Abi Smith interview: Yorkshire cyclist hoping nearby British Championships can kickstart life in the professional peloton
They are emotions that offer a snapshot into the 21-year-old’s first two years in the professional peloton – enormous pride tinged with frustration that she is yet to fully find her feet.
In any other year, a women’s road race that took in seven laps of a coastal route headlined by the 22 per cent gradient of Saltburn Bank and encompassing 2,826 metres of climbing would be right up the street of the young woman from Knaresborough.
“Really attritional, quite hard, quite hilly – it’s absolutely perfect for me,” says the Ripon Grammar School graduate. As it is, Smith is not cycling-fit yet after a knee injury in early March brought a three-month halt to her season.
Wednesday’s time-trial at Croft Circuit on the opening day of Redcar and Cleveland’s hosting of the British Championships, was her first race for 15 weeks.
That she finished fifth suggests she is downplaying her form and fitness, but Smith knows her own body better than anyone, and just how tough a challenge lies ahead from 9am on Sunday.
“I’d just like to get round,” Smith says of the 132km course. “Coming straight back into nationals is a little bit in at the deep end for me.
“With where my fitness is at, at the minute, I’ve just got to try and enjoy it and see how far I can get really.
“It will be very interesting and different from previous national championships because of its attritional nature, rather than tactical, it’ll be who has got the most left at the end rather than who can climb the best.”
She is determined, though, to enjoy it, especially after this month’s Women’s Tour which was scheduled to take in a route around Dalby Forest where she learned to ride a bike, was cancelled due to a lack of sponsors.
“I’m so proud to be riding here, I love cycling in Yorkshire,” says Smith, whose task will be made harder by the fact she is the only one of her World Tour team riding the nationals, meaning she won’t be able to follow breaks or attacks.
“When I heard national champs were coming here it makes me so excited, friends and family all out on the roads, it really does feel like home.
“I hope off the back of this we might be able to see more races coming here. We lost the Tour of Yorkshire, but if there was something to come back to Yorkshire, or the north, that would be really good because cycling is so popular here.”
Smith is a product of that boom – an enthusiastic cyclist in her teens who was captivated by the quality of races and riders that were coming to this region in the last decade.
Two years into life as a professional cyclist, though, she admits she has not yet adjusted to the demands of the sport.
“It’s not been easy, I guess I’d hoped for it to be easier,” says Smith.
“Just because the difference between UK racing and international racing is so huge, it’s a different way of racing, almost a different sport, so it’s been a big change but I’m really enjoying it. I feel very lucky.
“I just need things to get a bit easier and I can get into a rhythm.
“I’ve not raced as much as I’d have liked to due to illness and injuries. I just want to be ride my bike, race and be healthy and do a good job for the team.
“I did the Giro d’Italia last year, Strade Bianchi twice, Paris-Roubaix last year – the races have been amazing. Someone once told me you’ll have one good race in a hundred, the odds are so low, which means the highs when they come are very high, but there’s a lot of lows which is often what people don’t see and that’s what makes it hard.
“It looks like we’re always living the dream, and I guess in some ways we are, but it’s a lot of pressure, it’s a 24/7 job although sometimes it doesn’t appear like that. It’s hard in a different way.
“There’s a lot of luck, or lack of luck, involved in cycling. You never know what’s around the corner sometimes, literally.”
The fact that she has to find a new team for next year because her current outfit EF-Education-TIBCO-SVB are losing a major sponsor is just another bump in the road this intelligent young woman is having to negotiate.
“Once you get the first couple of years out of the way you start to find your feet a bit," she says, hopefully. “I’m getting there, I’ve been hit with quite a lot of illness and injuries, but that's sport. Fingers crossed for the second half of this year.”
Ollie Wood wins circuit race national title
Ollie Wood of Wakefield took home the British Championships circuit race title in Redcar last night.
The 27-year-old who is traditionally more of a track rider, having medalled at major events on the team pursuit squad, produced a stunning sole breakaway to take the circuit race national title.
In front of packed crowds in the drizzle at Redcar, it was Wood who stormed to victory with another local lad in Charlie Tanfield of Great Ayton doing most of the chasing.
Meg Barker beat Cat Ferguson in a sprint to the line to win the women’s title earlier in the evening.
Ferguson, who is only 17, is another Yorkshire rider from Craven, demonstrating the county’s strength on home roads.
Men’s road race preview
Yorkshire has strong contenders and a rich history in Sunday’s men’s road race. Rotherham’s Ben Swift won it either side of the 2020 season that was lost to Covid, and he succeeded his cousin Connor, of Doncaster, who was a surprise winner in 2018 when only riding for British continental team Madison Genesis.
Both Swift cousins now ride for the powerful Ineos Grenadiers team, enhancing their prospects of victory in their home county on Sunday.
Sam Watson of Leeds may only be 21 but finished second to the great Mark Cavendish in last year’s race in Dumfries and Galloway, earning with it the Under-23s national title. He rides with a Groupama FDJ team-mates Jake Askey and Lewis Stewart.
One to watch from outside this great county could be Fred Wright. The 24-year-old has made his name in the past couple of years with a series of plucky breakaway attempts, most notably at the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana, which brought podium finishes. But missing from the palmares (race record) is a victory. Wright finished a close second to Ben Swift when Lincoln hosted the nationals in 2021, a race which finished with the steep cobbled climb of Michaelgate.
Sunday’s race around Saltburn-by-the-Sea is an even more challenging one, defined by the 10 ascents of Saltburn Bank and its 22 per cent gradients, but with plenty of climbing in between too.
Wright will be racing without any team-mates and must use his breakaway expertise if he is to make a mark, but he believes in his form.
“I think with how I’m feeling on the bike at the moment I would say it suits me,” he said. “I’m not really worried. In the Dauphine (earlier this month) on the shorter climbs I felt really comfortable so I should be all right, we shall see.
“I think I just go into it knowing I’ve got a target on my back. But when the course is as hard as it is, on a flat road you can get followed, but if you go for it uphill the person behind also has to work hard.”
Geraint Thomas is expected to sit out the road race after his exertions in finishing second in the recent Giro d’Italia.