Building for worlds, Dempster at a career crossroads: ‘It’s a pretty scary moment’

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Whatever happens next, whichever way things go, Zak Dempster knows that big changes are coming.

The Australian has been part of the same cycling family since 2013, racing as part of NetApp Endura and Bora-Argon 18.

That era is ending and there will be one of two outcomes. The first is that one of the three teams he is currently speaking to will offer a contract and finalise a deal. The second, the one he hopes to avoid, is that he will be left looking and could be facing the end of his career.

Even if he’s relatively confident about his chances, it’s a worrying time.

“I guess it is a pretty scary moment,” Dempster admits, sipping a coffee close to Girona’s spectacular Plaça del Independència.

“Your life is going to change. How is it going to go? Confronting that is definitely…it is invigorating, but it is scary at the same time.”

Dempster is a 28 year old from Castlemaine in Victoria. He has been racing his bike at a high level for over ten years. He competed with Drapac-Porsche in 2006, spent two years with the SouthAustralia.com/AIS squad and then did stints with Drapac (again) and Rapha Condor-Sharp before making what seemed to be a breakthrough.

Getting a stagiaire slot with HTC-Highroad was promising, given the team’s position as the sport’s most successful team, but the squad went belly-up at the end of that season and that door closed.

Instead, a year with Endura Racing and four with the NetApp Endura/Bora Argon 18 brought him to where he is now, an Australian embedded in Catalunya and determined to continue.

“I just feel like I am getting on top of things,” he explains. “I know the races now. Living here, I speak the language. I feel really happy here. We have got a really great group of friends here, all that type of thing.

“However all those things are little bit irrelevant as the scary thing is if it goes one way rather than the other, then you are done as a competitive sportsman.

“I am not ready for that.”

In recent years Dempster has played a support role with the team, including doing leadouts for the sprinter Sam Bennett. The team direction is changing next season, with Bora-Argon 18 aiming for the WorldTour. Peter Sagan and several others are coming on board and this influx of riders is tightening up on the number of available places.

Dempster said there are no hard feelings on his part in leaving the team. In fact, providing it works out, he believes a change in colours could be good for his career. He believes that talks are going well with other squads but also accepts that until things are signed in ink, nothing is guaranteed.

“I’ve been talking to one WorldTour team and a couple of Pro Conti teams,” he states. “I believe I have got a big enough engine to support a leader now. I see that in my training, my racing. At the same time, if I was to go to a Pro Conti team on a similar level that Bora was this year, I think that is a really good opportunity for me to take a step up. To really put my money where my mouth is, I guess. To show what I am a capable of.

“I think I have done really well this year. I am just on the cusp of some very cool stuff happening, I think.”

Zak Dempster in the break in this year's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Zak Dempster in the break in this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Ready to back Matthews and Ewen in Qatar

When Dempster met CyclingTips on Thursday, he had just completed an indoor training session run off in stifling conditions. The aim, he said, was to replicate the kind of heat he would face in Qatar next month. It is a mark of his growing reputation that he has been picked for the Australian team for the Elite road race, and he wants to be as ready as possible.

Temperatures in Qatar are currently around 40 degrees [104 degrees F] and while it is likely this will drop before the October 16 event, he’s taking no chances.

As a result he will do regular heat acclimatisation sessions in Girona’s Centre Cenit gym. He will also do intensive blocks of road training to further hone his form.

“I’ve never done the Elite worlds,” he says, clearly excited at the prospect. “This is my first time since the under 23 worlds. I am the most inexperienced on the team. It is a really good line-up. When you look at the list of those in the squad, it is like ‘wow.’

“There will be Michael Matthews and Caleb Ewan as the two leaders. Then you have got a group with Hayman and Haussler and Renshaw. Even Durbridge now…he is a real strong rider, he has been around for a lot of years. Then you have got Hansen [note: Adam Hansen has since withdrawn from the squad – ed.], Mitch [Docker] and me.

“When you first come to Europe as a bright-eyed 18 year old… I remember being at the worlds in Stuttgart for the under 23 race. Allan Davis and Cadel and Matt Lloyd and all those guys were also racing…it was like, ‘ah, imagine being in the pro men’s road team. That would be amazing.’ And here I am…going to Qatar.”

Dempster is clearly thrilled to don the Australian jersey, but simply making up the numbers is not enough. “The important thing for me now is to really smash it and do my best for the leaders,” he says.

What will help in that goal is his previous experience racing in and around Doha, including helping Sam Bennett to win the final stage of the 2015 Tour of Qatar.

So how does he believe Ewan and Matthews could do?

“I haven’t seen today’s Eneco finish but I saw the first day,” he replies. “Caleb was pretty fast in that. He just went to the inside…if he had stayed on the outside with Bouhanni I think he probably could have popped through. Obviously he won Hamburg on the relegation, but he was strong in that as well after the crash.

“I think he is going as good as he has gone this season…maybe ever. He has got a really good chance. We’ll see whether or not that’s the case if it goes down the gutter for six hours. But it is the same for everyone. And it is in the heat as well. But I am sure he is preparing for that. I am sure he will be on. They wouldn’t have selected him if he wasn’t.

