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Opinion and analysis

16 stitches and a life of pain: Willie Smit is cycling’s toughest rider

When Willie Smit finished the 2019 Vuelta a España, it was the latest triumph against the odds in a life shaped by almost inconceivable hardship.

As Primoz Roglic rolled across the Madrid finish line of the 2019 Vuelta a España on Sunday, claiming his debut Grand Tour win in the process, there was a quieter moment of triumph taking place. In 31st place on the stage, 118th on the GC, was Willie Smit, a 26-year-old South African riding in the colours of Katusha-Alpecin completing his first Grand Tour.

That humble result was the latest milestone in a long, painful journey that has been marked by tragedy and triumph over adversity.

Smit’s Vuelta did not pass easily. On stage 14, under the flamme rouge, a mass pile-up sent riders tumbling like bowling pins across the baking Asturian tarmac. Smit was one of the fallers, his left knee taking the brunt of the impact. Having limped across the finish line, Smit climbed into an ambulance to have the crimson wounds blooming down his leg attended to. Sixteen stitches later, he gingerly climbed out.

The cut on his knee, ringed by a halo of road rash, had been sealed into an angry pink ridge, black thread pulling the torn skin together. Down the flank of his lower leg was the still-healing scab from a hard crash on stage 7.

You can imagine it wasn’t a comfortable night’s sleep, but on stage 15, there was Smit, pulling up at the startline, leg covered in gauze. Cyclists are a tough breed, used to pushing themselves to the limit and then a little further, but an injury like this would have seen many of Smit’s colleagues withdraw. In the neutral zone, Groupama-FDJ’s Steve Morabito rolled up to Smit and said as much.

That 15th stage was one of many absurdly tough climbing days on the 2019 Vuelta route. Sepp Kuss soloed to the win, giving high fives down the finish chute. Twenty-eight minutes later, having pedalled thousands of pedal strokes that each hurt in one way or another, there was Smit. And still, there were six stages left until Madrid.

Willem Jakobus Smit was born in Lydenburg – from the Dutch ‘Lijdenburg’; ‘Town of Suffering’ – a few days after Christmas, 1992.

His early life was neither easy or stable. His parents separated, and his mother lost her job, became an alcoholic, and fell into a cycle of abusive relationships. “When I was 7 years old it was the first time I saw a man beat up my mom,” Smit tweeted yesterday. The stability and routine of conventional childhood was not familiar to Smit, whose home-life spiralled devastatingly. He began to skip primary school, and learnt to fend for himself.

For years, his mother was abused by a succession of different men. The impact on Smit’s health – mental and physical – was profound. “I don’t remember my 3rd grade at school at all,” he wrote in a piece for “I had so many traumatic experiences I think my brain just blanked it out.”

A Bicycling South Africa profile of Smit explains that he “spen[t] large parts of his early childhood with his friends in the townships, as suburban parents in his area refused to let their children befriend him”. He fell into gangs, but compared to elsewhere in South Africa, Smit says that the level of crime he participated in was relatively mild. “Worst-case scenario, we would jump into people’s yards, and steal stuff lying around in their garages,” he told Bicycling. But despite the lack of care at home, he never considered leaving his mother: “I wasn’t used to anything better, so I had no reason to believe I needed to leave.”

Willie Smit riding in his national colours at the 2017 World Championships.

When he was 12, child services came and formally removed him from his mother’s care – “I didn’t want to leave,” he said – taking him to live with his grandparents where he had to rebuild the foundations of his life.

“I struggled with fitting into a routine and having to do things like going to school, sleeping at certain times, doing homework … just sitting at the table having dinner with them. I wasn’t used to those kinds of things,” he said. At first, he “never went to school except for Fridays. My grandmother would leave tuck shop money for me at the school’s office on a Friday so I had to go to school to collect it. After that, life became more stable … [his grandparents] were well off and did their best for me.”

Whilst he was living with his grandparents, his mother’s situation began to improve, too. “She met a guy called Gert. He also drinks quite a lot. But I was comforted by the fact that he wasn’t beating her up, and that he had a job and could provide for her.”

