Brian Smith is perhaps better known as a television commentator with Eurosport, using his career as a professional in the 1990s to read races and explain race tactics in his Scottish accent. Yet in the last 18 months he has also successfully taken on the role of general manager at MTN-Qhubeka, arguably the revelation of the 2015 season.
Doug Ryder owns the team, which will be known as Team Dimension Data in 2016, but Smith oversees the daily running of the squad. He uses his experience as a rider and television commentator to shape the team's race tactics and strategy, combining his cycling knowledge with skills he learned in sales and marketing to manage his riders and staff.
Smith has worked quietly in the background so far, gradually strengthening the team's line-up and ethos, but his presence and experience played a key role in the team's success in 2015. He has worked intensely in recent months, first securing the signing of Mark Cavendish, and then ensuring the Manxman fits in with the team's other ambitions for 2016 and its goal of promoting African cycling.
"When people ask me what my religion is, I say: ‘I went cycling every Sunday and so cycling is my religion'. If I'm not at a race, I'm commentating or watching it. I don't drink alcohol or consume caffeine, I get a buzz from bike racing," Smith tells Cyclingnews in his first major interview about his management role.
"I'm not a sports psychologist but I am a people watcher and can see when people in the team need help. In this team I hope people like me and respect me. I think people do things for me because they like me and share my ambitions. I've kicked a few people up the ass, but I treat people the way I want to be treated. When things are wrong, I try to fix them for everyone's benefit. I think that's what a good manager does. It's Doug's team and he's trusted me to run as well as I can. I'm happy to work away in the background."
Working with Cavendish
Smith recently spent a week at the team service course and training base in Lucca, Italy, as the new riders gathered for bike and clothing fitting sessions and to talk about 2016, when the team will be known as Team Dimension Data and possibly be part of the WorldTour if requested to step up by the UCI. The arrival of Mark Cavendish will mean further new challenges but Smith is convinced the team has the ability to raise its game.
"People congratulated us on signing Cavendish but it didn't feel such a big deal to me because we haven't done anything yet," Smith says. "Of course Cav has come here to win and in 2016 I think we can step up from being the surprise team, the wild card team, and go the Tour de France with a plan for more success. I think riders like Edvald Boasson Hagen, Steve Cummings and even the African guys like Daniel Teklehaimanot, Merhawi Kudus and Natnael Berhane can all step up. I'd love to win a monument Classic. That might be a lofty goal but we won Milan-San Remo with Gerald Ciolek and I think Boasson Hagen can win big, big Classics."
"Cavendish won 14 races this year. Can I see him winning more in 2016? Yeah I think he can. In my eyes he's still the fastest sprinter the world. His life has changed in recent years; he's got married and had kids. But as I said, it's about motivation. If he's not enjoying it as much, then that's a percentage between winning and losing right there. I've seen an increase in performance in that way in Tyler Farrar this season. He's not just going through the motions now. He really wants it and is enjoying it now. I think Cavendish will be the same. He's already enthusiastic. When he came to the meeting, he was here all day and we had to send him home."
Smith claims he would even like to see Cavendish ride Paris-Roubaix, to find new motivation and inspire his new teammates.
"I want to see what else Cav has in his locker," Smith says. "He is a character but I want to encourage that character to come out in our team. I want him to be himself but also help the other riders, and especially the African riders. He's got so much experience. Edvald Boasson Hagen has won two Tour de France stages, Cavendish has won 26…"
"There are a lot of guys in our team that can become better and stronger thanks to help from Cav. He's methodical. He carefully checks his bike, his position, his tactics, his training and his teammates. He's a thinker and wants to improve and be involved in things. He wants to be successful but also be happy. I know that Mark Cavendish will win but he will also lose sometimes, too. But we'll close the door when it happens and move on. I don't want to go on the team bus after a race and see riders feeling down. After races we'll de-brief, learn from our mistakes and then move on to the next race. That's the attitude I want in our team. I want to create an environment where people are paid what they're worth, but they enjoy it."
Smith knows he will have to build a lead-out train for Cavendish but also ensure his other riders have opportunities.
"I think we've got the riders for a good lead out for Cavendish. We've got Eisel who really wanted to ride with Cav again; we've got Renshaw who is the real brains of the lead out. We've also got Theo Bos and Tyler Farrar, who are both looking forward to being involved in the project. Edvald can also fit into it too," Smith explains.
"Of course he's a special rider and a leader, so he'll still have opportunities, too. Edvald and Cavendish are two different types of sprinters. Edvald likes a hard sprint, while Cavendish is perfect for high-speed bunch sprints. I think they're will be give and take. Edvald will be bigger, better and stronger in 2016. He'd lost a lot of confidence but is coming back. Look how he rode at the Tour de France, how he won the Tour of Britain and also at his ride at the Worlds. He sacrificed his chance of a sure medal for Kristoff because he's faithful and sticks to a strategy. I'm sure he'll be the same with Cav. There might be fewer opportunities for him but they will be bigger opportunities. I think there will also be a little less pressure on him and so that will help too."
Smith still regrets losing Louis Meintjes to Lampre-Merida but also sees it as an opportunity for the other African riders in the team.
"Now is time for the other African riders in the shadows to step up," he says. "Everything we achieved in 2015 was planned and worked towards. We're going to set ourselves some important but achievable goals for 2016 too. With Dimension Data and other important sponsors like Deloitte coming in, with the riders we've signed and retained, with the great sports and technical staff we have, I think we're ready to enjoy ourselves."