Young Pro: Zak Dempster

As you no doubt know, Zak is battling it out in his first Tour de France.  We interviewed Zak about his life so far (at the time) last year for the very first Conquista magazine.  In case you did not get a chance to read the article, here is an extract so you can catch up.


Young Pro – Zakkari Dempster

By the end of this year, Zakkari (Zak) Dempster will be 26 and will have completed his first year as a professional road cyclist with Team NetApp Endura.  Zak’s story is a good one.  A strong track cyclist as a teenager, highlighted by his performances in the Individual and Team Pursuit, made the transition to road cycling.  But, Zak’s pathway to professional cycling has not been easy.  He has taken set back and unfortunate circumstance in his stride, dealt with them and forged his path.  Zak’s story is one of achievement.

Zak hails from the Australian gold field town of Castlemaine in the southern State of Victoria where the grass is brown, the water is scarce and Australian Rules Football is a religion.  The origin of Australian Football is shrouded in mystery with one theory being that it is based on the Aboriginal game of Marn Grook.  It is a full contact sport and is played as such.  The ball is oval, the players run long distances of up to 25 kilometres in a game and teams score points by kicking the ball in-between some upright white posts.  That is essentially it.  It is an athletic game that is not for the faint hearted.  It can be brutal but it is a game of mateship, team work and courage.

Zak started competitive cycling on a BMX track from the age of 9.  This is a common competitive start that he shares with recently retired pro, Robbie McEwen, who learnt his bike handling skills and leg speed on the dirt track.  Until the age of 16, cycling had to share Zak’s life with Australian football.  Football started at 9:30am on a Saturday and the handicap cycling races were in the afternoon.  Not much thought was given the state of the body from the physicality of the Australian game, with corked thighs from high speed impacts or inevitable punches to the head, it was just part of life. 

At the age of 13, Zak was introduced to road cycling by watching a highlights package of the Commonwealth Bank Cycling Classic on the television.  From that point he stepped away from the BMX.  His father, a 2 time Hawaiian Ironman, had an aluminum Norco frame in the shed next the house.  The frame was complimented with carbon forks, Mavic rims and Zak walked from the house, picked up the bike and started riding.  From that point on it became his daily routine and success came as a junior winning the oldest track cycling event, the Austral Wheel race.  The Austral was first raced in 1887 and is a 2000 metre handicap event.  Zak won the event with a 90 metre handicap.  Former winners of the race include Australian track cycling legends, Sid Patterson, Laurie Venn and Danny Clark.  Zak was in good company.

For a Castlemaine, and then later Bendigo boy, the Austral win was a big deal.  The bike shop that Zak visited daily was run by two former winners of the Austral, Terry Scintler and Ashley Harding.  It was a rite of passage.  Three events mattered to Bendigo riders, these were the Austral, Bendigo Madison and the Melbourne-Warrnambool Cycling Classic, a race that started in 1895.  The ‘Warnie’, as it is affectionately known, is Australia‘s oldest one day race and the world’s second oldest one day race, after the Liège–Bastogne–Liège Classic.  Later in 2008, Zak would also win the ‘Warnie’ the year after it was won by his long time coach, Tim Decker.

In 2005, Zak won the Australian Junior Individual Pursuit and Points Score and went to Junior World Championships for Road and Track.  Then in 2006 cycling became serious.  Zak was fortunate enough to sign as a 16 year old with the Australian team, Drapac Porsche.  The principal of the team was Michael Drapac, a successful Australian businessman who took a holistic view to life.  He believed that athletes needed to have more than one string to their bow.  School or learning a trade were as important as training and racing.  Michael is highly intelligent with an incisive intellect.  As Michael puts it, “the program aims to counteract the mono dimensional culture that defines Australian sport, a culture where athletes have a sole focus on medals or results.”

The Drapac cycling program instilled a sense of value for Zak, both as an athlete and as a person.  Zak’s first contract at 16 was for $5,000 Australian dollars.  For a 16 year old this was a substantial amount of money.  This sense of value and the mentoring from Michael Drapac, inspired Zak to do well at school.  In this sense, Zak is a success for the Drapac cycling program.  Michael gave Zak his first taste of international road racing at the Tour of South Korea.  In Zak’s words, he ‘had his head kicked in’ with the adjustment from a junior to elite racing.

