Willie Smit signs for Katusha-Alpecin

African champion Willie Smit will move up to WorldTour level with Katusha-Alpecin in 2018. The South African is leading the 2017 UCI Africa Tour standings, and was a prominent part of the early break at Sunday's elite men's road race at the World Championships in Bergen.

Smit raced with South African Continental outfit RoadCover Cycling Team in the early part of the season and then spent three months racing for Club Ciclista Rías Baixas in Spain, where he secured overall wins at the Vuelta a Segovia and Vuelta Ciclista a León.

"In my life, I was focused on one dream: to become a WorldTour rider," said Smit. "I started the season with two medals in the South African Championships and a gold medal in the African Championship Road Race, too. I was very happy and I thought that it would open up an opportunity in professional cycling. But that didn't happen.

"So I decided that if professional cycling doesn't ring at my doorbell, I had to ring it myself by travelling to Europe and showing my potential. It was not easy because I have a long season and I race in two continents. But finally, the dream has become real. Katusha-Alpecin phoned me and offered an opportunity. I don't have any doubt. It is my dream."

Smit previously raced in Europe with the then-Continental level Vini Fantini-Nippo team in 2014 before returning to compete in Africa in recent seasons. The 24-year-old has a sparkling run of form in 2017, winning no fewer than 16 races.

On Sunday, Smit was among the 10 riders who went clear in the opening kilometres of the World Championships, and he was the last of the escapees to be caught after he launched a defiant solo attack on Salmon Hill.

"What impressed me most, even more than his results, is his desire to reach the top," said Katusha-Alpecin general manager José Azevedo.

"He invested a lot in his sport and paid all his travel expenses himself. I like his professional attitude. WorldTour level will be a big step, but I am confident and we will look out for and care for him. Willie can handle climbs, he is fast and he has a good time trial in his legs. I look forward to working with him."

Katusha-Alpecin has undergone extensive rebuilding ahead of the 2018 campaign, with Marcel Kittel, Nathan Haas, Alex Dowsett and Ian Boswell among the new arrivals on the team. Alexander Kristoff leaves Katusha for UAE-Team Emirates, though Tony Martin and Ilnur Zakarin will remain with the squad.

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