Climbing off: The end of the ride

Broken bikes, broken hearts and even some broken bones. After 19 years at the top of his game former Royal Engineer Martin Smith shares his cycling story and why he’s choosing now to retire his racing legs.

In his own words:

I’ve been doing a great amount of thinking since the turn of the year regarding my racing career. Those who have known me for a long time and know me well will also know just how big a part of my life cycling has been since the journey began.

It kind of began in 1995.

I was a 14 stone bodybuilder eating buckets of pasta and tuna whilst based in Germany. Paul Ryan, who was then part of the GB and Army biathlon set up, had a pair of rather nice Dawes GB team issue bikes which, along with a pair of shoes for each bike, he lent me every time he went away for months on end Skiing. That kind of planted the seed. There was a terrific Mtb route around the outskirts of Hamlin and Sunday afternoons often resulted in fun-filled, mud covered endings, much to the disgust of those who went in the showers after me.

Fast forward 3 years or so.

I’d left Germany with a pair of decent alloy bikes bought on the cheap at American Army PX stores – a Cannondale R500 60cm (I thought this was the right size for me!) and a Stumpy Mtb. The OIC of cycling at my new Regt , 33 EOD, was Neil Gadd and he persuaded warren Woz Lowe and I to have a crack at the week long Army cycling championships. Neil did everything for us- told us what to eat, what to put in our water bottles, what tyre pressure to go for, he even tried to teach us tactics! We (probably Woz) started to refer to Neil as ‘Dad’, something which has now kind of stuck. I got DQd from the road race for allegedly crossing the central white line. That was almost enough to discourage me, but not quite.

The Regiment Trio

A few months later.

My Corps (Royal Engineers) were holding a Mountain bike race as part of the RE games- a 2 day sports/beer fest, with maximal participation encouraged. The pre-race favourite was the Combined Services XC champion Rick Fielder.

After a frantic start, I found myself in the top 3. Rick punctured and I then found myself hanging onto the coattail of my Ops Major, a Triathlete called Mike Webber. I finished runner up and still have the trophy somewhere. The racing bug had well and truly bitten me.

The following season.

I started riding the Combined Services XC series aboard an Ex British Cycling Trek 9.8 Carbon. With the bit firmly between my teeth, I finished as Army Masters champion.

The following season I upped my game. I bought a carbon road bike, I did a bit of Winter Training, went out on Training rides with Mick Boyle, Andy Galbraith and the rest of the Regt’s triathletes. I even started doing lunchtime interval training on the airfield. It paid off though. As well as winning the Combined Services XC title, I’d won both my first 4th and 3rd cat races and got enough results to gain my 2nd category licence in 3 months of road racing.

What next?

An overseas training camp, because that’s what you do when you want to get quicker. I Met Army CU stalwart Gary Kristensen, who got me mile crunching and made me obsessive about every smidgen and morsel consumed- for the right reasons of course. On the same training camp, also met a genuinely nice young Roadie by the name of Daniel Lloyd. Dan then took me away the following Spring to Spain to beast me in the hills and it was truly inspiring to see him a few years later ride in the Tour De France for the Cervelo Test Team, achieving one of his lifelong goals. By this point, so early on in my cycling career, my obsession and lack of prioritising had already been enough to cost me a stable long-term relationship.

A spate of Foot and Mouth disease and an Operational tour later.

I was able to get back on track. In 2003, I rode in a break with the Dring brothers Steve and Paul, very experienced road-men. They somehow convinced me that I was good enough to become an Elite roadie, and by the end of the season, I’d done just that. Racing on the road clearly wasn’t enough by then, and my obsession stretched to racing at National MTB level, time trialling and a bit of CXing. Taff Rogerson and the CX mob (easily) persuaded me to have a crack at the CX World Masters Champs and I made top 20 on my second attempt.

mtb 2004
Climbing my way onto the Master’s podium, Fort William 2004

2004 & 2005 were somewhat groundbreaking years for my cycling career.

An Inter Services 25m TT title, MTB Expert NPS series overall win, my first Masters National podiums (2nd in TT, 3rd in Road and MTB) and my first full sponsorship on the road from Phil Corley and Team MK. Under the tutelage of the very experienced Roy Chamberlain and Aaron McCaffery, I got a handful of Elite crit race wins, won my First Elite road race (stage of Chas Messenger) and one of my biggest wins of my career, the Les Ingham Memorial Road Race (which was subsequently won by both Malcolm Elliott and Dan Lloyd!!). I also won my first Sprinter’s jersey, leading the competition during the Tour of the South. In the next season, I started doing some Premier Calendars, finding most of them too much but I did manage 3rd in the Points classification in the Girvan stage race.

2007, Dan Lloyd had convinced me to buy a Powertap wheel to measure my Wattage.

I still wasn’t getting the most out of merely self-coaching. I’d come to the conclusion that I’d somewhat plateaued and I engaged the Services of Dr Simon Jobson to push me further and that he did. Simon at that stage had recently graduated in Sports Science but had come recommended by a friend. The move paid off and after attaining no less than 7 silver and bronze medals in National Masters Champs (Road, TT and Mtb), I finally climbed on the top step of the Master’s podium in 2008, winning the road title for AW Cycles (thanks to James T for that sponsorship/support). It was at about this point in my cycling career that my Father suggested that I give up the ‘cycling lark’ in order to concentrate on my personal relationships and their failings.

Ecstatic at winning my first National title, ahead of a small group of very experienced riders.

2009 was filled with highs and lows.

