Astana’s Gatis Smukulis Gets PEZ’d
Rider Interview: Astana’s Gatis Smukulis is a man with a strong handshake, it’s not one you will forget. Strong hands and a strong character, he’s a rider who came out of Latvia to cut a pro career in France before moving to Katusha and now Astana. Alastair Hamilton caught up with him at their Spanish training camp.
Two years with AG2R-La Mondiale, one with HTC-High Road, followed by four with Katusha and now with Astana, Gatis Smukulis has always been at the pointy end of the professional cycling World. We sat down to hear what he had to say of his new team and his past and what he wants from the future.
PEZ: How are you settling into the Astana team?
Gatis Smukulis: So far, so good. I’m happy and I was surprised how friendly everyone is and they took me into the team straight away. There are a lot of Italians, but we try to speak English as well, actually it’s quite strange because in our team we also have some Spanish and Italian guys all speaking some English, but I hope soon to be speaking Italian. I understand most of it and I also speak French, so that makes it easier for me also.
PEZ: After four years at Katusha were you nervous about changing team?
No, I’m excited and looking forward to the next season. Before signing with Katusha I was quite good with my own results, but in the first year (2012) I crashed in Qatar and broke my scaphoid and after that, as I was coming back, I was helping other riders and I was always with the leaders and so I was helping them and year by year I lost the taste for the final, for the fight for the final victory. Always I was there to help somebody, but I hope I can get it back here.
PEZ: So, what is your role in the team, worker?
Sure and that is not a problem. I’ll be with the leaders in the Classics and then you do the Grand Tours for the GC men. When you have someone like ‘Purito’ fighting for the podiums and here we have Vincenzo and Aru, it’s a pleasure to work for them, there is no problem.
PEZ: Will you have your own opportunities?
We will have to see how it is going in the Classics. My dream race is Roubaix and we have Lars Boom there and, well, you never know. So I will try to stay with him and help him, if he can win and I can be in the top ten, then that can be a big step for the future. I know I can do it. For the moment I am for the team and I am on a 1 year contract, so I really want to help the team and I want the team to see what I can do and then I will see if I have some chance for myself, then I will always try. It’s nice to have some victories in the season, one or two, it doesn’t matter how many.
PEZ: You’ve been Latvian champion seven times.
In the time trial. It’s between me and Aleksejs Saramotins, he’s young and fast and it’s more or less a flat race, it’s a flat country. He’s small and faster than me in the sprint, so he wins the road race and I win the time trial.
PEZ: So, you wouldn’t say you are a time trial specialist then?
I don’t know why, but in the nationals I can always do better than in the big races, maybe I’m too nervous, but I like the time trial and hope I can improve in this area.
PEZ: Are you a Classics-man?
I like Classics, yeah. If everything goes right then it’s okay. Roubaix can be a lottery, but if you are good then it’s more or less always okay, you always see the favorites, they are always there. You know if you are really good for these races, then you will do the right thing, you will be in the right position and be more attuned to the race. If you have a puncture, well thats something else, but you need the luck also, especially in Flanders and Roubaix.
PEZ: Do you go back to Latvia very often?
Actually yes. But in the winter time I stay here (in Spain) for the weather and then for the first training camps and get my base for the season. But after Roubaix I will go home if there is a week between races. After a race I go home and have two days easy, then a hard days training and then come back for the next race.
PEZ: What is the weather like in Latvia?
It’s okay in April and in the summer it would be 25 degrees C. I think January is the worst month and in December it will be plus 8 degrees. Latvia is flat, not like Holland flat, well, in the coast part yeah, but there are some small ‘speed bumps’ and thats it.
PEZ: You rode for HTC in 2011, a lot of big champions came form the team. What was that like?
That was great. I had my two years with AG2R-La Mondiale, my first pro contract and I started with a virus, no one knew, I didn’t know. The year before I was winning races and when I came into the pros I started to suffer, they said, ‘don’t worry, he’s a first year pro and it’s hard.’ I knew there was something wrong and by the middle of the season I worked out I had mononucleosis, but it was already so late. In those two years I nearly gave up cycling, I signed with HTC in October and so I was really lucky and excited and I was motivated as they were the best team in the World. There were many big guys there, Bernie (Eisel), Renshaw, Cav, Tony and the others, everyone was taking some victories. I joined and straight away I felt 50% stronger, not because of more training, just by putting the jersey on. Everyone was really friendly when I joined, you know when you are racing, all the other teams are assholes, it was a big team of assholes. But when I got there it was like a big family and that made my season much better, I won a stage of the Tour of Cataluña and second in a stage of the Tour of Austria and some other good placings it was a successful season.
PEZ: Was there a big difference from AG2R-La Mondiale?
It was like day and night. AG2R were ProTour also, but HTC were special, they were international and there were no more than three guys from one nation and they were all more together. But to be a Frenchman in a French team it’s really big and they have this mentality and that’s quite hard. HTC was perfect. You can find a problem in every team, but in general it was the best team. I’ve spoken to a couple of the guys who were in Sky and they said it wasn’t the same, but Sky sounds very strict. I think now they are not so much, at first when Wiggins was there for the Tour it was hard.
