THE world has thrilled in the last week to the story of Maria Sharapova and the path of dedication and sacrifice she has followed to the top of women’s tennis. The Russian is far from unique, however; in other sports, there exist similar pathways, all purporting to lead to the top, if not to the sunshine state of Florida.
If only. Take, for example, David Smith, an 18-year-old from Caithness, and Gary Hand, a 22-year-old from Livingston, who travelled to France in late February to join their new French team, Entente Cycliste Clermont Communaute. On arrival, they were taken to their accommodation, a house in the tiny village of Durtol, in the Massif Central.
In his online diary, Smith described his home for the season: "I’m going to make it easy for you to get an idea of what this place looks like. Think of the worst possible looking house, like Chainsaw Massacre style ... take off all the paint, put some spray paint on the side of the walls and wallah that’s it - perfect!"
It’s a familiar story. In 1979, Robert Millar followed a similar path, living in an apartment that was more like a hovel while he pursued glory on the road with the elite ACBB club. A decade later, Millar assisted another young Scot, Brian Smith, who also settled upon Paris and the ACBB; another decade on and in 1996 the 18-year-old David Millar landed in Paris, to ride for the VC St Quentin.
All three served that tough apprenticeship, but impressed enough to earn contracts with pro teams. They, however, are the only ones. By contrast, the list of talented Scottish riders who have tried and failed over these three decades runs easily into three figures. It contains those who were homesick, those who struggled to adapt to a different culture; and also athletes who, though talented and determined enough to take the brave step of trying their luck on the continent, may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At 18, David Smith has time on his side. He spent much of the winter training in California, clocking up nearly 4,000 kilometres before returning to Europe for the racing season.
It kicked off in late March, with an under-23 race, the GP du Peschadoires. He did well, finishing 17th. It was really a local race, but it gave him confidence. In his diary, he looked forward: "This Saturday I’ve my first E2 race which I’m really looking forward to as it’s these I’ll have to win to turn pro."
Yet that E2 race brought a dose of realism. Writing in his diary again, he reflects: "I finished in around 60th place, which I suppose was respectable enough, but I reckon it’ll be a year or so before I can actually be involved in the racing. Unfortunately we’re still cannon fodder in these races!"
Smith and Hand are two of at least seven Scottish riders currently based on the Continent and supported by a new fund, set up this year to support ambitious young cyclists.
The Braveheart Cycling Fund is Scotland’s answer to the Dave Rayner Fund, established as a memorial to the Bradford professional who died in 1994. For ten years, the Rayner fund has distributed grants to young riders keen to put themselves in the shop window of Continental cycling. The first beneficiary of a Dave Rayner grant was David Millar who, until his recent doping confession, was considered a flag-bearer.
Another flag-bearer is Brian Smith, one of those behind the Braveheart fund. He says the intention is to provide support for young Scottish riders who wish to pursue a pro career. "Instead of running a team, a few of us decided to set up something to help and support young Scottish talent," he says.
"There aren’t a lot of opportunities for road cyclists in Britain, so we thought it was best to try and expose them to European racing. It’s the route that Irish cyclists have gone down and it’s starting to pay off for them now."
Symbolically, there are, for the first time since 1976, no British riders in this year’s Tour, while Mark Scanlon, the first Irish competitor in over a decade, has ridden well in the Tour’s first week, and may even pop up with a stage win before the end of the race.
This is what David Smith and Hand dream of. It is their raison d’etre. And Scanlon, inevitably, did exactly the same thing in 1999 after winning the world junior championship.
Hand realises that at 22 he’s a bit older, but far from being negative he bubbles with enthusiasm. "I’m determined to give it a go," he says. "I’m learning so much - the language, the style of racing, and it’s proper racing, really hard, eyeballs out from the start. We race every weekend plus nocturnes [night-time races] in midweek.
"I kind of regret not going to France earlier but I don’t think I was ready to do this when I was 18. I have to be confident and hope that if I’m good enough I won’t be considered too old for a pro team. I had a bit of a kicking in my first month, but I came through in April and found form. The experience and the level of racing has put fire in my belly. Everyone has the perception that it’s impossible to go over there and do it, but I can see the opportunity is there to be grabbed.
"You hear about doping going on, and that’s shit if it’s true. There are rumours about ‘dirty’ teams, but those riders won’t get professional contracts - the teams won’t take the risk anymore. Hopefully guys that race like that don’t get the reward - which is a pro contract."
In exchange for the grants they hand out, all the Braveheart Fund asks is that the riders stick it out, and that they compile an online diary.