Zak raced under the Drapac program until June when he received an offer for a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) to race with the U23 Cycling Australia development team, South – AIS.  This was a bitter sweet moment.  The AIS was the antithesis of Drapac cycling.  Michael Drapac saw things in black and white and it was either his program or the AIS but the two were incompatible.  Zak returned his equipment to the team and the two moved on but those six months with the Drapac program were invaluable to the development of Zak as a rider and person.  Something that would stand him in good stead later in his developing career as he became part of the ‘system’ in Australia.

The AIS cycling program allows developing riders the opportunity to race in Europe, Asia and Australia.  The program was based in Varese, Italy and allowed riders to gain international experience without the severe hardship of previous generations who slept on floors and ate when they won prize money.  The program at the time was managed by Shayne Bannan, the former High Performance Director for Cycling Australia and is now the Team Manager for the World Tour team, Orica GreenEdge.  Other notable graduates of the AIS program include current and former World Tour riders, Matt Goss, Leigh Howard, Jack Bobridge, Wes Sulzberger, Cameron and Travis Meyer, Johnny Walker, Simon Clarke, Rohan Dennis and U23 World Road Cycling Champion, Michael Matthews. 

With the AIS, Zak came out the blocks firing with a 4th and 5th placing in two stages of the Tour of Britain and he was selected for the Australian team competing at the U23 World Championships in the Individual Time Trial where he placed 44th.  The team had some hard training camps at a property 40 kilometres from Bowral in New South Wales, owned by Brad McGee.  It was a beautiful bush setting but for teenagers without phone and internet access, it felt like it was on the moon.  Zak trained hard in the Melbourne winter when he was called up for duties at the Tour of Britain and Tour of Ireland.  He felt good.  He had knuckled down and became a stronger rider for international racing.  This winter in 2007 was a turning point in his career.  This was the season when Zak could see that hard work and discipline on the bike produces its rewards.  He competed at the World Road and Track Championships and it was the real kick Zak needed for his road career. 

In 2008, Zak had his second full year with the AIS picking up results in the Tour of Japan, Tour de Langkawi, Tour of Britain and Tour of Ireland and he competed at the World Road and Track Championships in 2007 and the World Track Championships in 2008.  Zak’s key asset as a cyclist was his strength to maintain a high speed for an extended period of time.  Something he picked up from Team Pursuit training on the track.  Stage 1 of the Tour of Japan, Zak put this strength on display by starting his sprint for the line from a long way out.  He rode the peloton off his wheel.  Zak’s high speed threshold does not suffer if the stage is hard, as he has the ability to switch on his motor 400 to 600 metres from the line.  In 2008, Zak could see the benefit of layering hard training over the top of racing each year.  His body was changing.  Becoming harder and stronger. 

The group of cyclists Zak rode with at the AIS were incredibly talented.  It was hard to shine out amongst all of the diamonds.  His team mates were signing up with pro teams and Zak had itchy feet to go out on his own.  He wanted to race the spring season in Belgium.  This was something missing from the AIS program and Zak thought that this style of racing would suit him.  He longed to race the Classics including Paris-Roubaix, something he would achieve this year.  Towards the end of 2008, Zak had two options, either the Rapha Condor team under the management of the iconic John Herety or to go with a Eastern European team, Cycling Club Bourgas.  He was full of ambition.  With the benefit of hindsight, Zak would have benefitted from another year with the AIS but he is a stubborn and made his mind up that it was time to move.  The move would not turn out as well as all expected.

CC Bourgas was a Continental program of noted riders including Janek Tombak, Erki Putsep, Normands Lasis and Pieter Ghyllebert.  The team was set up for the Classics and its manager had the connections to get into the races Zak had dreamed of. He got his wish racing the categorized 1.1 races, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Nokere Koerse.  He raced the 2.1 categorised stage races of Etoile de Bessèges, Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey and GP Ctt Correios De Portugal.  Due to his performances in Belgium, Zak was getting attention from Team Directors of established professional teams. 

The Estonian members of the team, Tombak, Putsep and Ojavee were happy go lucky riders, just happy to be travelling around Europe ripping it up in races.  They raced hard and played hard.  After a stage win, the Estonians celebrated with beer and lots of it.  Zak recalls after one stage win of a stage race, the Estonians pulled the team car into a petrol station and bought a six-pack of beer each for the drive.  Each finishing their allotted beers, happy that they were enjoying themselves.  But CC Bourgas was not a stable team.  The lack of structure, salary payments and cultural differences played havoc with Zak.  He did not train as hard as the previous years when results came from hard and sustained training blocks.  He became increasingly sick from a number of factors.  He was unhappy, tired and these negative emotions brought him down together with his results. 

