ASO’s offer of a Tour de France wildcard place to the Belgian Wanty-Groupe Gobert team has opened up a huge opportunity for all of the riders on its roster, which since the start of this season has included New Zealander Dion Smith.
The Kiwi, who has just turned 24, spent last season with One Pro Cycling and was due to remain with the British outfit until its move down to Continental level. Left in limbo for a little while, he was rescued by Wanty, who had already express interest in him and were able to make that more concrete when their newly-signed leader Lieuwe Westra decided to retire on health grounds rather than continue racing.
After a decent ride at the Tour of the Algarve, Smith’s selection for Wanty’s Volta a Catalunya line-up has brought him to only his second WorldTour race following last year’s Tour of Poland. A strong all-rounder with a good turn of finishing speed, Smith quickly made an impact, fourth place on the first stage earning him the best young rider’s jersey for what was his most high-profile result.
"I have to admit I didn’t know what to expect on the first stage, how my legs were going to react and specifically how my climbing legs would be because it was pretty hilly," he told Cycling Weekly after stage two.
"The bigger teams controlled it, which helped. It was still a taxing day on the legs but I thought I’d have a crack at the sprint and try to get a top 10 at least and came out with a top five, which was really cool," Smith said as he warmed down after the TTT.
Smith, who rode for the Hincapie development team for two seasons before joining One Pro Cycling in 2016, has settled in quickly at Wanty.
"It’s working out really well. We’re getting into some good races and they’re doing a good job in looking after me. I’m at the same level I was with One Pro Cycling last year, but this team has been around for a few more years and that does make them more attractive to race organisers," he said.
Thanks partly to the presence of a clutch of talented French riders, ASO is one of those organisers, and the chance of riding the biggest event of all has fired up everyone on the Wanty roster.
"Racing at the Tour would be my dream, but I’ve got to take it step by step," confirmed Smith, whose all-round ability is highlighted by last year’s fifth place at the Four Days of Dunkirk and 10th at the Tour de Yorkshire.
"We’ve all got to think that same way. It’s a huge prospect, but you can’t allow yourself to think too far ahead. You’ve just got to make the most of the races that you’re in at the moment and whatever will come will then come."
So, let’s get to back to his current focus on the Volta. After that fourth place and a day in white, Smith is eager to make more of an impact. "I’ll be perhaps looking to get into a breakaway and there might be another bunch sprint on stage four," he said.
Before then, though, there’s a tough stage into the Pyrenees, where Wanty’s young French star Guillaume Martin is hoping to have a say. "We’ve got some good climbers here and I think they could well be right up there. We’ve got a few cards to play," said Smith.
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