Nonetheless, trauma was never far away for Smit. His father, who hadn’t been a significant part of his life as a child, was often away working in warzones – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. “He removed IEDs [landmines], and did some jobs protecting people, and building new roads,” Smit says. Although he’d been absent through Willie’s childhood, Smit began to develop a relationship with his father as a teenager. Shortly before he was due to return from Afghanistan, however, he died.

It was yet another blow for a young man whose life had been shrouded by the tragic. Smit also lost his beloved aunt – “she was always my back-up plan” – to a stroke. “That was probably the saddest day of my life … She changed my life, because she taught me the small things in life: reading, writing, painting, and even some life lessons as well.”

Smit’s neglected youth has had continued consequences for him as an athlete and a person. “I don’t think I brushed my teeth until I was 10 years old. That caused many auto-immune problems early on in my cycling career,” Smit wrote. “I had Epstein–Barr virus, Coxsackievirus, etc – because of my bad living conditions as a child.”

His teeth remain a problem. “With the amalgam fillings … they can poison me, because I grind them. Or they have to be removed,” he explained to Bicycling.

Smit at the 2018 Volta a Valenciana.

Smit’s journey into the sport of professional cycling – much like the rest of his life – was indirect and arduous. Smit dabbled in a number of sports through his teens: he was a regional chess champion, played rugby and was a talented golfer as a teenager, before losing interest in “playing on my own everyday hitting 500 golf balls”.

Smit took up adventure racing. The physicality and self-reliance of that, perhaps, allowed him to draw on the deep wellspring of resilience he’d been forced to develop as a child.

From adventure racing, he discovered a passion for mountain biking, and then, road cycling. In 2014, he signed a Continental contract with Vino-Fantini-Nippo, but despite some promising results he kept getting sick – the re-emerging physical manifestations of his neglected past. The Tour of Qinghai Lake was a major target of his season, but he missed the race through illness and the team’s patience began to run out. His contract wasn’t renewed.

Smit spent the seasons from 2015-17 riding for amateur teams in Africa and Europe. In the Tour of Gabon, early in 2015, he crashed and broke his hip; within six weeks, he was on the bike again, trying to make something of his season. “My fiancée is a physiotherapist and did a lot of work with me … putting pressure on my leg was a problem. I was on crutches but my fiancée and I figured out how I could get onto the bike without hurting my leg.”

In 2017, Smit had the most successful season of his career, becoming African continental champion, and winning 16 races in four months riding for the small Rías Baixas squad in Spain. His director got in contact with José Azevedo, a friend that was Katusha’s team manager, telling him about the young South African with a rough upbringing. “I didn’t know about the phone call at the time but it was the call that has changed my life,” Smit later wrote. “For the first time, I have an opportunity to just focus on riding my bike in an amazing support structure. I’m ready to grab the opportunity with both hands.”

Which brings us to Madrid, eight days and 1,159 excruciating kilometres after Smit’s knee got torn to pieces. Up those wide boulevards, past the fountain, around the hairpin turn, Fabio Jakobsen ripped to victory and Willie Smit soft-pedalled across the line 30 places behind him. What words can be put on that achievement? How can you adequately contextualise that resilience?

For better or worse, we are all products of our upbringing, shaped by our environment and making of our adult lives what we can. Some are dealt bad hands, and crippled by them. Others, like Willie Smit, are lessons in transcendence.

The camera stayed with the sprint battle on the last stage of the Vuelta, but just before it cut away, to Jakobsen’s throw and Sam Bennett’s frustration, you could just make out the slight figure of Willie Smit, baby blue and red, turning his legs over, his left knee slightly cocked as he crossed the last few hundred metres of his first Grand Tour.

A few hours later, he sent a series of tweets in which he reflected on his childhood, his relationship with his parents, and the lessons he’d learnt from it, “as shit as our lives were.”

He could have quit the Vuelta, but you get the sense that was never really an option. “[My mom] was beaten up many times but not once did she scream, let a tear roll, or run like a coward. My dad passed away in Afghanistan lifting landmines and protecting people on those dangerous roads. On our wedding night, I told my wife I’ll never be able to be the man my father was. But they’ve set an example for me not to be a coward,” he said, before thanking his parents.

Cycling is an unnaturally tough sport, populated by unnaturally tough people. But of that rarified breed, Willie Smit might just be the toughest.