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Interview: Smith and L’Esperance chart a new course

Canadians share why joining Maxxis Factory Racing is more than just a new team name

Haley Smith and Andrew L’Esperance announced this week they’ll be leading the new Maxxis Factory Racing team. It’s a big change for the duo, who both spent the last decade racing with one brand.

New bikes, and tires, aren’t the only shift. A big part of the reason why Smith and L’Esperance sought out the new team is the opportunity to race new events. After years focused on World Cup racing, ultimately leading to Smith racing in the 2021 Olympics, both riders wanted something different.

I caught up with Smith and L’Esperance over the phone in Santa Cruz, Cali., where they were picking up their new Ibis bikes and touring the brand’s factory.

Smith shares how Tokyo took its toll, how she’s recovering and reconnecting with her love for mountain biking and why both riders think the new approach will make them faster World Cup racers in the long run.

We also talk about legendary Canadian cross country racer Geoff Kabush, what the new Maxxis Factory Team racing calendar will look like and, of course, the new bikes.

Haley Smith Maxxis Factory Racing
Haley Smith with her Maxxis Factory Racing-issue Ibis Exie
CanadianMTB: How did you get connected with the new program?

Andrew L’Esperance: It started when we were racing BC Bike Race. [Catharine] Pendrel reached out and her previous manager with Clif Pro Team was mentoring or consulting the team manager of our team now. She thought it might be a good opportunity for me, and it slowly came together from there.

Haley Smith: L’Espy was pursuing this first. I was struggling after the Olympics to figure out what I needed in order to progress and also just heal. The last year and a half has been really demoralizing for me and I couldn’t figure out how I was going to continue. But I knew that I needed to continue. This team provided the perfect opportunity to expand our involvement in racing and in the community. I was feeling a bit limited by only getting to do World Cups and it was starting to get really hard for me.

Anyway, L’Espy was talking with Drew about this new team and I realized that it sparked a fire in me. So I sent in an application as well, and it worked out.

What advantages are there to this new team structure?

AL: It gives us the opportunity to do some new events that have been on our radar for a while. The Life Time Grand Prix Series, those types of events really appeal to both of us. Being able to still keep our feet in the World Cup scene.

HS: Not just a foot. We’re still pursuing World Cup racing. We’re expanding our involvement in racing, and taking a little step back from doing the full World Cup series this year with the intention that this will allow ourselves to grow to pursue future World Cup success.

BCBR 2021 Andrew L'Esperance
Andrew L’esperance led 2021 BC Bike Race from Day 1, winning most stages on his way to the overall title. Photo: Dave Silver
You’ve made a point of doing events like BCBR and other stage races in the past. What is the appeal of those kinds of more community-focused or non-World Cup-level events?

AL: Being at BC Bike Race this year was a major step in making this decision. The whole experience. It’s hard to put into words, but the camaraderie between riders, the focus on racing bikes but also on the experience. It’s maybe a little more holistic approach to racing that World Cup events. I think bringing more of that into the program will be beneficial. It’ll provide more balance.

HS: World Cup racing is a very specific type of challenge. I think in order to grow and discover all that we’re capable of we need to be challenged in a myriad of ways. Not just in the same way every single weekend. If you look at the careers of the most successful bike racers in Canadian history, none of them ever only did World Cup racing. They all did things like Cactus Cup and raced on the road and did cyclocross. They had all these different opportunities to race in a way that challenged them tactically and physically, but also races that are just fulfilling and engaging. Because, and it sounds cliché, but you have fun in order to be going fast in a sustainable sense.

I did a lot of talking with past Olympians and people I looked up to, in this sport and other sports. All of their advice said that you need to do something different to experience other things and not be so focused on one area of your sport at this point in time. You need to take a broader perspective in order to sharpen your perspective in the future.

So the appeal is that we get to grow, that’s really it for me.

As far as the structure for this season, how will you be mixing the new events in with your World Cup season?

AL: The Life Time series has nice gaps within that series. There are six events in that series, three mountain and three gravel, and they run from April to October with around a month between each. So we’ll be doing that series the whole year. The World Cups we’re targeting are mixed in there along with other UCI racing.

HS: It’s a varied schedule and there is variety throughout the whole year. Those marathon-style events, and chasing UCI points, and we’ll be doing 50-70 per cent of the World Cups, depending on how the year is going. We’ll aim to qualify for world championships.  Hopefully, we’ll get some Canada Cup racing in there but, honestly, it’s pretty jam-packed. There are already 20 race weekends on our schedule, so we’ll see.

AL: Our shortest race is going to be those 20-minute short track races. Our longest is going to be 10 or 12 hours. It’ll be interesting how it plays out, and how we can prepare and manage those challenges throughout the year.

