Not so long ago, Dion Smith’s career was in limbo.
At the end of 2016, his One Pro Cycling team shifted down to the Continental level, leaving Smith to ponder his future.
A call from Belgium outfit Wanty-Groupe Gobert resuscitated his ambitions and he went on to make his Grand Tour debut in the 2017 Tour de France.
His patient climb through the professional cycling ranks culminated in last year’s Tour de France, where he was rewarded with a view to savour.
On Stage Two of the sports’ signature race, he made a somewhat surprising and brilliantly executed attack. This carefully crafted move by his team caught commentators and cycling experts off guard, forcing them to scramble for their notes and dive into Smith’s backstory.
The 25-year old played his part perfectly, claiming the polka dot jersey as the leader of the King of the Mountain classification. It was the first time a New Zealander had worn a leader’s jersey at the Tour de France.
He’s now stepped up to the World Tour, the highest level of cycling, after signing a two-year deal with powerhouse Australian team Mitchelton-Scott.
“It was always a dream team of mine,” he told Newshub. “I’ve got a few mates on there already.
“It’s also an English-speaking team, which definitely helps.”
Mitchelton-Scott can almost be counted as New Zealand’s unofficial cycling team with a smattering of Kiwis, including Sam Bewley, Jack Bauer, Smith, Georgia Williams and sport director Julian Dean.
Dean, one of the country’s greatest cyclists, is an influential figure for the low-key Aucklander.
“He’s good to chat to and it’s nice to have such an experienced guy on the team as well.”
After recording a Grand Tour victory with Simon Yates in his first attempt as a sport director, Dean’s excited about the potential of his latest recruit.
“We think we can get quite a bit more out of him going forward – he’s a reasonably young age and he fits well into the team.”
Smith is still coming to terms with life on the World Tour.
“It’s been a slow progression, but now I’m all of a sudden here, it’s a bit of a blur.”
Despite a rapid flurry of media interviews and interest following his polka-dot jersey heroics, the unassuming Smith moved on quickly from his time in the French sun.
“It’s hard to know if it changed anything or not. It obviously got my name out here in New Zealand and bought cycling a lot of coverage as a smaller sport in the country.
“When you come back here [home], and see friends and family, and people you’ve haven’t seen for a while messaging you and saying, ‘oh I saw you on TV’, it kind of made me rethink what I achieved and what I’ve done for New Zealand cycling as well.”
The versatile Mitchelton-Scott team has many spokes to their wheel, featuring Vuelta a Espana champion Yates, brother Adam and two-time Tour Down Under champion Daryl Impey.
“Surrounding myself with all those big guys, like the Yates’ [Simon and Adam], and learning from the likes of Impey, it’ll just help me grow as a rider and find out specifically what I can do.”
Smith’s Grand Tour schedule is only loosely pencilled in at this stage, but a return to the Tour de France appears unlikely, with the Spanish tour a new target.
“It’s getting that confidence in yourself that you can last day after day for three weeks, so I think trying a different tour will be good fun and bring new challenges.”
Alongside Spain, Smith’s hoping to target the three Ardennes Classics in mid-April, including the Amstel Gold Race.
Another impressive year would put him right in contention for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, particularly after he gained experience with the New Zealand team at the road cycling world championships last year.
“It’s definitely something I’d love to go to. I think next year would be the one that’s the most achievable, because you never know what’s going to happen in four years.”
That’s a fitting motto to live by and something that’s taken Smith from the bottom to the top of cycling, with opportunities waiting around the next bend.
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