He’s a former Olympic Athlete. He rode a Grand Tour(94 Giro). He’s been crowned British Road Race champion not once, but twice! He has won races from as far afield as Tucson, Denmark, all the way to(wait for it) Girvan. As Director Sportive and General Manager, he nurtured a fledgeling World Pro tour team from contenders to multiple Grand Tour Stage wins. You’ll see and hear him on Eurosport as ‘The Coach’. His commentary and analysis dissecting the strategies and moves often before they occur, thrusting us the viewers, straight into the pulsing heart and thrum of the peloton.
Ladies and Gentleman, Brian Smith. Grab a big bottle, pour a wee dram (or weapon of choice) and enjoy Brian’s life in cycling.
BCR: What is your favourite race era of cycling and why?
It would need to be the 80’s as I was a teenager and was getting influenced by cycling during this period and watching the top races on the TV. My teenage years are full of great cycling memories and an adventure. I suppose it was exciting times for me…
BCR: During your time in the peloton, which fellow rider did you most enjoy training or racing with?
When I was 18 I got to know Hendrik Redant from a race in Scotland. He was a neo-pro and I won the race. From this day on, we became friends and I always looked forward to seeing Hendrik at the races. Most of the time I trained alone although when in Scotland I loved my local chain gang.
You got given and bike and team clothing. The French riders would make jokes of you. Foreign riders were treated harder than the French riders but that was just the culture. It was toughen up or go home.
BCR: In terms of race dynamics, what has changed for the better and for the worse in comparison with your generation as a racer?
I think technology has changed cycling for the better. Bikes and equipment feel so much better. Being able to climb on a 36×32 makes life much easier than a 42×21. I also think media exposure has thrust cycling forward as when I was a lad you only got brief highlights of the Tour de France. Now you can see almost everything.
BCR: What does a day in the life of a DS in grand tour entail?
Up early with staff to make sure everything is being done and support where needed. Catch up with the riders at breakfast. A quick chat with the doctor to see if everyone slept well and no issues in the night. Travel on the team bus to start. Team meeting regarding stage. Team car for stage giving instruction and information to the riders. Travel to the hotel with riders on bus catching up with riders on how stage went for them. Plan the next day. Team dinner. Meet with DS’s, doctor and coaches to chat over next day plan and confirm strategy.
I arrived in France not speaking French. I was taken to Paris where I was given a bunk bed in a room in a converted police station with the bars still on the windows
BCR: How did you combat boredom and fatigue of long days driving as a DS during an event?
As a DS you need to keep fit and healthy. Many either ride or run. This helps clear the mind. Like a rider you need to make sure you eat and sleep well as there are many long days. Rest is very important between races.
BCR: The oft-mentioned story of an Anglophone rider joining a French amateur team is one of not being able to speak the language, and living a lonely life in terrible accommodation, followed by terribly hard racing, which either makes or breaks you.
This was very true but times have changed now and with easy travel options throughout Europe many riders can now stay at home or relocate somewhere of their choice.
I attacked as soon as the junction was made and held on to a small gap for a few miles until the elastic snapped. A surprise to many but I believed I could win and I did.
BCR: Was your experience in the ACBB similar to that?
I arrived in France not speaking French. I was taken to Paris where I was given a bunk bed in a room in a converted police station with the bars still on the windows. You got given and bike and team clothing. The French riders would make jokes of you. Foreign riders were treated harder than the French riders but that was just the culture. It was toughen up or go home.
BCR: You rode the 1994 Giro d ‘Italia, in support of Lance Armstrong and Andy Hampsten. What are your overall memories of the race, and any high and low points?
The Motorola team was a great team for me with some lovely people. My job was to look after Andy and I think I did a very good job. I suppose the high point was getting to Milan and the low points were the pain and suffering for 3 weeks. The 1994 Giro had no rest day and 22 stages in 21 days so it was particularly hard.
I decided to bluff and encourage others to attack. I sat back and just followed until I took my opportunity again. This time it worked and I soloed to victory. This was a special moment as my parents were at the finish.
BCR: You were British Champion in 1991 and 1994, and were second behind Sean Yates and Malcolm Elliot in 1992 and 1993 respectively. With it being difficult, if not impossible, to get reports or footage of the ’91 and ’94 races, can you give us your description of how they went and how you managed to take the win?
In ’91 I was a neo-pro and was not expected to win. I never got selected for the Milk Race and was disappointed by that. I decided to put all my efforts into my training. I managed to get in the first break of the day but that was brought back. I then missed the next break with a couple of my teammates in it. I told myself that the next riders to attack I would go with them. These riders turned out to be Dave Rayner and Malcolm Elliott. Due to having teammates in the break, I got a free ride across. Once there I was told by my manager to attack on the next drag and give it 100%. Elliott was too much of a danger. At this point I thought I was being used but did my job. 4 riders came across to me including my teammate Keith Reynolds. Then we were 5 and this turned out to be the winning move. Dave attacked and both Keith and myself went to react. I sat up straight away as I saw Keith was covering the attack. Dave and Keith gained time while I sat on the other 2 riders. Keith went through a bad patch and Dave did not want to tow him to finish. The 2 riders with me closed the gap and going on to the penultimate lap we became 5 again. I attacked as soon as the junction was made and held on to a small gap for a few miles until the elastic snapped. A surprise to many but I believed I could win and I did.
