Right now Dion Smith will be getting ready for his second day in the polka dot jersey as leader of the king of the mountains classification. The team time trial in stage 3 was Dion’s first experience of wearing a classification jersey at the Tour de France on the road, and it was quite a day to remember as we found out when we caught up with him afterwards.
Speaking to Dion one almost gets the impression that he’s more like his breakaway companion of stage 2, Sylvain Chavanel, a veteran of 18 Tours de France who is able to remain calm and relaxed because of vast experience in matters to do with the greatest race on earth. His words, however reveal a slight sense of being wonderstruck that in just his second Tour de France he is in the middle of making history for New Zealand.
We spoke to Dion after he and his Wanty-Groupe Gobert teammates joined forces for the team time trial. They were not expected to win, or feature in the race, and like many predicted they finished well down on the victorious BMC Racing outfit. But despite not challenging for the win in stage 3, there was plenty for Dion to enjoy about his first day out in polka dot colours.
Dion enjoys podium experience with role models & a compatriot alike
“It was pretty incredible to be honest. There were so many fans out there along the road, every metre there was pretty much a person. I heard my name a few times from all sorts of people, it’s really just massive over here and I guess the Kiwis back home have realised that it’s quite a big thing,” Dion told RoadCycling. “Personally I didn’t really realise until I was on the podium and after that it was quite an achievement. It’s all slowly sinking in and it was really cool to pull it [the polkda dot jersey] on today.”
Dion is no stranger to being on the podium in races around the world. He’s taken classification victories and race wins five times in UCI events from America to New Zealand, the UK to Canada, as well as being on the podium a further 21 times in races throughout a career that’s only taken him to 25 years of age so far! But even the experience of being around and about the Tour de France podium was something different.
“You kinda just have to tell yourself, ‘this is the Tour de France podium!’” Dion said. “I’ve been on the podium before, doing the same routine, but the podium here is slightly different, it’s quite awesome actually; they’ve got lazy boy chairs for every jersey wearer so you’re sitting there next to Peter Sagan and Greg van Avermaet who’s in yellow now, when you see that you say to yourself that it’s pretty amazing and the riders that you look up to are right next to you.”
Not only did Smith see Sagan and van Avermaet, but he also saw a familiar compatriot in the form of Patrick Bevin as he stepped up to the podium to take the stage honours with his teammates. “I actually saw Paddy after the stage today, obviously I was on the podium and he went up with his team for the stage win,” Dion said. “I gave him a big hug actually and it was really, really cool to see him doing so well at the biggest race in the world. Jack Bauer had an awesome ride and Tom Scully with their teams. I think it’s really special for NZ.”
Fighting back nerves to be king of the mountains
The battle that took Dion Smith to the polka dot jersey really took shape over just 28km in stage 2 to La Roche-sur-Yon. With the only climb of the day being at the 28km point Dion entered the race with an objective from the team, but that did little to stop the nerves; and that was before he even saw the company he had in the break with Michael Gogl of Trek-Segafredo and Sylvain Chavanel of Direct Energie.
“I was actually pretty nervous to be honest right from when we had the team meeting in the morning, it was a massive deal to get a jersey. All the big sponsors were here with us, and I guess there was a lot of pressure put on ourselves and working out how to handle it,” Dion explained. “So the first thing was to get in the breakaway and I did that, then I just had to focus on keeping the gap in the breakaway and trying to save a little bit of energy for the climb.”
“Obviously experienced riders like Chavanel you need to watch, I knew he was strong and I knew I had to keep an eye on him. So I just gave it everything I had and timed it right, and managed to get the point.”
Dion was careful on the short climb up the Côte de Pouzauges. Despite it being just a kilometre in length, Smith was careful to remain glued to the wheel of Chavanel, with Gogl sitting on Smith’s wheel. When the time came the Kiwi executed his sprint for the line perfectly to secure the solitary point on offer. What followed was interesting, as Gogl sat up with an apparent knee injury, and then Smith also opted to sit up and allow the peloton to catch up. It proved a smart tactical move from Wanty-Groupe Gobert, who knew that just because Smith was now level on points with the overnight leader, Kevin Ledanois of Fortuneo-Samsic, Smith still needed to finish the stage higher in the general classification to guarantee the polka dot jersey.
Playing tactical game ‘didn’t feel right’
“If I carried on with Chavanel it was obviously more exposure for the team and myself, but it was a really super hot day in the mid-30s and there wasn’t really much else on offer; it was going to come down to a sprint. And also if I did stay with Chavanel and went really deep, then the peloton caught me, then I got dropped then I would have lost the jersey to Ledanois and also for today,” Smith told us.
“It’s a long race and there’ll be a couple of other days where I try and get in the break and stay out front, but stage 2 was a no-brainer to save energy. A guy like Sylvain Chavanel who’s done 18 Tours and how many other grand tours, he’s got a lot of experience in himself and his legs; he can handle that sort of effort output and recover better. I think it was the right call, it didn’t feel right when I came back to the bunch but I definitely understood the reasons for it.”
So what now? Stage 4 sees the field take on 195km between La Baule and Sarzeau and this time there is a KOM climb to tackle; a short 800m ascent of the Côte de Saint-Jean-la-Poterie. Smith’s mature race approach has meant that he’s approaching tonight’s stage with caution, knowing that there are bigger fish to fry in stages 5-6. “I think tomorrow there won’t be any point in getting in the break, but for sure on stage 5 or 6 there’s a few points up for grabs, so we’ll talk about it with the team and try and get a plan and get myself into the break maybe on stage 5 and get as many points as possible. If I have enough after that then I should hold on to it until the first rest day,” Dion said.