By the middle of the year, the management and structure of CC Bourgas were collapsing.  The team managed to salvage the situation until the end of the year but Zak wanted out and was released, returning to the Drapac cycling program in Australia which allowed him to race the Herald Sun Tour.  The move back to Drapac was not the step that Zak had in his mind of how his career would go.  He thought his path would take a different route from National to Continental team and then a pro contract.  This was not to be for Zak.  He had to adjust.  If Zak was to turn professional his path would need to be from a couple of strong seasons with good Continental teams.

During the Herald Sun Tour, Zak met with John Herety, the boss of Rapha Condor Sharp (RCS).  John had chased Zak in the previous year, losing out to CC Bourgas.  Zak signed for the 2010 season with John.  It was Zak’s re-start.  The pathway in 2009 did not work out but this new team had a respected and influential manager and good race starts.  Zak was also in an English environment that complimented his Australian background.  It was a strong team with good riders.  RCS had Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (now Team Sky), Kristian House (British National Road Champion), Dean Downing, Tom Southam, Dan Craven, Dean Windsor and Darren Lapthorne.  The team had a stylish cycling kit, good feeling and professional organisation, providing a new start for Zak.

In the spring racing of 2010, Zak did not come out of the blocks firing.  His negative experiences from the previous year lingered.  He was still strong and consistent in races but he was not the rider of 2008 that had been developed by the Australian system. In Zak’s words, he ‘manned up’, ‘knuckled down’ and began to train hard and looked after himself, like he did in 2008.  Results came back to Zak.  He had ten 2nd placing’s in his first season with RCS.  That good feeling of achieving results from hard training was coming back.  The confidence was back and Zak carried this into his second season with RCS.  Zak did not look for another team for 2011.  He knew that he wanted another season with John Herety and he re-signed.  The two just changed the dates on the contract.

Zak went back to Australia for the off season and continued to train hard.  He looked after his body, not letting himself lapse into the festive spirit.  He started 2011 with the Tour of South Africa supporting Kristian House.  Kristian won the 1st stage by 3 minutes and the team defended this lead throughout the Tour.  Following this, Zak started to gain results for himself.  He had no team leading him out.  Picked the right wheels and made things happen for himself.  He found a rhythm for success and it was something he had earned.

In April, Zak rode the ‘Hell of the East’ in England, the Dengie Marshes Tour.  Zak found himself in the break with Magnus Backstedt (former Paris-Roubaix winner, Johnny McEvoy, Luke Rowe and Graham Briggs.  It is a dirt road race.  Despite the talent of riders in the break away group, Zak rode away taking an important win for himself and his future opportunities.  In the French stage race, Circuit de Lorraine, Zak was second to Sebastian Chavanel in the second stage and held off Roman Feillu for the sprint into second.  It is one thing to win a race in England but it is another level to be holding your own and beating noted riders in Continental European races.  Zak could mix it with recognised riders. 

Zak’s hard work was rewarded with a stagaire position in the number 1 World Tour team, HTC Highroad.  This was an important opportunity for Zak.  It was public recognition of his ability as a young rider and it was an opportunity to see the organization and professionalism of a large team.  Zak raced the Tour of Utah and Tour of Colorado, hard stage races in the U.S. where it was hot and hilly.  He also raced Paris Tours, where he worked hard for Mark Cavendish trying to reduce the time gap to the breakaway leaders.  He worked the front of the chase group with Marcus Burghardt and then the group split into two.  Zak found himself in the second group and worked hard to get it back together.  When he did re-join the front group, the attacks started again and Zak found himself in a break away group of 30 riders going for the win in an important one day race.  Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing won the day but this was immaterial as Zak had shown, as a young stagaire, that he could take work hard and take opportunities as they arose in race conditions. 

Zak performed well and was happy within himself.  But as luck would have it, the management company for team, Highroad Sports, did not secure another major sponsor and the professional racing structure dissolved.  Zak was hoping to sign with Highroad Sports for the 2012 season and start as a first year pro.  This was his dream that he had worked for consistently since 2008, suffered set back and disappointment and then re-started grabbing the opportunity with both hands.  He knew now that he had the strength to compete at the highest level.  This knowledge was the second major turning point in Zak’s career.  In 2008, Zak found out what hard work, consistent training and dedication could bring.  That was turning point number 1.  Now with turning point number 2, he could stay in the groups with the top riders, work for others and take chances in break away groups. 

