A slightly alternative route to the Tour de France: A chat with Dion Smith

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Kiwi Dion Smith recently finished the first Grand Tour of his young career — on the sport’s biggest stage.

The 24-year old New Zealander, riding in his first season for Belgian Pro Continental team Wanty-Groupe Gobert, traveled a slightly alternative route to the Tour de France, which he completed on July 23.

Smith’s performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné (three top-20 stage finishes) solidified his spot on Wanty’s Tour roster, but in reality, the opportunity has been years in the making.

Foregoing full-European based racing development, Smith spent two seasons in the United States racing for perennial UCI America Tour performer Hincapie Sportswear (now Holowesko-Citadel), in addition to a season with British pro continental outfit One Pro Cycling.

CyclingTips chatted with Smith prior to Stage 20’s time trial in Marseilles and talked about his path to the Tour, his impressions of the sport’s biggest races, and his future goals.

With breakaway appearances on stages 18 and 21 and a near miss on a top-10 finish on Stage 6 to Troyes, Smith had a strong showing in his Grand Tour debut

“It’s hard to know really.” Smith said when asked about his personal expectations heading into the race.

“I was hoping for a top 10 in a stage but I just missed out on that (he took 11th on Stage 6). It’s what you have to expect against the best riders in the world. I’m happy to have gotten this far to be honest, in my first Grand Tour as well, so it’s relief and happiness at the same time.”

This year marked Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s first appearance at the Tour de France. Their wildcard invitation from Tour organizer Amaury Sport Organisation came following a first-place ranking in the 2016 UCI Europe Tour team classification and a victory at the 2016 Amstel Gold Race with Enrico Gasparotto (now riding for Bahrain-Merida). Wanty also lined up at ASO event Critérium du Dauphiné in 2016 and 2017, with Smith making the roster for this year’s edition.

“They (team management) never really tell you for sure” Smith said regarding making the Tour roster. “I’m sure they had a group of guys they were planning on bringing, they let me know two months before and said ‘hey you’re in the running for the Tour,’ but obviously you don’t count your chickens before it’s official, so you’ve still gotta work hard and show that you’re worthy.”

Smith’s spot on Wanty, ultimately leading to his Tour showing, was an opportunity that came at a critical juncture in 2016. In November, after funding issues as a result of bike supplier Factor withdrawing sponsorship, One Pro Cycling announced they’d be discarding their Pro Continental license for the 2017 season. The announcement came late in the season and left some riders scrambling to find an equivalent replacement.

“With One Pro going back down to Continental, I was kind of left in limbo,” Smith said. “I could’ve gone back with One Pro but I didn’t want to go back down to the Continental level again, so I was scrambling, asking wherever I could, both Pro Continental and WorldTour, if there were any spaces. Wanty was interested initially back in November [when One Pro’s classification change) first happened, but they had just signed Lieuwe Westra so they literally didn’t have any room for me.

“In the middle of January they called me up and said Westra had retired, so we’ll sign you for two years. I was around that stage where I was pretty close to going back to One Pro, not like that would’ve been a bad thing, but I think it’s for sure been a blessing in disguise.”

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The opportunity with Wanty has doubtless been a blessing in disguise for the Kiwi, who now has a Tour finish on his resume.

A spot on the Tour roster is a goal for most pro cyclists, but participation in the iconic event is a privilege that must be earned after cumulative seasons of diligent work. Sustaining desire for an enormous amount of sacrifice isn’t an easy task, however, with many young and promising talents fizzling out after their initial foray into European racing.

Smith attributed part of his current success to two U23 seasons racing in the United States, and the relative respite that provided.

“I think it was really good.” Smith said regarding his Stateside development. “You see a lot of young Kiwis go straight to Europe, they think living in Belgium for two years and roughing it out (is the right choice). It does work for some, but mentally I don’t think it really helps, it’s not good for the morale.

“I think going to America was a good middle step in between national races in New Zealand and Europe. I had a taste of Europe but I wasn’t full time there. Coming through America, it was still really hard racing, and I was able to get some good results that springboarded me to Europe.”

Former Hincapie Development teammate, Australian Joe Lewis, spoke on Smith’s success in the States.

“The team has a great vibe and atmosphere. Dion got lots of opportunities as we only have 12 guys on the team and the American style of racing really suited him,” Lewis said. “Couple that with some UCI races to shine at and he became a pretty solid prospect for Euro teams.”

The consistent trajectory of his career is something Smith plans on sustaining. The humble Kiwi has begun to find his place in top level European races, and will continue to do so as he matures as a bike racer. He was thrown into the biggest races in the World in 2017, but he’s adapted and found success.

“I think it’s gone well.” Smith said regarding his 2017 season. “I’ve done pretty much all the big races on the calendar, all the classics. I did Flanders and all the Ardennes. It’s been a massive learning experience. I know now which races I want to target for next year.

“I quite like the Ardennes. At Amstel Gold this year I was up there in the second group [31st]. I was there, and it was my first time doing those big 260-kilometer races.”

The 2017 season is far from over, but Smith has to first focus on recovering from his first Grand Tour. His contract with Wanty-Groupe Gobert extends through 2018, and the young man from Auckland plans on continuing to develop and assert himself on pro cycling’s biggest stage.

CyclingTips Australian editor Matt de Neef contributed to this article from Marseilles.

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