Joe Smith seems like he’s been around forever, having been a fast junior way back in 2005. We caught up with him for his plans for the year and beyond.
From Junior National titles, World Cup top 10s to Red Bull Hardline podiums, Joe Smith has been at the sharp end of downhill for a decade and a half.
Pete caught up with Joe to chat about how he spent lockdown, organising his own setup for 2020 and plans for the year ahead.
Photos by Robbie Meade.
So Joe, it’s obviously a strange year for everyone. Having spent every summer for your entire life racing… How are you doing in this weird lockdown world?
Yes it’s certainly a strange time for everyone. To be honest its not felt too tough yet, I think we’ve had less strict measures than some places and its allowing me to stay a little more sane.
And how are you filling your time at the moment?
I’m trying to keep busy and still do some training. Its hard to know exactly when we will be back racing so I’m conscious of not over doing it. I’ve recently started working with Ben Plenge from Strength Factory so it’s been fun trying to get to grips with the new workouts with my limited equipment/space at home. I’ve also been doing some gardening with my fiancé, trying to get our own veg ready for summer.
There’s a lot of talk about not riding certain things or certain styles of riding being ok. Are you still riding bikes? What are you getting out and doing?
I have been making the most of the good weather and been out on the road quite a lot and exploring new routes around my area, I think its pretty safe to do this as long as you’re sensible and don’t go past your limits. I take plenty of food/drink, a tube, a chainlink and tools so I’m pretty self sufficient and usually don’t really see anyone let alone get close to people. I guess I’m lucky living in Mid Wales. Once I got my new Vitus Bikes I’ve been riding some cool local MTB trails, keeping well within my limits to keep the risks in check.
How did you feel when you realised racing wouldn’t be happening this season? How did you get your head into it? That must be tough having spent your whole life racing and the whole winter training and pulling a programme together?
Well it’s looking like its not happening anytime soon that’s for sure but I’ve got my fingers crossed that some UK stuff at least may happen before the year is done. This winter was my toughest yet, I really didn’t have anything sorted until probably the end of Jan/Feb and was still trying to piece things together right up until when Lousa was meant to be.
I feel bad for saying it but at first the delay gave me a little breathing room to try and get things finished off. Now we all know more it’s a pretty crazy time in our sport and in general. I’m just trying to do what I can to help out the brands who are supporting me and trying to stay safe so we can all get back to riding/ racing with our mates and some kind of normality.
For anyone that doesn’t know you quite so well. Where did racing all start for you?
I’ve got to go a long way back for that. My first proper race was actually a pushup event at Nantmawr Quarry, I was on an 24” Saracen hardtail with red RST forks. I think I finished mid pack but was hooked, then my parents brought me an Orange Patriot which was from the previous year with a bit of discount and we started going to the Pearce Series and the Dragon DH events down in South Wales.
That bike did me well and I think my last year of racing Juvenile I was up near the front most of the time. A few years of racing for Ancillotti in Youth went well with a National Champs title in 05 and the National series Overall in 06. I then went into my first year racing World Cups in 07 as a Junior and that was it, fast forward 13 years and I’m still giving it my best. Some great memories with awesome teams and brands supporting me.
And what are your standout memories from 15 years of racing at an elite level?
Too many to recall, 2009/10 traveling around with my parents as a privateer riding for Kona was amazing and I’ll be forever grateful to them for helping me out so much in those years. Getting my first top 10 with my Dad as my mechanic at Maribor in 2010 was amazing. Other than that finishing 7th at Fort William was pretty special and just missing out on a podium by around 0.5s in Windham in 2014 was bitter sweet but pretty cool. Winning the BDS overall in 2015 was for sure a highlight as has been riding in most of the RedBull Hardline events.
How much harder did you have to work each year to stay competitive?
I think I’ve worked harder every year of my career but that’s maybe because I’ve learnt more about training and preparation for racing as much as just trying harder. I think racing is closer than it’s ever been since I started and there is much less room for error which has just highlighted the importance of proper training.
We see a lot of riders putting social media, vlogging, content stuff at the forefront of their careers. I don’t see that being something you’ve done and you’re fairly quiet on the media side. Is that a deliberate move on your part?
I’ve always tried to mainly let my riding and the racing do the talking but social media is for sure a massive part of the game now. Its really tough though and I think unless you’re right at the top of the results you need to put a lot of time and effort into making the social media side of things work. Instagram was quite good for me initially and I was growing my following pretty quick but I think a change of their algorithm slowed things down loads and maybe a lull in stuff to post due to maybe a team change or something made it a tough to recover from.
