Tim Bonville-Ginn talks to the 21-year-old from North Yorkshire about her amazing start to the season, her long-term injury, her comeback, and some big goals on the horizon.
Abi Smith began 2023 full of hope. One of the brightest British road racing prospects, the EF Education-TIBCO-SVB rider was targeting big performances at the biggest races.
Beginning the season early at the Tour Down Under in January, Smith got off to a flying start, achieving her first WorldTour GC top ten.
“That was such a nice start to the season, really,” reflects Smith. “I wasn’t expecting to get a result for myself. I was there to work for Georgia [Williams] and Krista [Doebel-Hickok] who came third and fifth on GC. And we got the team prize, so we couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season.
“I just happened to sneak into the top ten, which was my best result at WorldTour level, I think. A checkbox ticked for one of my goals for this year.
“I was really pleased with that start and it was nice to know, after a pretty rough first year, that I’ve still got it, still got the legs.”
With a top result already in the bag, Smith was understandably excited for her next race, a potential opportunity to lead the squad, a chance to maintain momentum. A positive Covid-19 test, however, brought her season to a sudden temporary halt.
“I got Covid just before Cadel Evans [Great Ocean Road Race], which was the most annoying thing because I think I might have been given a chance to lead in that one just off the back of a good Tour Down Under.”
Covid was hard to recover from and it showed a couple of months later at Strade Bianche, where she struggled so much she had to abandon the race.
But Covid would not be her biggest worry this season.
Preparing for the classics, including both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, among other big one-day races, Smith was suddenly laid low with injury, caused in the most innocuous of circumstances.
I think that’s what makes an athlete stick with it. That resilience. I tried to keep my head screwed on as much as I could. This is not the end, you’ll come back
“My left cleat slipped. And that was it. I didn’t crash or anything,” she explains.
“It either slipped or the bolts were loose. My right cleat was still fine and it was still the same position. But it caused it to twist at a funny angle and that sprained one of the ligaments in my right knee just by riding on it on a couple of hard rides.
“So, for me, it took ten weeks of almost full rest. Which is really not ideal when it’s April, May time and all the big stuff is happening. It was a bit of a nightmare, really.”
Smith had to put her whole season on hold, recovery becoming the priority. The 21–year-old couldn’t go near her bike, or even walk far for over two months. It was a tough mental challenge for the young talent, one which demonstrated her fortitude.
“I think that’s what makes an athlete stick with it. That resilience. I tried to keep my head screwed on as much as I could. This is not the end, you’ll come back. You’ve just got to rest, take your time, take it really steady.
“It was really difficult because the nature of the injury was that I could feel it just walking around, going up and down the stairs. So it was a constant reminder that it was still there and it was still painful for a very long time.
“The mental side of it was and is pretty tough … It still bothers me a little but it is certainly a lot better. I’m on my way back.”
It just so happened that her recovery lined up with her being able to come back to racing at the British National Road Championships which took place just up the road from where she lives. A happy coincidence, but it was still tough to not be 100% on the day.
That was my longest ride since March. I hadn’t done over three hours, so I really suffered in the last hour but I’m really glad that I made it round
“I was really happy to be there,” says Smith. “That was my longest ride since March. I hadn’t done over three hours, so I really suffered in the last hour but I’m really glad that I made it round.
“Same with the time trial. I was not as good as I had hoped to be because I had not been training for very long. But that was really nice, again, just to be back. Just to race again. It had been so long.
“I was disappointed if I was comparing myself to my best self. Because, ideally on a course like that, I would have been at least in the top three in the under-23s and maybe going for the top five overall, so I think, on a good day, that course would’ve been perfect but I just wasn’t fit enough for it.”
Smith hasn’t done any top-level racing since the Nationals but has instead been building her race sharpness with local time trials, a big upcoming target firmly in her sights.
“There’s a TT in the Tour de l’Avenir which is my next race really, after Ryedale that is.
“I’m really excited about that and I’d just like to have a really good hit out and do a really good job, so, I’ve just been trying to put some extra work in there. Trying to get me back up to speed to where I was in January.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoy it, but I kind of do, in a weird way.”
Smith hasn’t raced with her EF teammates since March, and she’s not likely to do so until the Tour of Romandie in September.
I’m really excited to be back in the races again. And hopefully, I’ll find some climbing legs again
“I believe it is just [Tour of] Romandie, actually. Which is the 15th of September. Not a huge amount of racing, but at the same time, I’m gonna need to let my knee rest up a bit. It has healed, but it is still not very happy. Just with the amount of work I’m doing with it. It’s still playing catch-up a little bit.
“I’ll just need to rest after Romandie. But I have a nice little block. I’ve got Ryedale, Tour de l’Avenir and then the Tour of Romandie. I’m really excited to be back in the races again. And hopefully, I’ll find some climbing legs again.”
The Ryedale Grasscrete Grand Prix is the next round on the British Cycling calendar and is a very prestigious race. Not to mention, starting and finishing in the village next door to the one she is from.
Smith also comes into the race as defending champion and will wear the number one on her back. But she wants to use the race as prep for upcoming targets.
“I’m going for a bit of fun. There’s always that extra pressure. Obviously, the kit that I’m wearing and now, the fact that I’ve won it, I see it as my race almost, my home race. So, there is always that extra pressure but I’m trying to take that off just because I want to go and have fun and enjoy it.
I’m not going to stress too much about the result at the end because I’ve got bigger fish to fry in a nice way
“I’m not going to stress too much about the result at the end because I’ve got bigger fish to fry in a nice way. It is just to get me back into racing. It has been a long time, even since Nationals now so to just be back in the bunch again, that’ll be nice. It should be a good day.”
With the WorldTour rider deflecting expectations elsewhere, who are the names that we should be watching?
“It depends how hard it’s ridden. Because there is a chance that not the pure climbers will be there at the end.
“So, like the punchier riders. So, I’ll put Monica [Greenwood] in there, she’s always one to watch and she can always climb pretty well, so I guess unless someone decides to really go for it on the climbs there might be a bunch of ten or so come to the finish, like last year.
“Maybe Kate Richardson or, I think, a couple of Lifeplus-Wahoo riders in there as well and, obviously, the entire Pro-Noctis team really you have to just keep an eye on.
“And there are lots of outsiders. There are lots of riders I’ve not ridden with before or maybe just once, so it is very difficult to tell really. All of the DAS [Handsling] team. There’s Zoe Langham and Lizi Brooke on the startlist, some really good riders. And, of course, Millie Couzens as well. How could I forget! Definitely a strong lineup.”
The weather has been the topic of this summer in the UK and this coming weekend is no different. The weather in North Yorkshire is forecast to be lovely all week but the weekend looks changeable. But Sunday looks dry. Smith adds, “It would be a very different race if it was wet. I’ve not done a wet Ryedale before and I really don’t want to.”
I feel really privileged to be in a WorldTour team and to be in that top level of cycling. I feel really lucky
Smith’s team EF Education-TIBCO-SVB is likely to be folding at the end of the season, with the men’s EF Education-EasyPost creating a new women’s team called EF Education-Cannondale. All change then, with the young Brit needing to find a new contract.
She was unable to reveal where she will be riding in 2024, but the implication of her response was that she does at least have a new team in place. No matter where she ends up, she is clearly grateful to have already ridden at the highest level of cycling at such a young age.
“I’m just trying to take in every minute. Like, I can say I can do this for 10 years, or however long. That time will slip away so quickly. You can only do it for so long and to be at the top of your game for so long, I feel really privileged to be in a WorldTour team and to be in that top level of cycling. I feel really lucky.”