The heat of the Cairns sun was such that it was almost confusing. The sky was overcast, cloudy even, but the humidity baking up from the earth itself was stifling. It felt like walking into a steam-free sauna or an ageing relative’s house in mid-summer. In the confines of a heavy cotton shirt I was being power-boiled. A bead of sweat ran down between my shoulder blades and shivered over the base of my spine.
“I need to be on track as much as possible,” Stevie Smith told me through mouthfuls of a wrap. Those dark eyes were wide, teetering on the edge of angry, full of focus. There wasn’t so much as a hint of the gap-toothed smile that had the ability to draw you in like a bear hug. I apologised and escaped the heavy white walls of the Devinci Global Racing tent.
An hour later we saw him cross the finish line after yet another practice run, but again the eyes pierced through me as I made half a step to try and stop him for the now what was feeling increasingly unlikely interview.
“Wow. He really doesn’t want to speak to you…” the cameraman grumbled. I could now feel the shirt clinging to my back.
Half an hour later he was back in the tent.
“Stevie, do you have one minute?” The desperation in my voice must have been obvious. Then there was that smile spreading across the face from underneath the finely tuned moustache and with a twinkle he said, “I’ve got two minutes, so we can do it twice…”.
Stevie Smith, UCI World Cup winner, died near his home in Nanaimo, British Columbia, at the age of just 26 in a motorcycle accident just a few weeks later.
His career had been as dazzling as it had been meteoric. He came to most people’s attention in the seminal bike film, Seasons. A slightly awkward young kid whose mom drove uplifts for him, his talent was as clear as the fact that riding his bike, and better yet winning, was all he wanted to do. He joined the MS Racing Evil team for the 2009 season before eventually moving to the Canadian team, Devinci Global Racing.
Smith’s riding married the speed and high risk line choices of a Sam Hill with the mental strength and ability to make it work on race day of a Greg Minnaar. Each one of his wins felt special too. Some riders can tick them off with a clinical, merciless precision. But Stevie’s always felt like they mattered that bit more.
The then newly-crowned Canadian national champion won his first UCI World Cup race fittingly at ‘home’ in Mont Sainte-Anne at the fourth round of the 2013 season. Podiums at each of the previous rounds meant that Stevie was in the hunt for the title. He won again in Hafjell with a scintillating run. It was all falling into place, it seemed.
Despite the best efforts of Gee Atherton, he held it all together to not only take the win at the final round in Leogang, but the title along with it. The celebration alone will go down as one of the classics; upon seeing his time he leapt from his bike and began swinging it by its grip one-handed. It was an explosion of raw, uncompressed joy, never mind sheer physical strength.
In an age when DH racing is becoming ‘pro’ almost to the point of monosyllabism Smith remained an erudite and engaging champion. With Stevie it was personal, and that’s what endeared him to race fans around the globe. When he rode, whether he won or not, it was a celebration of bike riding – and that’s how he’ll be remembered.