I started up a YouTube channel at the end of last season and its slowly growing but with the move to Vitus happening again it meant a big stretch with nothing to post. I’m learning though and hopefully people enjoy the videos I’m making and help me to grow this side of things. I think its important especially now to try and promote your sponsors in whatever way you can.
How did you feel your last couple of seasons have gone?
Pretty up and down, a few injuries and some great results but not the consistency I’ve been looking for. Starting off my time with Norco by dislocating my shoulder wasn’t great but I managed to rehab it enough to make it through the rest of the season with a few good results. The second year was much better with a few great results but also a few crashes, including in my final run in La Bresse after being 2nd in timed training and 5th in qualifying, I’m still kicking myself for having a silly crash in that run.
The next race I narrowly missed out on a podium at Hardline. Last year again started with a shoulder injury which kind of hindered me for most of the first half of the year before another big crash in Vallnord. That race and the following one in Les Gets ended up being my only elite WC races where I’ve not qualified (other than dislocating my shoulder) which was pretty hard to take in. I rebounded with some solid UK races, a National race win and my 3rd place at Hardline with a puncture for the last section. So yeah up and down.
A lot of the work for a race season is obviously done in the off-season. What did you do differently coming into 2020 compared to other years?
Spent loads of time on the computer doing e-mails and not training as much as usual. I wasn’t working with a coach for most of the off-season as I didn’t know what or if I’d be able to go racing but was still training as much as I could. I feel like after so many years racing I have a decent idea of what to do and I felt like I was pretty strong and fit considering my reduced training load.
What were your 2020 racing goals, before COVID-19? What are your goals now?
I just wanted to go racing and see where I was at, I feel like I can still perform but I haven’t set any specific result based goals. At the moment I’m hoping I can keep my sponsors happy and do what I can to promote their products until we can safely go racing again.
Did you ever consider shifting over to racing more Enduro World Series races, maybe a focus on the full series?
I’ve thought about it but never actively gone looking for a ride on an EWS team. I’ve now raced quite a few EWS over the years and had some pretty good results including a top 10 in Ireland and 18th in NZ, I’ve enjoyed most of the ones I have attended so would be interested in seeing how I could do if I trained specifically for enduro. They put on a great show and go to some epic locations so there would be no complaints there.
Tell us about your new setup, how did that come about and what’s your setup like? That must have been a lot of work to pull together?
So Chris from Vitus contacted me around the start of Jan when I publicly announced I was leaving my old team. I’ve known Chris for a long time so was very interested in working with him and the team behind Vitus. I’m really happy with the deal we managed to sort out at such a late stage in the off season and I’m loving and feeling good on the bikes so far.
Juice Lubes have also stepped up and helped me out with product and a bit of financial backing which I’m really grateful for. I’ll be using Royal Racing clothing and Seven IDP protection, Five Ten shoes, Crankbrothers flat pedals and wheels and Torq Fitness are helping me out with nutrition.
And what will your new setup be like when you do get to racing? Will you be a supported privateer or racing as part of a team? How do you feel about that?
I’ll be racing as a privateer, like I mentioned earlier I was going to be winging it a little at the first round as I didn’t have everything in place and wasn’t as prepared as I’d hoped. I’m still not fully sorted out with all the aspects of my programme, I think with the way things turned out I was just too late for some brands and then now with the current situation lots of brands aren’t in a position to be supporting more athletes.
To be honest it’s been tough trying to even get answers off lots of brands which I didn’t expect, especially some of whom I’ve worked with for many years but it makes me appreciate the guys who’ve stepped up even more and I can’t wait to get out there and show what we can do.
Do you plan to do any product development with any of your current sponsors?
Yeah, I think Vitus might have a few new things on the way and I’m excited to help test and develop the bikes with the world class engineers behind the scenes.
Let’s talk about that new bike. How much time have you managed to get on it? Were you involved in the development of it?
I probably had just over 1 month on it before lockdown. Its the exact bike you can buy and I’ve just put some of my own products on it for now. Like I said I’m hoping to get to work with the engineers on developing it further.
Was it an easy bike to get used to and get fast on? What did you have to do to get your head round it?
I was really surprised how quickly I felt comfortable on the bike, I think going back to 27.5” after a few years with 29” has opened my mind to the fact that the smaller wheels still have their benefits and I seem to be gelling with it well.
How would you describe how it rides?
It’s really planted but also playful and easy to throw around.
So… What’s the plan now then? What have you got lined up for the immediate future that you can talk about?
Not really much planned for the foreseeable future, I’m focusing on trying to build up my social media following and get as much quality content as possible. Other than that just keeping busy and staying safe until we’re all through this tough time.
You can follow Joe’s adventures on his Instagram feed here.
Read all our other interviews on our Features page here.