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Interview: Haley Smith joins Trek Driftless team

Ontario racer signs with new squad taking gravel (and marathon) seriously

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As pro gravel racing gains momentum, the team structure that dominates road and mountain biking is starting to take hold. Haley Smith, who has found impressive success on gravel and in longer-format XC Marathon races, is joining the newest such program: Trek Driftless racing.

While the program has existed for a few years, Smith tells us that the 2024 program looks a little different. It now includes four riders: Paige Onweller returns to the program and will be joined by Russell Finsterwald, Smith and Torbjørn “Toby” Røed.

The move to Trek Driftless comes after two very successful years with the revived Maxxis Factory Racing program. That was a small, four rider team. The two-rider endurance side of the program was built around just Smith and her partner, now husband Andrew L’Espearance. While there, Smith won the first Life Time Grand Prix series, finished third in the second year and won 2023 Canadian XCM championships.

Now, Smith will be part of a larger program. That comes with more support and more teammates. And, for the first time in a long time, sees Smith race on a different team than L’Esperance.

Canadian MTB: Ok, can you tell us a bit more about the Trek Driftless program?

Haley Smith: They have had a gravel program for the last couple years called Driftless. They’re further centralizing that this year to make it the endurance off-road equivalent of what they have with Lidl-Trek and Trek Factory Racing. It’s their in-house team that is focused on both gravel and marathon mountain bike.

It’s a team now, it’s kind of been a collection of privateers in the last couple years. But they’re embracing that centralized team more going forward. So I’m pretty excited about that. It still doesn’t feel real.

Is your focus on the Life Time series, or expanding past that more?

I’ll be really honest, my focus hasn’t been Life Time. There are a couple events in the series that I focus on, but it’s by and large just a nice bonus that there’s an overall. A couple of my peak events will Unbound and Leadville. But I am probably doing five Life Time events in a season that will have 18-20 events, so that’s just part of the picture.

Last year you raced marathon world championships and the Snowshoe World Cup XCM. Will we see you doing more of those events?

Yes. My plan is to do marathon world champs and gravel world champs. Hopefully I can fit in a marathon World Cup but we still don’t have the schedule for that.

With Trek Driftless moving to more of a structured, factory-style team, is that something you think we’re going to see more of in North America?

It’s hard to say, it’s so dependant on the industry. I know it’s been really difficult for teams to find sponsorship and partnerships. So first of all, I feel unbelievably lucky to be signed by a team in a year when so many teams across cycling are folding. All that to say that I think in gravel racing wins will become not dependant on, but a little bit more reliant on teammates within the race as it becomes more and more competitive. So I can see the team structure becoming more prevalent. But I also thing there’s quite a big camp of people that like being privateers. There’s quite a lot of money for those people. If they do it well they’re able to cobble together a lot of sponsors. So I’m not sure. I think that it will be split like it is now, but I think the teams that do exist will have an advantage just with the resources that are available to them. So we’ll see how it impacts the racing. And thus how it impacts people’s goals and how they’ll have to go about the racing in order to be competitive.

Haley Smith and Andrew L'Esperance stand on the podium of 2023 Canadian XC Marathon national championships in Whitehorse, The Yukon.
Smith and L’Esperance started Yukon XCM national championships with matching team jerseys and finished with matching gold medals. Photo: John Howland
This will be the first time in quite a while that you’re not on the same team as your husband, Andrew L’Esperance. Is that … how does it feel to suddenly not be racing together after so long?

It doesn’t really feel real yet because we haven’t done any races separately. But I’ve never not been teammates with him. There were one or two years where he was racing for Forward Racing and I was racing for Norco but we shared all the same core sponsors and still travelled together. So it’s the only time in my career that we will not be teammates.

It didn’t really hit me until a couple days ago. He got sad about it and that made me realize that it’s actually happening. It’ll be different. But I think it will also be really good. I think keeping separation between your emotional life and your professional life helps keep you on track and helps you zone in mentally on race day. I also don’t know, in the long term, for the parties to spend literally every single minute of every single day together all the time. For the long-term health of our marriage, it’s probably a good thing.