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by Shane Stokes
October 12, 2016
Photography by Kristof Ramon, Shane Stokes
He’s been near-neighbours with Dan Craven in Girona and now Zak Dempster has another thing in common with the Namibian: he will be part of the same team in 2017.
After four years with the Bora-Argon 18 squad, the Australian has inked a one year contract with the Cycling Academy squad. The Israeli team is stepping up to the Pro Continental level next year and signing Dempster is an important part of its push for bigger results and better performance.
In a recent interview with CyclingTips Dempster said that he felt he had reached a new level and that more improvement was on the horizon for 2017. Being part of the Australian team for what will be his first-ever elite world championship has been a big motivation, and so too the chance to build on solid 2016 results such as 24th in Paris-Roubaix plus sixth in the 1.HC GP du Canton d’Argovie/GP Gippengen.
At 29, he believes that he can step things up in the years to come.
“I am really looking to put that pressure on myself next year,” he told CyclingTips, confirming his new team. “To take another step forward like I did this year.
“I had been in discussions with Cycling Academy and when we spoke [for the previous CyclingTips interview – ed.], it looked like it was coming together but you are never really sure. And then in the end I had a few teams quite interested, and things were moving fast with a couple of other teams. But with Cycling Academy I had a really good rapport.
“I liked the idea, how they viewed me coming to the team and what role I was going to play. In the end I just put pen to paper and I was really happy to be able to continue in this fresh opportunity.”
Cycling Academy is a squad which has a goal of developing Israeli cycling. In that way it has a similar aim to Team Dimension Data, which seeks to do the same for African riders. Dempster said that this kind of philosophy was also an attraction.
“It is a little bit following in the steps of a team like MTN [MTN-Qhubeka, Team Dimension Data’s name prior to 2016] or any other international team where there is that goal. It is aiming to propel forward Israeli cycling to the younger riders there and to promote Israeli cycling.
“At the same time they are going Pro Continental for a reason, to be competitive on the world scene. So the team is going to grow and grow and grow, and I think it will be a force to be reckoned with. Next year is the first year and the main thing is to get in there, to just work hard together and make it a real team. To fight for results together.”
Moving up to the Pro Continental level requires both an increase in budget and also the level of the riders. The 2017 roster is being gradually announced, but confirmed recently were talented young American Tyler Williams (Axeon Hagens Berman) plus three time Canadian Under 23 national champion Benjamin Perry (Silber Pro Cycling).
The latter took the mountains classification in the WorldTour Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal and is, like Williams, a promising talent.
More riders will be announced between now and the start of the season.
In a release issued on Tuesday, team manager Ran Margaliot explained why it wants Dempster to act as its unofficial road captain in 2017.
“We are going to be the youngest team in the Pro Continental [category],” said Margaliot. “We knew we needed a rider who can be our “Captain on the road” and help lead our young riders to win. We believe we found the perfect guy for this role in Zak Dempster.”
Indeed, at 28, Margaliot is also far younger than his peers; according to the team, he is the youngest team manager in pro cycling.
“The fact that I am going to get to take on more responsibility was a big factor in my decision to go to the team,” said Dempster. “Before the contract was signed, I was staring down the line of maybe going in a different career path to Europe [with another team]. I really want to stay competing in Europe, I felt like I am not done here and there is a lot more for me to achieve personally and as part of a team.
“Whether it is a big team, a small team or a medium team, it doesn’t really matter. What attracted me was that they had the same idea for me…I am coming in to bring a positive vibe to the team, but on top of that, I am coming in to be a leader.
“That was really cool. That is the main thing that struck me and also to try to share my experience now. I have been around the block a few times now so I know the races, I know where the corners are and things like that. So that will be a really cool thing for me to do. To try to help younger guys find their way around, work together and go to their limits together.”
Zak Dempster on the Eiffel Bridge in Girona, September 2016.
Craven joined the team prior to the start of 2016, heading there after two years with Team Europcar. Dempster confirms he talked with him the Namibian about Cycling Academy, and that the feedback was part of his reasons for going there.
“It was definitely a factor. I spoke to three people on the team. The first guy was Reed McCalvin, who is a physio on Axeon and an advisor on the team. I had a really good rapport with him. And then spoke with Dan [Craven] and I spoke with Ran Margaliot, the team boss.
“I got a really good feeling from all of those guys in terms of the ideas they have. Even the ethos of the team just really seemed to suit me really well and I felt really comfortable from the first conversation.
“I feel like it is going to be a really cool part of career coming up, so I am pretty excited.”
There is also an element of giving back in his motivation. “There were times that Australians were also in the same situation. I was fortunate to follow the path of Australian riders that have made it. They helped me. They advised me. It’s my turn.”
Thus far Dempster has largely ridden for others. He was part of Sam Bennett’s leadout train at Bora Argon 18, and helped others when required.
He believes that there will be more opportunities next year, although a leadout role is also likely at times.
“I think I’ll be doing that in some stage races,” he confirms. “They have already got Guillaume Boivin, who was with Liquigas before. He is a pretty quick guy, and he is a strong guy too. Depending on how the roster shapes up now with the upcoming announcements, I think they are going to have a more pure sprinter in the roster.
“But then you will probably have a few stronger Classic guys like me and when you see how that works, it usually works quite well when you have those good all-rounders who can finish the job off.
“Definitely to try to win some harder sprints is a goal. I’ll definitely get my own role in the one day races. Those are a big goal for me, as well as the more opportunistic stages in stage races. Obviously as a Pro Continental team the invites are not known yet, but from what I understand it is going to be a good programme. The have had good contacts with all the race organisers so I think I will get my opportunities to race at a really good level here in Europe and abroad.
“For the Classics, definitely.”
At 29 years of age, Dempster knows that he is coming into his prime physiologically. If he is to achieve big things in the sport, the next three to four years is the time when that will likely happen. That said, he told CyclingTips that Mat Hayman is an example of how persistence can pay off.
Hayman won Paris-Roubaix this year at the age of 37, proving that major results can be years in the making.
Dempster hopes to win big, and not to have to wait so long.
“I definitely think this move should help me move to the next level,” he said. “When opportunity is presented to you, you should take it. I think I have done pretty well at that this year, but as I spoke about before, I also think I am on the cusp of more.
“I think here I will get a little bit more freedom and I think that should translate into results. It is now all about just working hard to be at the level to do that, as I have been. I think with a bit more free role, I think I am capable of it. I’d like to imagine that once I have done the hard work, I am there and I am hungry and it is going to come together.
“But words are words and the results speak another thing. So I’d rather not…talk is cheap, like everyone says. So I am looking forward to going out and doing that now.”