In 1994 I had just finished the Giro and went straight to the Route de Sud. We had the race lead and I was one of the riders riding on the front. I was a little worried I would be tired for the nationals so I asked to stop at the feed zone on the last day. I was allowed to do so to help my recovery for the nationals. It was above 30 degrees in the Pyrenees and on the day of the race it was somewhat cooler and raining. We even had waves hitting us along the seafront promenade in Douglas. The group mostly stayed together and I kept very attentive in not allowing any major group to go clear. I was riding alone so did not have any team support. I felt strong but not as fresh as I would have liked. Graeme Obree eventually went away alone. Some attacks started so I decided to test the legs. 2 riders came with me and both told me that they would not work with me. Some other riders came across and again nobody wanted to work. The race came back together so I immediately attacked again. This time 3 riders came with me. There was still 50 miles to the finish and only one of the 3 was prepared to ride. As we got closer to the end I started attacking but could not get ride of all of them. Of the others, there were 2 fast finishers. I decided to bluff and encourage others to attack. I sat back and just followed until I took my opportunity again. This time it worked and I soloed to victory. This was a special moment as my parents were at the finish.
BCR: Would you consider these wins, or indeed one in particular, as the best win of your career.
It’s always nice to win a National Road Champs and the second time was more special as my Mum and Dad were there and I could take it in better. I often get asked what my best performance was and I would say the World Championships in 1992 where I finished 45th. That may not sound too good these days but I only had a few criteriums as preparation in the UK and did all my training alone. It was also satisfying to beat one of my hero’s Sean Kelly.
BCR: After your ride in the Giro, your win in the GP Midbank, in Denmark, and becoming the national champion, why did you part ways with Motorola after what many would consider a very successful 1994?
I still remember Hennie Kuiper arguing with Och the team owner on this very same subject. I got no reason at all why I did not get kept on the team, as 1994 was a good year for me…
BCR: You joined MTN Qhubeka in July 2014, and in our opinion were a major factor in turning a good African Pro-Continental team into a very successful World Tour team, and remained there for the team’s most successful seasons. You were part of bringing in riders like Steve Cummings, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Serge Pauwels, Mark Cavendish, Omar Fraile, Nathan Haas etc., and extending guys like Jaco Venter, Daniel Teklehaimanot and the Janse Van Rensburgs. These riders went on to win numerous grand tour stages, stages and overall titles all over the world, and numerous national road race and TT honours, all in the Dimension Data jersey.
Can you explain your thought process behind what type of rider(s) you personally like to have on a team, and what is your general philosophy on building a successful cycling team?
If I told you my secrets of building a team then they would not be secret anymore. The key to building any team is making sure the dynamics work and everyone is happy and motivated. If money were not the issue then most people would buy the best riders. For me it’s about identifying the hunger within the rider and the only way of knowing this is by talking with them. Not dealing with their agent. I also do my own homework with riders and staff within the industry. I turned around a team with an extra budget of €2.5M. I suppose as a Scot I expect value for my money.
BCR: You set up the Braveheart Cycling Fund in 2003, with the aim of helping young Scottish riders compete with the best in the world, which has had Jack Carlin, Mark Stewart, Neah Evans and Stuart Balfour among some of it’s most successful recipients. How is the fund progressing, how do you scout potential recipients, and most importantly, how can people help and contribute?
Like all voluntary organisations, we need support. Alan and myself have spent a lot of our time working on behalf of the fund for many years but from time to time personal/business circumstances change. Alan’s company acquired another company and this has taken much of his time away. Alan and his staff were the driving force behind the fundraising dinner as it’s very difficult to organise the BH weekend from London. You need people on the ground. I’m hoping to catch up with Alan soon to see if he can spare the time to look at fundraising ideas. We get many people asking about the BH dinner and ride but with limited time and personnel, it has become very difficult. It does look the ride will come back in 2019 but need to look at the dinner. We are also looking at other ways of funding, as we still believe the fund makes a difference.
BCR: Personal highlights as a rider? As a DS? As a TV commentator?
Rider: Representing Scotland and Great Britain at the highest level of our sport. Riding for one of the top teams in the world at its time and finishing my first grand tour.
DS: Taking the first African team to the Tour de France and seeing Daniel take the mountains jersey and Steve win a stage on Mandela Day. I don’t think we could have written a better script.
Commentator: I would think it’s the invention of ‘The Coach’ on Eurosport as I get to do what I love best and that’s analysing the action.
BCR: and finally…One book, one race and one bike from your racing days?
Not really one for reading but always got Oor Wullie and the Broons annuals at Xmas
1991 National Road Race Champs. First one always strikes a cord.
My first non hand me down bike, a champagne coloured Viner
A huge thank you and chapeau to Brian for sharing his cycling life with us. Head over to Eurosport and you’ll see and hear Brian in action. To connect on social media follow @BriSmithy on Twitter and Instagram
Daz & Craig