Willie Smit will be the latest South African cyclist on the UCI WorldTour circuit in 2018, and at the same time forge a new path for cyclists from the continent.
Unlike many other cyclists from Africa, he won't be making his first strides in the top tier at 'Africa's Team' but rather Team Katusha-Alpecin.
Smit, 24, signed on with the Swiss (former Russian) registered team this week with his performances at the UCI World Championships in Bergen, Norway sealing the deal.
He rode in both the individual time trial and the road race where he particularly impressed by being the last rider to be caught after a break of more than 180 kilometres -- in the race eventually won by Peter Sagan for a record-breaking third straight time.
More than that though, Smit is the current leader in the UCI Africa Tour having earlier this year won the gold medal in the African Continental Championships -- one of 16 victories he has obtained in 2017 to date while riding for RoadCover in South Africa and Club Ciclista Rías Baixas in Spain.
"ln my life I was focused on one dream: to become a WorldTour rider. I started the season with two medals in the South African Championships (road and time trial) 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," Smit says in the press release confirming his move.
As it happened, it was the all-rounder's unstinting desire that finally opened this opportunity up to him.
"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 run 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. Now I cannot wait to start working for the team at the maximum level of cycling. And it is time to say thank you to Katusha-Alpecin because they bet on African riders too," concluded Smit.
For his part, Katusha-Alpecin general manager José Azevedo praised Smit's 'desire to reach the top' before
"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," Azevedo is quoted in a team press release.
With Louis Meintjes' return to Dimension Data for Qhubeka in 2018, Smit and Daryl Impey (Orica-Scott) will be the only top tier South African cyclists not riding for Africa's Team.