PEZ: What training are you doing at the moment (late December), is it full on?
No, we start quite easy. Before the camp I was training quite a lot at home, but now there are quite a few guys who stopped the season quite late and are only now coming back from their break, so they need to get their legs.
PEZ: Do you know when you start the 2016 season yet?
I don’t know yet, it’s normally Australia and Dubai, but it’s not decided yet (Gatis did not go Australia). I went in 2012, but it was quite cold, actually. The year before was really warm there and you were in your shorts and nothing more and I was saying, ‘come on!’ it was 40 or 45 degrees. Then in 2012 it was 15 or 16 with fresh air, I was really expecting summer time, but for one week it was no more that 18 degrees. It’s a good race, but there are Australian guys who are in really good shape and it’s not easy, the stages are not long, but if you are not at 80 or 90% of your form then it’s hard to do something. It’s real nice.
On the way there it’s okay, you have one week for recovery and get in the mood, but after when you have to come back and ride some other races, then it’s a little bit hard.
PEZ: What is your big aim for the season?
The Grand Tours. For myself it’s Paris-Roubaix and after, to be honest, I don’t care, because if I go with the leader I’ll ride 100% for them and I don’t care which ones, Giro or Tour.
PEZ: What about the Olympics?
Normally I would go to the Olympics, but it is not sure how many spots we have, one is for sure and then if we have two then okay. The parcours is quite hard so it’s not for the big guys like me. We have the new young guy who has signed with Cannondale, Toms Skujinš, he was racing the last two seasons with the Hincapie team in the states, he won a stage in the Tour of California, he’s quite good on the uphills. He’s a young guy, but I was in Beijing when I was 21, so it’s good for the experience. The Olympics are nothing like any other race, the teams are a maximum of five riders in a few team, the race is hard to control and the bunch might only be 130 or 140, so it’s a different race.
You don’t even think about the cycling, when I was there in 2008 the cycling was one of the first events, right after the presentation, I stayed a week longer and went to all the basketball games and stuff, it was amazing, really, really cool. When you go to the World championships it’s just cycling.
PEZ: How did you get into cycling and how big is cycling in Latvia?
In the past it was quite big, we had a World champion and an Olympic medal and every region has a sports school for cycling, so in that time it was good. In my town all my friends were riding their bikes and racing and really having fun. We would be training on our sports bikes, I was 10 years-old when I got a bike, I had been doing athletics, running and things. Every region had their sports school for cycling and other sports, but there was one main one and the first goal was to get into that one, so I could get the best. I was really motivated to get into this one. I got in and started racing in Europe and Belgium. When I stared racing with the juniors I was really strong, I did one race in the World Cup for juniors in Italy, it was a stage race with climbs. I won the race even with all the climbing, and there was this little guy from Sicily next to me and he asked how heavy I was? 80kg. I was good in those times, even on the climbs. Even now I’m okay, but I’m not a climber but I do all right on the uphills.
In the juniors I was really good and then I moved to France, for the first year as an amateur, it was a big change with the mentality and the language and everything, but I was so excited to be there. I was living five months of the year away from home and year by year I was getting better, I won the Tour of Flanders for the under 23’s and in the French Cups I was always there, all good memories. After that I went to be a pro. In those days if you stayed at home you had no chance of moving up.
PEZ: What do you think of disc brakes?
No, I don’t like. You’ve seen how many crashes there have been in the last years. You have the big chainring, but it is covered by the chain, but then you have two more discs. They get hot with the braking and you have a big crash, I think it’s just more risk, you could cut the skin and the fingers… you could do the same with the wheels and the spokes, but it’s an extra thing. Maybe they would be good for the bad weather and the downhill. Look, you have all the electronic stuff on your bike, the wireless shifting and now you got these brakes.
PEZ: Apart from disc brakes have you noticed many changes in cycling, in the sport, everything?
Yeah, it’s different, completely different I think. There are more crashes. And the young guys, when I started it was hard for the first two years, now they sign a contract and in the first year they can start showing the results. Everyone is more similar, it’s not like there is the old guys and young guys.
PEZ: Do you think that there is not a boss of the peloton anymore?
In the past you used to see the break go to the finish, but now every single race is so important for the team, even the smaller races, everything is so controlled, not so many break-aways succeeded. In the past the leaders were going for the GC and won maybe two stages and maybe out of twenty stages: seven stages would be for the break-away, now there is little chance. Everything is for the team and they go full-gas. Every team knows how to race. In my first year as a pro in the Tour of Qatar, this was eight years ago, there would be echelons everyday, at the first corner there would be five echelons and the race would be over. Now there won’t be any as everyone knows what to do, were to race, when to fight. The race style has also changed, but I still enjoy it, that is the main thing.