Winning the Divisional Senior Championship and losing it minutes later due to an alleged infringement, winning a handful of Elite road races, making top 10 in a Premier calendar, but then suffering a significant back injury whilst lifting at work which impeded any rides of over an hour for over a year. The following year, I was given a lucky break by Cherie Pridham and joined a Tour Series level ProAm team, which became a tough balancing act along with my Army career. The final few years of Military life saw me getting the top step in a Masters road race again and gaining my first Green (points) jersey in a stage race.

2014 started off with Wayne Coombs having faith in me and joining a colossal 14 man BH Solidor Elite team.

I instantly struck up a rapport with fellow Vet Nick Noble. Our individual plan was almost perfectly executed with Nick winning the Masters Road Race whilst I defended his advantage, Nick returning the favour a week later by leading me out to win my third BC Masters title in the Crit Champs. The month got even better for me, winning both the Scratch and Points Masters titles on the same weekend – thanks to Debbie Jones at Optimum Sports Massage for keeping my legs and body at peak condition that season. The only ‘shadow’ on one of my best seasons ever being a Discipline case and subsequent racing ban after a physical altercation with a wayward and reckless young rider.

2015 started quietly.

Backed by BikeChainRicci and aboard a terrific ‘Dale Supersix Evo black edition I got to do my own thing for a bit. I won what wasn’t my biggest race but probably most memorable- the age group Handicapped Oomloop Dreis Van Dorpen. I had moved away from the rest of my age groupers on lap 2 and spent the next 2 laps catching small groups, all who told me “There’s still one guy ahead”. The finish hill was on a bend, I had him in my sights with just over 1k to go, but he was still maybe 400m ahead. The first thing he knew of my presence was the clicking of my gears as I accelerated past with fewer than 200m to go.

Textbook stuff.

I also used my newly found climbing legs to good use, winning my first KOM jersey (and another 3 over the following season), something once again I would never have dreamed possible in 1999.

2015 was also filled with life changing events.

I lost my Father to illness/old age.  Cycling and training helped me cope with the months leading up to his departing, fresh air and tired legs taking my mind off his suffering. This motivated me to unexpected wins in the LVRC TT and CX National champs by the time the year ended.

KOM winner at the Tour of the Abberleys 2016. A far cry from my early sprinting days.

2016 was more mentally challenging.

It was generally filled with disappointment in National championships and in Spring last season and I was totally convinced that I was going to hang up my wheels.I somehow made it thorough to 2017 with a small amount of drive and enthusiasm. My girlfriend at the time convinced me not to quit just then. I’m glad I didn’t. My hours in the saddle were at an all time low. I was spending more hours walking the dog than riding my bike. Despite my main focus being the Winter CX season, I somehow got it all right on the day to bag another Masters National title from a break of 7 in the Circuit champs at Rockingham. I gave CX a good crack in the Autumn, winning 2 races and leading the Winter league until the halfway point. Getting knocked off my bike at a fairly low speed just before Xmas put paid to the form I then had, as well as serving as a big wake-up call as to my lack of invincibility.

A time to reflect: 

I’ve only ridden my bike 3 times this year. All of these have been out having fun with the pooch. My time away from the UK on holiday gave me time to reflect on life and my cycling journey. When it began 19 years ago, I really had no idea what I could achieve. I was coming into a sport at nearly 30, a sport where most of my rivals had been racing and gaining tactical knowledge from the age where I was more bothered about getting drunk and chasing girls. Nearly two decades later, I’d bagged 9 National titles in 6 different disciplines, spent 12 consecutive seasons as an Elite roadman and maybe 160 or more victories, using probably probably 30-40 different steeds to do so.

All this came with huge personal and financial sacrifices.

My obsession has cost me relationships, thousands of pounds and somewhere in the middle, it cost me my chance to push for Sergeant Major. All those who knew me through my Military career will be under no illusion that I definitely put my Sport first and the Army second.

As I write this, I’m not missing crunching those Winter miles.

In the early days, I thought nothing of aiming to get 7-8 hours in the saddle every weekend, whatever the weather. Now, when I see riders out doing just this, I don’t feel envious one bit. I will maybe miss getting some quality sunny miles in out in Lanzarote, but that’s about it. I’ve enjoyed the prolonged break, lack of structure, time spent doing more gym work and a bit of swimming. I’ve not ridden the bike properly this year and I don’t have the urge to do so yet either. For me it is all or nothing; I cannot just ride to make up the numbers.

It is my decision to bow out when I want to and not when the results start to fail me.

I feel as though I’ve met all my goals & more.

I have no desire to set myself any further cycling aims.

I retire as a current National champion, no one can take that away from me. I will miss the chance to do a few races in the customised skin-suit that I spent good money on last Summer, but if this is my only regret then I’m clearly making the right decision.

Hopefully now my Father is looking down on me and is content that I’ve climbed off for the last time.

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My only regret?

I have plans to get away this year on my weekends and weeks off doing some long-distance trekking on the South Coast with my dog.

I will keep a bike or three for a bit of warmer weather cycling, and will do some mountain biking for fun only. I will get myself another mountain bike so I can continue getting a good workout at the same time as the dog. The 10km I walk with him on a daily basis will keep the timber off me I hope. Maybe I will try my hand at climbing or something else.

Above all, my main goals of the year will be to sort my personal life out-

I will also assist my Mother with her plans to move to Somerset this Summer – if both of these are achieved, then I’ll be just as happy at the end of this year as I was when I crossed the finish line in the National Champs last August.

I’ve made many, many friends (and a small handful of enemies!) on this journey.

Whilst every amateur competitive cyclist has a story to tell, I think my journey through the many facets of the sport has been fairly unique and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this tale as much as I’ve enjoyed living it.

Ride safe.

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