Are you taking a different approach to training leading into the season? Racing starts quite soon now, right?

HS: We’re actually racing next weekend in Puerto Rico. It’s not so different. I’ve changed a few things pretty drastically but a lot of what’s changed is off the bike. We’ve trained for a long time now to be good at really short events as well as really long ones. We’re both athletes that really thrive on volume, so we haven’t really changed that too much. We’ve added a few more longer, sustained efforts in our riding.

AL: A lot of it will be more acute preparation for these longer races, in terms of equipment testing and getting set up to manage big days on the bike. But, like Haley said, the base of training is pretty similar and it’s going pretty well.

Andrew L'Esperance Maxxis Factory Racing
Andrew L’Esperance with his Ibis Exis for Maxxis Factory Racing
This is the first time either of you will have been on a new bike brand in 10 years. How are you getting on with the new bikes?

AL: We picked up our bikes on Friday, the Ibis Exie.

HS: It’s hand-made in Santa Cruz, California, which I find so cool. We got to make them actually hand making the frames. It was the coolest thing.

So far, we really like the bikes. It’s been over 10 years since I rode anything other than a Norco and we did love those. But I’m really loving the Exie. We’ve had a few sick rides on them already. The transition to them was so easy. It just immediately felt like it fit me, like it was an extension of me right away.

You’re heading to Puerto Rico next. What’s the early season look like from there?

AL: There are two race weekends in Puerto Rico then Cactus Cup from there. Then we have a team camp before the first big race of the season at Sea Otter with the 100k mountain bike race.

In the longer term, are you switching back towards a more World Cup-focused schedule as we get closer to Paris? Or is this schedule set for the next couple of years?

HS: We signed two-year contracts, but we’ve only planned our schedule for this year. I don’t think I ever want to go back to being only a World Cup rider. I always want to be able to include some domestic events and community-centered or mass participation races.

But my goal is to go to Paris. I have unfinished business and I need to take a crack at that.

Haley Smith 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games
Haley Smith repping the maple leaf on her way to a podium finish at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games Image: Rob Jones
On that note, you mentioned the last year and a half was pretty hard. Is that still going? Or has anything changed to bring you out of that?

HS: I’m coming out of it, for sure. From talking to other people, it’s a normal experience to have a massive low after an Olympic experience. I think it was compounded because of COVID and how long the selection period was. To be really honest, getting to Tokyo completely broke me. After Tokyo, I was pretty sure I was going to be done bike racing. After two weeks, I realized I’m not done with it, but I realized I was angry with bike racing for a while.

With time and perspective, and figuring out a few underlying things that were brought to the surface by that pressure cooker environment of the Olympics, I’m starting to feel recovered. I have no idea if I’ll be fast this year, but I’m excited to just … start from here. I didn’t think I’d get back to that place, so I’m really excited with that.

Was there a moment when you realized you still really liked bike racing?

HS: Well, I haven’t done a race yet this year, so we’ll see if I really like bike racing, ha ha.

AL: Doing BC Bike Race was part of that for sure. Getting to just enjoy riding a bike.

HS: I think I reconnected with doing this for me and feeling personal challenge on a daily level instead of feeling like I have to meet someone else’s expectations for what makes you a worthwhile bike racer. Reconnecting with that gradually over the last few months has made feel like a whole person and feel more excited about racing.

L’Espy’s been here every single day for the last nine years, but particularly since I’ve been working through this. His attitude has helped me learn to love this all again.

L’Esperance, and new Maxxis mentor Geoff Kabush, enjoying a more relaxed start to the 2021 BCBR . Photo: Dave Silver
How is it getting used to an entirely new team structure?

AL: To be honest, it’s been pretty seamless. Drew [Eshrick, Team Manager] is pretty dialed. We’re really looking forward to working with him.

HS: It helps that it is such a small team. It’s easy to organize when there are just two of us in the XC division. It’s felt quite relaxed. Drew’s really accommodating and encouraging.

AL: Geoff Kabush has actually been really helpful. He’s been with Maxxis for so long. He gave us, basically a lesson, like an education session on Maxxis just to bring us up to speed on the tire technology. It’s cool to have that support from the community and a rider that raced for the previous version of Maxxis Factory Racing.

HS: And someone we both look up to so much. It’s cool to have that peripheral connection with Goeff and getting to be part of the same family as him.

You were also on Kenda tires for a long time. Is that a bigger change, or the new frame?

HS: We’ve never been on Fox, we’ve never ridden Ibis, we’ve never ridden Maxxis. It’s a full change on everything. But I think it’s going to be a great change on all fronts. We’re really happy with everything so far.

AL: At the top, everyone is making really good equipment. It’s going to be fun to learn the new equipment and figure out how it works best for each event.