“What can you say about Michael? He is one of the guys with the bigger engines. He is a Sagan-type rider. He is tough, he will be fine.

“Realistically, I think we have got a pretty good shot. We don’t have a Kittel or a Greipel, but who knows. I think they will put us on the same level as Italy or someone like that, with Nizzolo and Viviani, whoever goes. But we are up there with a chance, I think.”

Zak Dempster (AUS/Bora-Argon18) at the start 90th Schaal Sels 2015

‘In terms of numbers, I feel awesome’

The nature of this year’s worlds in Qatar is complex. It’s flat, but won’t be straightforward. The heat will likely be an issue, but so too the high winds and exposed terrain in the desert.

Each year the Tour of Qatar is marked by huge echelons and it is highly likely that the same will happen this time around.

In order to be as ready as possible, his coach Neal Henderson has designed a training plan to best approximate the efforts that will be needed in three weeks’ time.

“A couple of weeks ago we started doing four or five ten-minute efforts with a lot of off-on,” Dempster explains. “Obviously in Qatar there is a lot of full tension periods – six, seven hundred, eight hundred Watts and then time on the wheel – at 60 kilometres per hour, normally – and then back again full tension.

“So we started with four ten minute blocks and on Tuesday I worked up to doing two one hour on-off efforts with a bunch of sprints, and then worked down to threshold and full recovery. I ended up with a big piece of paper on my handlebar during a six and a bit hour ride. And the last effort you start with five hours on the clock.

“I pretty much finished those completely f*cked. So it is a pretty good way to tell…if you can suffer it out, then it is going well. In other words, if you are not cutting efforts short and that kind of thing.”

He gives context by explaining just what the demands are like when racing in echelons into strong wind.

“In Qatar, the big thing is making a big, big, big effort – 1200 watts or whatever – where you can get into a position where you can sneak onto a wheel if it is in the gutter, and then being able to recover and then make another big effort over the wheel in front.

“Then on the way back, you are almost recovering, but that time is the most mentally-draining period because you have to look for a gap and flick someone to get in.

“That is definitely the big thing about it. Making big, big efforts, and then needing the mental energy of getting into the wheel. You have also got to be a really good bike handler to do that too.

“I remember [the battles in] my first Qatar…it was the most times you tell anyone to get f*cked in one race,” he laughs.

The training sounds brutal, but he’s confident it is paying off.

“In terms of numbers I feel awesome. I think they look really good at the moment. The good thing about power and heartrate and all that is that you can see it. I am not someone who plays Training Peaks all afternoon, but I am definitely satisfied with the work I have done and how I have done it. I’m feeling good.”

Both because of his first Elite worlds and also because of his uncertainty about his future, Dempster is fully focused. He knows that the best way to prove his worth to a team is to perform strongly.

He’s got a busy block of racing ahead. Whether or not it is riding for others or being given his own chance, he’ll raring to go.

“I am off to Italy, doing Emilia on Saturday, Begelli on Sunday and then Varese Tuesday. Then back, the GP or Giro Munsterland, whatever it is called, and then Paris-Bourges and Paris-Tours. So I have got six races before the worlds.

“I have done pretty much my biggest block of training ever, almost. I will ropable if I am not real strong,” he smiles. “Really annoyed.”

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‘I think I have the engine now’

Looking beyond this season, he feels, as he said earlier, like he is on the cusp of moving to a higher level of performance. Placing 24th in Paris-Roubaix was encouraging, and so too netting sixth in the 1.HC GP du Canton d’Argovie/GP Gippengen in June.

He’s also aware that at 28 years of age, he should be moving into his best few seasons. That too gives him confidence.

“I think I have got the engine now. Before I could always sort of get into position, whereas now I have the engine to do something with it,” he states.

“We saw that in Qatar this year, I never missed a beat. That is why ultimately why I am part of that worlds team because I know where to be, all that type of thing.

“For the future, if the chance is there I am going to take it with both hands. In an ideal world I would like to ride in a Pro Conti or WorldTour team in Europe and I would be aiming to be in the front group in the Classics. Then, depending on how many teammates you have got there, you are either playing your card or you are assisting one of the guys going for the win.

“It’s just step by step. You don’t see many guys take a big leap. It is step by step. And I think for me I have seen that progression now.”

As an example about gradual progression, Dempster refers to this year’s Paris-Roubaix winner Mat Hayman. He was there or thereabouts in the Classics for years, but finally broke through this season and took the win.

He also mentions Anna Meares and Simon Gerrans as other examples.

“It is just about ticking the boxes. Getting to the race feeling really happy with your preparation. When you do that year after year after year, things happen. Gerro didn’t win Liège-Bastogne-Liège in one day or by riding heavier wheels one off-season.

“Hayman didn’t win Paris-Roubaix this year because he did some special ergo when he had his broken wrist. And Anna Meares didn’t beat Victoria Pendleton because she could squat however much more.”

The message is clear: keep working hard, keep progressing year by year and big things are possible.

Providing he gets the nod from one of the teams he is talking to, he believes there is a lot more to come.

Main feature image: Dempster at the famous Eiffel bridge in Girona. It was built by Gustave Eiffel around 1877, years prior to him constructing his iconic tower in Paris.

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