Saturday, July 24, 2021
HomeInterviewsRobert Smail - Winning Belgian Kermises and Top Three in InterClubs

Robert Smail – Winning Belgian Kermises and Top Three in InterClubs

-

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 Smail
Robert takes the win at the TMG Horizon Trophy. Last time he’d won a race he was so surprised he forgot to post it, so this time he made “a tentative attempt at a celebration”. Photo©supplied

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!”

Robert Smail
Mario Willems leads the break at Assebroek Kermis, Robert tucked in. Photo©Katie Quartier

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.”

Robert Smail
Robert’s expression says it all, ‘What! You mean I get a bike AND a free T-shirt’? Photo©supplied

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.”

Robert Smail
In the break at the GP d’Escaudoeuvres – it might not look like it but Robert says he was loving the cobbles that day. Photo©supplied

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.”

Robert Smail
Getting on the podium at Zillebeke Interclub was a turning point for the season and a sign that Robery was finally making progress following injury. Photo©Linda Soenen

How has the Flemish summer been?

“Good.

“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?

“Of course.

“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.”

Robert Smail
The carnival comes to Poperinge – apparently Robert felt worse after this ride than most races! Photo©supplied

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.”

2016?

“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.”

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

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.

Wouter Weylandt, Special Forever

So I've been meaning to put together a blog post of my latest experiences of life here in Flanders. This season has certainly had its ups and downs, but all this seems rather irrelevant after the events of this week. Cycling indeed has its fair share of tragedies and the death of Wouter Weylandt in Stage 3 of the Giro this year is another one added to that list.

Het Nieuwsblad 2016 goes to GVA

Saturday dawns crisp, cold and sunny for the Omloop Gent Gent. We have a copy of Het Nieusblaad which has all the information we need about the route so its time to head for the start. It's moved this year to the S.M.A.K complex, site of the Gent Six Day. As the car park fills with the now de rigueur coaches, ushered in by whistle blowing attendants we grab a quick pic of world champ Peter Sagan's Specialized before being asked to move on by an unfriendly team staffer...

Joe Parkin – Still Racing, But Just For Fun!

"A Dog in a Hat," has to be one of the best books about pro cycling ever written. Author Joe Parkin took some time to talk to VeloVeritas about life, bike racing, his next book-yes, and Lance!

George Woods – “happy to be back on my bike and racing again” (and winning in Belgium!)

It was back in July when we first heard about 21 year-old George Woods (Richardson’s Trek Racing Team) ‘doing the business’ in Belgium, we ‘had a word’ with him but with all that Tour carry-on we didn’t get round to writing the interview up. Then the other week we saw he was in the frame again, winning a 114 kilometre kermis at Deinze. High times we gave ourselves a shake and got the piece published!

Theo Hartley – Racing for Belgian team Illi Bikes, thanks to the Dave Rayner Fund

The David Rayner has been helping young riders realise their continental dreams since 1995 with David Millar one of the first to benefit, and Theo Hartley from Bolton in Lancs will be one of the grant recipients in 2018. He'll be joining the Belgian Illi Bikes squad, run by long term Six Day soigneur and track aficionado, Etienne Illegems and his son Ken who was for a time a mechanic with Team Sky but could get round a tough kermis on his good days.

At Random

Oscar Onley – Looking Forward to 2021 with Sunweb’s u23 Team

Oscar Onley recently caught the attention of many, including Team Sunweb, with his win at Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc cycle sportive, a mountain time trial that took place on the same course as the final stage of the elite men’s race of the same name. For season 2021 Oscar will be riding with the World Tour Team’s u23 development squad.

Evan Oliphant – Looking forward to Ghent-Wevelgem

We caught up with Scottish professional Evan Oliphant shortly after he returned from a winter spent racing in Australia, and just prior to his new DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed team's official launch in Holland.

Scottish 10 Mile TT Championships 2012

The Jason MacInyre Memorial Trophy stays on Dooleys Cycles' Arthur Doyle's mantlepiece for another year, after he edged the win this morning in the "10 Champs" by a single second from teammate Iain Grant, with Gavin Shirley in 13th place backing them up for the Team prize in a time which we think is a new Scottish Competition Team Record by four seconds.

Les West – Top British Pro in the 60’s and 70’s: “West Was Best”

Our recent chat with 70’s pursuit king, Hugh Porter having been well received we thought you may like to hear what another ‘man of the 70’s’ - Les West had to say to us a year or two ago. "West is best!", that's what his fans used to say and most of the time they were right; twice British amateur road race champion and twice British professional road race champion.

The VV View: Demise of the German Six Day?

The trouble with Richard Virenque was, that if he was seven times King of the Mountains; he was at least eight times King of the Erses.

John Archibald – Breaking Course Records with Big Margins

Two course records obliterated within days of each other over the Easter weekend? It could only be that man John Archibald (Ribble Pro Cycling). It’s good to see he’s put a disappointing Worlds pursuit behind him - and the margins he’s breaking course records by takes VeloVeritas back to those ‘Obree Days’ when every weekend produced another ‘wow!’