Zak Dempster is a fine example of someone who dreamed big and showed that anything is possible when you have a strong work ethic and when you stay focused on your goal. Dempster hails from the small Victorian town of Castlemaine — about two hours north of Melbourne — where he spent his early sporting years chasing medals on the track with his father. He credits his father as being his biggest supporter.
“When I was a 14 or 15 years old I would have given anything at that time to win a bronze medal at the state championships. I’d constantly get fourths or fifths and Dad would drive me all over Victoria and up to Canberra and I just couldn’t crack it.
“At that time he was working pretty wild hours and we’d be getting home after midnight on a Sunday night and he always did that for me. I’d say that was my favourite part of my career and I don’t think the Tour will change that.
“Dad and I will still talk about those days and I’ll always hold that close to me. That’s my favourite part when we talk about that bronze medal I was trying to snatch. And now here I am at the Tour de France. In those days I could have just kept playing footy or concentrated more on uni and he’s been there through it all.”
Dempster eventually won those medals he was searching for, and many more. He went on to win the junior national championships in the team pursuit and the Bendigo Madison (with Orica-GreenEdge’s Mitch Docker), before proving he was just as talented on the road when he won the 2008 Melbourne to Warrnambool.
But the road to the biggest bike race in professional cycling, the Tour de France, isn’t a short one. Since Dempster left the AIS and went out on his own, it’s been nearly a decade of putting in the hard yards. But the Victorian doesn’t regret the path he’s taken.
“When I look back I definitely made some wrong decisions; I should have stayed with the AIS for one more year. I was in a bit of a rush wanting to get out there – almost like going semi-pro, and then getting there and thinking ‘ah, this is tough’.
“Just because people say things are going to be one day doesn’t mean they always are. In a way going to Rapha-Condor [in 2010] was a step forward because John [Herety] had a very well organised team, but it was also a backwards step because they weren’t racing in Europe. That made me realise that I wasn’t the professional I wanted to be yet and I was still on pretty shaky ground.
“I had this uni student experience back when I was racing in the UK. The first year I got a heap of second places … [but] I wasn’t living the ‘professional athlete life’. Then in the second half of the year I thought to myself ‘I’m not happy doing this’. I wasn’t filling the gap or it wasn’t giving me a sense of pride in what I was doing.
“Things changed from that second half of the season and if you speak to John [Herety] or look at my results you’ll see that. At that point I was on a mission and it’s carried through right up until now.”
Nowadays Dempster is confident in his abilities. But he tells CyclingTips the whole experience of lining up for his first Tour de France is a little strange.
“It’s a bit weird with my first Tour being in Yorkshire – checking out the roads and being familiar with them when I used to ride around here earlier in my career. It’s a bit surreal in a way. A dream come true you might say.
“It kinda feels like just another race at this point. I’ve raced against most of these guys before, I’ve held my own, and I keep trying to remind myself of that. The Tour is a whole other level — I assume, that’s what people keep telling me — but I keep reassuring myself. ”
As he alludes to, Dempster isn’t being thrown into the deep end. He finished his first Grand Tour at the Vuelta a Espana in 2013 and wrote on his blog about how difficult it was making it through the entire three weeks. This year he’s raced the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, so he has a pretty good idea of what to expect over the next three weeks.
“I see the TdF as a whole new step and I’m about to find out. The different thing about the Tour that I’m expecting is that there will be more stress. The first five days of the Tour will be like riding a Classic every day.
“The Classics are all about everyone wanting to be at the same spot at the same time and that’s what drives the speed up and you end up doing four hours flat out. You’re gonna see that for the first five days and then it will settle down. I expect the positioning part of it to be key and a fair bit harder than the Vuelta.
“The other thing is the breakaways — there are more people that want to be in them, so I’m expecting there to be some really hard starts.”
Dempster won’t be pack fodder. His teammate Leopold Konig has a shot at getting a good result in the general classification and helping the team with that is Dempster’s priority. But that doesn’t mean he can’t take his own opportunities.
“We intend to join in the battle for a stage win, and if I get a chance to get in a breakaway on one of the flat stages then I’ll be going for it with everything I’ve got.”