It can be a lonely place at the top.
Nanaimo downhill mountain biker Steve Smith, 23, made history on Sept. 22 with a first-place finish at the Union Cycliste Internationale World Cup event in Leogang, Austria.
Smith's time of 3:23.959 was enough to secure a first-place finish and cap off a season-long battle with Great Britain's Gee Atherton, whose fourth-place finish meant handing off the No. 1 ranking to a Canadian competitor.
For a sport historically dominated by Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders, Smith's seizure of the top UCI ranking was no small feat.
While Smith now finds himself the name to catch, his outlook has remained very much the same. If anything, he said, the achievement is likely to make him approach the sport with an even higher degree of competitiveness.
"Coming into this one, the hardest part of this one was the pressure people were building up - the Gee and Steve battle," said Smith. "There was about five hours after practice to sit at your house and wait to race. A lot of things go through your head. I was quite nervous."
Smith made a call to his manager that day to find out how Atherton's run had gone, in preparation for his final run.
The 28-year-old from Britain has been a regular fixture on the UCI's top five in recent years. During the 2010 season, Atherton finished with the No. 1 ranking, a year when Smith's name began to appear among the top-10.
"I needed to know whether or not Gee had made mistakes, because if I pushed it too hard and he was sitting in 10th place, it would have ruined it," said Smith. "Got the phone call saying: 'Go for it.'" Smith blazed his way through the top section of the Leogang course, a mixture of mud and dry, packed surfaces.
So good was his performance on the top section that Smith instinctively slowed down his approach on the more technical bottom half, his bread and butter.
Smith came into Leogang with two World Cup victories this season already under his belt. Smith defeated Atherton by less than a second at Mont Saint Anne, Que., in August, before he took home another top finish at Hafjell, Norway on Sept. 15.
A third World Cup victory sealed the deal, making Smith the top-ranked downhill mountain biker in the world in the elite men's category.
"I couldn't believe it. It was a dream come true," he said.
Since his return home to Nanaimo, Smith has been taking advantage of a stretch of downtown to connect with friends and family while making room for a bit of 'fun' training.
He insisted that the title of 'world's best' would do little to counter an intense motivation to compete.
While he has reached the pinnacle of his sport at the age of 23, there are still challenges he thirsts for, including a UCI World Championships title that has, as of yet, remained out of reach.
An athlete who grew up without a Canadian role model in his chosen sport, Smith now finds he has the chance to become that inspiration for this country's young superstar racers-to-be.
"Even now talking about it, it's hard for me to understand the fact I won three World Cups in a row. I just dreamed of even being Top 20 in a World Cup one day. Every time you reach a goal, you just want to surpass it," he said.
"Really, all it does is make me want to try harder. I don't want to plateau, ever. I just want to continue on an upward path and keep going where I'm going," he said. "Thanks to friends, family, sponsors - everybody. It's just really become a dream come true. Couldn't be happier."
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