Joel Smets interview - Back to 2004 Part I
Interview Wednesday 20th April 2011 By Geoff Meyer
Back in 2004 I did an interview with Belgian legend Joel Smets. It was a year of major despair and one that pretty much ended his brilliant career. I wanted to share that interview with you now seven years later. The dispair of injury and near death.
All good things come to an end. In our sport of motocross, great champions have raced through their era with pride and conviction, most though have left as mid-fielders, hanging on, lost in the world of change.
We all remember the great Dave Thorpe finishing in 17th place in the 1993 World 500cc championship. Thorpe had entered the '90s as a three-time world champion, yet within the span of three years his career was as good as over. The brilliant Brit finishing with just 92-points in 93, some 411-points down on series winner Jacky Martens. Many are looking at Joel Smets and wondering if one of the greatest open class riders of all time will leave the sport in the same circumstances.
If you go by statistics then Joel Smets is the second best Grand Prix rider of all time. He won five world motocross championships, more than 50 GPs and has captured motocross des Nations victories. Had Smets not raced the same era as fellow legend Stefan Everts there is every chance Smets would be larger than the huge figure he already is.
Significantly though, not too many Grand Prix riders in the last 15 or so years could equal Joel Smets in terms of inner strength. The 35-year old from Dessel in Belgium flexed his muscles so many times in GP battle. Over and over again fighting the likes of Trampas Parker, the King brothers, Marnicq Bervoets and Stefan Everts. But nothing could prepare him for the pain of his 2004 season, a season that was meant to be so important, it would springboard him to the same level as his fellow Belgian, Everts. on Japanese machinery and with his body feeling somewhat better than it had throughout the 2003 season Smets was looking for victory.
Yet there he lay, injured and looking to be in terrible pain. Smets had been kicked from his Suzuki 450 so quickly we all missed it. at first it was thought he had chest injuries and, as he held his chest on the way to an Italian hospital, everyone at the Mantova circuit in the north of Italy hoped for good news. The good news did come: just some minor bruising and a swollen knee. Little would we know that the following 12-monthes would bring Smets his darkest moments as through a complication of his injuries he would fight for his life in a Belgium hospital?
So the future for Smets now is not akin to that of a young rider who has spent a year on the sidelines and will come back to continue his journey to the top. At 35-years-old Smets knows his time at the top is ending sooner than later, he also looks back on a career which has seen him equal great champions like fellow Belgium Roger De Coster, Eric Geboers, and George Jobe in world title success, riders he grew up adoring.
'Even if I decide to quit racing tomorrow I am so proud of what I have done, the championships, from where I came from to achieve my success, it's been a good journey. people ask me why I do it, why do I train so hard, I live like a monk. it's going to be hard to stop; I love the racing, and the winning. do I like training because I am one of the top guys? maybe if I am not a top rider I don't want to train so hard. The day I have to quit racing I might have a problem. I have prepared myself for stopping with motocross. since I turned 30 I keep in my mind that every season might be my last. I have to do that, I am very realistic.
So where did it all begin? how did Smets' career suddenly arrive at this grey area, an area he had never been in his life? a championship contender since 1993, always the rider who pushed harder, and often grew in confidence as the season rolled along, going into the 2004 season Smets was feeling like he could finally match Everts and possibly add to his five world titles.
'I was so excited about riding for Suzuki at the start of ‘04; it was like a dream come true. When I was with KTM I felt I would finish my career with KTM and also stay there after my career, getting a job in the industry with them. But things went differently for me, and at the age of 34 I decided I needed some fresh air, so I signed with Suzuki. Going into the Mantova Starcross in 2004 I was probably over-motivated, that is one of my problems, being too enthusiastic.
Smets was sent into his year of despair after his yellow Suzuki threw him into the sand of Mantova. The shocking crash seemed at first to bring little more than some minor bruising to his chest and a swollen knee. Smets left an Italian hospital still looking forward to beginning the 2004 season with a bang. But later in the week Smets got the news that would break even his though exterior.
'When I came back from the doctor in Belgium and he'd said I had done the same thing the year earlier in Gaildorf. I still didn't want to believe that my season was over. I had never missed a Grand Prix since 1990, and all of a sudden I was not going to be on the start line.'
Smets began his GP career in 1989 and had never started a Grand Prix season on the other side of the fence, yet it was not looking good as the opening round of the MX1 championship rolled around. Gone was the idea of taking Everts' crown, the new plan was survival
'Living with the idea that I might not start the season, that was mentally very difficult, but I decided I was going to race and fight for a podium place. My mental strength went down, but I kept feeling okay. The problem was because of the injury I could not focus on racing anymore, I was too focused on my knee. During the week I was busy with things like putting ice in my knee, I couldn't train like I was used to. I was busy working on the knee, and not doing my normal training, and then all of a sudden I was at the race, underprepared.'
Despite his obvious disadvantage Smets fought on, just as he had done for his entire career. He did manage to lead home a handful of contenders, but adding to his GP win tally was not going to happen, not in the season of 2004.
'Valkenswaard I was 3-3 and 5-3 in Teutchenthal that was really good considering my condition, and we also had things to do on the bike. But I couldn't keep that confidence and pace, after those results I had dip and I couldn't keep it going
Round five in Lichtenvoorde, Holland, Smets looked strong, he felt good and just maybe he would fight against his lack of strength. It wasn't to be though as Smets' poor season continued. Having gated quicker than his rivals Smets crashed and his day was over.
'Lichtenvoorde was the worst day of my career. I really mean that. If you're riding bad it's different, but in Lichtenvoorde was really a sad day for me. I had left the track before the second moto finished; I just had asked me something I would have exploded. I know that in normal circumstance I should have been fighting for the win, I knew I was the man who should have been on the podium.'
The lack of training and practice was. Catching up with Smets, and with a mentality of victory or nothing it just was not working out as would have hoped. Smets had fought through pain before, he had battled back from poor starts or small injuries, he knew what it took to prepare for these things, but riding with a knee that was more or less falling apart every time he rode was impossible to overcome. His complete training plan was gone, he didn't dare practice during the week didn't dare practice during the week didn't run and working in the gym was out of the question.
'I was tightening my brace so tight to keep my knee in place, to keep the knee together that the pain was unbearable. I really had a lot of pain from the brace, but I wanted to ride so much, and without it my knee was all over the place. Normally when you're riding you're focused on one corner in front. You ride into a corner and you're already looking at the next corner, thinking what to do there, so you mind is ahead of you actions. Last year I was riding into a corner and my mind was in the corner I had just ridden trough, so I was really slow with my thinking, which of course is not good.
'At Lichtenvoorde I was riding really well, also Valkenswaard, on my riding and speed I think I could have won both GPs, but mentally I was shot before I even arrived. Trying to get ready for the race, it took so much from me. I still wanted to be 100% and race with Everts and Pichon, I should have focused on top eight, but that is not my style, I didn't want to finish the season in sixth or eight places.
Part Two tomorrow