down on Etna

We didn't get to very many races in 2020 due of course to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the clear memory of this year is of everyone simply trying to do their best to get through this awful situation. Even when riders were locked-down they were finding ingenious ways and methods to keep fit and maintain that hard-won condition, but with constant uncertainty around dates for a return to competition, it was a difficult balancing act.

Toby Perry – Racing with Hagens Berman Axeon in 2022

Since we spoke to Toby Perry in April things have moved on apace for him and by happy coincidence we caught up with his coach, former British champion on road and track, Dean Downing at the Hawick start of the Tour of Britain stage. ‘Deano’ advised us that it might be a good idea to ring Toby in Spain - he had some good news to share.

Callum Thornley – “The road is where my ambitions lay”

When Scottish Cycling Endurance Coach and seven times Scottish Road Race Champion, Evan Oliphant gets in touch to tell us there’s a junior rider named Callum Thornley that we should be speaking to, we snap to attention.

Stuart Balfour – Dave Rayner Fund ‘Rider of the Year’

Stuart Balfour’s win in the supporting u23 race to the GP Ouest France Plouay, one of the most prestigious amateur in France, was special. The Dave Rayner Fund thought so too and made him their ‘Rider of the Year.’ As well as his Plouay success he won in Montpichon and at the Ronde Briochine; he was top 20 in the tough Kreiz Breizh UCI stage race and top 10 in the Tour de la Manche.

Ethan Hayter – World Team Pursuit Champion at 19

In 2016 in Belgium Ethan Hayter won the tough junior races, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, GP Serge Baguet, De Klijte-Heuvaelland, was in the winning team in junior European team pursuit champs and was British Madison champion with Joe Holt. Last year he won the u23 Berlin Six Day with Matt Walls, took a medal in every British track championship he rode and was part of the winning u23 Europeans team pursuit squad. This season he began training with the senior team in January and was world champion within weeks, at 19 years-of-age.

At Random

Chris Lawless takes GC at the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire – Stage 4

Chris Lawless became the first British winner of the Tour de Yorkshire after defending champion Greg Van Avermaet won an enthralling final stage in Leeds. Van Avermaet (CCC Team) forged clear with Lawless and his Team Ineos team-mate Eddie Dunbar as the 175km trek from Halifax neared its conclusion, and while it was Van Avermaet who sprinted to victory along The Headrow, Lawless came home in second to seal the biggest overall race win of his fledgling career.

From the Team Car: Rutland Goes to Plan!

Scottish rider Finn Crockett took victory on Sunday at the Rutland–Melton CiCLE Classic at Melton, sprinting clear of a small break of three other riders to take his first UCI road race win, with fellow Scot and team mate Stuart Balfour in fourth. Ribble-Weldtite DS Colin Sturgess takes us behind the scenes and into the team car to hear all about the strategy and build up to this unique event, and how the team executed the plan on the day.

Highs and Lows

Participation in cycle racing, like any other sport, is a constantly changing cycle of highs and lows, and the graph of peaks and troughs is also as fragile as it is changeable. This is an aspect of the lifestyle I lead which at first I found hard to take, but now I see as just that; an aspect of the lifestyle that simply needs to be dealt with. The last time I wrote I was just beginning my Belgian campaign for the 2011 season, and it seemed like things were going well, which they were.

La Vuelta a España 2014 – Stage 15; Oviedo – Lagos de Covadonga, 149 km. Przemyslaw Niemiec Impresses

Przemyslaw Niemiec wins today, but it’s just morbid curiosity which compels me to watch Chris Froome (Sky & Monaco/England/South Africa/Kenya) these days – he climbs like a stick insect with Saint Vitus Dance. It upsets me; but distressing or not, it gets him up them hills, albeit in his own mystifying style – off the back, off the front...

Rosneath GP 2007

Gordon Murdoch (East Kilbride RC) added the opening GP win of 2007 - in a freezing, wet and windy Rosneath event - to the 2006 season-closing Anderside GP event. Weighing a stone less than last season and with a new team providing fresh motivation, he was the most resilient rider on a day better suited to sitting by the fireside than climbing Whistlefield Brae three times.

Le Tour de France 2017 – Stage 19: Embrun – Salon-de-Provence, 222.5km. Edvald Boasson-Hagen at last!

To paraphrase the late, great Donna Summer; ‘they work hard for the money.’ Those Sky boys. Perhaps Henao had a few mountain days where Sir David and Le Chien Froomey didn’t think the Columbian did enough graft – he made up for it on Stage 19 though, riding tempo remorselessly on the front of the peloton. Spectacular? No. Damn hard work? For sure.