With the opportunity of signing with Highroad Sports falling away, Zak had an offer to join Team Endura, a UK Continental program with big ambition and a strong European race program.  Zak discussed this opportunity with John Herety.  John told Zak about RCS’s plans for the future, that it would start to bring in young developing riders and focus on races in the UK.  John gave his blessing for Zak to take the new opportunity as this was the step they had discussed in 2009 at the Herald Sun Tour.  Zak told John that he wanted to re-start his pathway to become a professional cyclist and John, with his knowledge and guidance, provided that path to Zak. 

In 2012, Team Endura was that next step for Zak.  Instead of focusing on a top 10 placing in category 2.1 events, Zak wanted to be in the top 5 with race wins.  By the time of the Tour de France, Zak was getting attention from professional teams that wanted his services.  Learning from the events of 2009 and not wanting to jump into a professional team that he did not know or have experience with, he signed the first contract that came to him which was the new Pro-Continental outfit for 2013, Team NetApp Endura.  This contract allowed Zak to stay with the core group of riders and management from Team Endura for his first professional year as a cyclist.

With his new professional signing, Zak chose to base himself in Girona, Spain, de facto home of a high number of non-European professionals.  This move allowed Zak to reform friendships with his team mates from the Australian National programs.  It gave him the ‘home away from home’ base he desired.  A sense of comfort, network and the ability to train like he had in 2008.

This year, Zak started with the Tour of Qatar and Oman, building his base for the spring Classics.  He started with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Elite and then the stage races Tirreno-Adriatico and Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde and the Classic, Ronde van Vlaanderen.  Based on his results and work early in the season, Zak received a call that he could fulfill his dream of competing in Paris-Roubaix.  The team arrived early, doing their reconnaissance of the pave sections.  Zak was on the start line.  He had been building his career towards this moment.  His thought was ‘Fuck, I am here’, and he was going to take full advantage of this race.

During the start of the race, the team missed the break.  Zak and his team had to chase hard for 80 kilometres.  Zak put himself into a good position going into the first pave section and sat there for the next 50 kilometres.  In the pave section before the legendary Forest of Arenberg section, Zak was on Sylvain Chavanel’s wheel in around 20th position.  He was feeling good.  In an instant someone in the group flicked their wheel to miss a traffic island, Zak saw the island late and tried to bunny hop it to get away cleanly.  Unfortunately, Zak saw a flash of orange of the traffic cone (witch’s hat) he had just crushed and hit the road at speed.  Zak was in a crumpled position on the road surface and not moving.  He looked the way a kangaroo looks when it has been hit by a car at high speed.  For the television commentators talking about the race, it did not look good for Zak’s chances of completing his dream.  Zak’s bike was in pieces, his shoulder had taken the brunt of the impact and the ambulance pulled up expecting another customer for the day.

Slowly Zak got to his feet.  He could still use his shoulder but he was battered.  The team wanted him to get in the car, the ambulance had opened its door ready to accept Zak.  Zak’s first thought was “no way”.  “No way am I getting into that ambulance.  This could be the last time I get to do this race.”  Zak told the mechanic to get him a bike.  The mechanic looked at Zak, “are you sure?”  Zak had only one response and he was off down the road for his experience in the Forest of Arenberg.  Zak rode the Arenberg pave, effectively one handed, because of the pain in his shoulder.  Then he started to chase.  He caught one group, then the next and eventually a good 10 man group was formed that could make it to the end of the race.  Zak just wanted to make it to the Velodrome and finish.

Some of the guys in the group got off the bike at the last feed station.  Zak and the other riders started to talk after the feed station.  For a few riders, it was their first time in the race.  Zak’s sentiments were echoed by the group, “I can’t live my life knowing that I got off the bike in Paris-Roubaix.  We have to make it to the Velodrome.”  And they did.  Zak came in 108th position achieving his dream of finishing in the Roubaix Velodrome. 

Zak’s next goal is to be selected for his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta Espana.  He has worked for it and is ready.  But even if Zak does not achieve this Grand Tour selection in his first professional year, he will continue to work hard, doing the little things well and being a good team man so that he can continue to progress, gain more strength to achieve his dreams.

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