Zak Dempster on the end of one journey and the start of another

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In late October, Aussie Zak Dempster announced that the 2019 season would be his last as a professional road racer. The Victorian started racing at the Continental level back in 2006 and joined the pro ranks with NetApp-Endura in 2013. He’s ridden with the Israel Cycling Academy for the past three seasons and will remain with that setup in a managerial role next season as the team steps up to the WorldTour.

Speaking to CyclingTips from his home in Olot, Spain last week, Dempster reflected on his career, his decision to retire, and more. The Q&A you can read below has been lightly edited for fluency.

CyclingTips: When did you make the decision to retire?

Zak Dempster: I was sort of waiting to see where I’d fit and the team raised with me mid year if I’d be interested to start thinking about the next step in my professional career. I was enjoying racing and training especially — I really enjoyed going through the processes and I could happily keep going on with that, but at the same time I was already looking to my next step.

I’d enrolled in a coaching course, and started to think where I would fit … And then when the team brought it up, when we started to talk our contracts … even though we were discussing whether I would ride or not — I started to think about [a management role] and the more it made sense and the more I felt really happy with that.

For a lot of riders, that transition to life after cycling is a tricky one. It must have been good to have that next step already lined up?

Yeah, I think that’s key. I was in the Drapac development program in the second year of its existence and then I went through the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport] and [retirement plans were] something that I was always aware of. Thanks to Michael Drapac, really, for raising that, and my parents. You can really go into that black hole.

So being aware of that really did help me to line up my next step and I’m just so happy and thankful that I was able to go straight into that. Even yesterday I had a retirement lunch with all my friends and I was saying, “Wow, imagine that I didn’t get a contract and I didn’t have something to go to. I’d be looking at this in a whole different way.” Or maybe I wouldn’t!

I was talking to dad this morning and I was saying to him that I can’t explain it: I’m just happy about it. Not for any reason or because I’ve got a better job now. I’m so thankful to have been able to ride and do the biggest races and all this stuff but now this is just … it’s just great. I’m happy.

If I could give any advice to anyone that was thinking about stopping [racing] — you never know when you are going to have to stop — starting to prepare for that step from a very young age is super important.

I did two years of an exercise science/psychology degree when I was 18 and 19 with Drapac. And then the opportunity came up that I could go to Europe with the AIS and race in Italy. At that time I was so motivated to try and be a part of the Beijing Olympic team and I just couldn’t … the loads at that time, I just couldn’t handle studying. So I made the decision to stop and I developed myself in other ways.

I worked with [high performance manager] Justin Cordy at the Carlton Football Club for a few off-seasons in that time, and I didn’t really study. Things have perfectly fallen into place for me now, at least for next year with a career move, but I really look back at it now and [not finishing the degree] could’ve come off quite badly, you know?

So any study that you can do as a young guy, that would be the advice that I would give.

What were the emotions when you finished your last race, Paris-Tours?

It was nice. I knew it was going to be my last race and the team were really great. My girlfriend was there and I didn’t even finish and I didn’t really do anything special because I was basically in the classroom [for the coaching course, in the weeks beforehand] and I had about 50 minutes to train every day. So [in training] I sorta just ripped to this climb in Aigle there behind the UCI and went 20 minutes flat out and then I’d come back and have a rushed shower and then go back to the class.

I couldn’t really worry about training or whether I was going to be effective or not because I already had my foot in the next step.

It was weird. I didn’t really have any overriding emotions of sadness — it just didn’t really hit me.

The biggest win of your career came just a couple months ago at the Veenendaal-Veenendaal Classic. Can you talk about how that race unfolded and what that meant to you?

I’d been riding really good pretty much all year. I had a bit of a false start but then I was there and going well, and a few things just didn’t fall into place — I had a patellar tendon injury, and then I crashed quite badly in the Classics. Then I went to Portugal [the Volta a Portugal] and I got third on a mountain stage there so I knew I was on. I got this huge load from Portugal and I knew I was riding well.

The day before [the Veenendaal Classic] we did Zottegem [the GP Stad Zottegem]. I got caught a couple k to go so it didn’t come off. And then the next day I was just so, so desperate to get it done. Because you train so hard for all these years and I thought so many times in my career “I’m going to do it, I’m going to win” and then it didn’t come off. That’s just the nature of it. I wasn’t a winner. And that’s fine. But that day, when it all just came together …

It was a really aggressive race, I was really careful, and I used all the experience I gained from being in great situations in races and fucking it up. I could just put it into that day and actually win. And ah man, it felt so good. It had been a long time.

When you’re a kid growing up in Australia, sometimes you’re doing like 10 races a week. Because if you do two track nights, you do four races and then you might do a crit or something. So at a young age, you get used to winning. That sort of started my path to becoming a professional so you would expect to win a little bit.

But then you get over here and you fit into roles … and I just got sort of used to not winning. So even though I really, really wanted to, I would have been fine to end my career having not won a decent race because I feel like I contributed to my teams and things. But it was so good to finally do it and say “Yeah, that was mine.”

Do you feel like you’ve spent most of your career riding for others? Or do you feel like you had the chance to win more races, and it just didn’t really happen?

I feel like I did work for other guys a lot and that was because they were better than me. *laughs* I’ve got no qualms about that. I trained and prepared really well and everything … but I just feel like when I did get opportunities — like in Ride London a couple of times, I did really good results with top-10s — but I just wasn’t fast enough or light enough. Even if I was operating on the limit of 5-6% body fat and I spent a month at altitude, I just didn’t really have the kick to win races. I could always get top-10s in sprints and stuff if the sprinter was dropped. In California I got a fourth once.

So I was fast and a decent rider but yeah, to win in that level of cycling, you have to be really, really special in something. Whereas I was pretty good at most things, you know? For me, my body type, to just get through some of those big mountain stages was super hard for me.

What would you say your biggest strength as a rider was?

Probably positioning, I would say. I think I had a really good way of seeing where the road was going. And I’d spend a lot of time researching races and just little finess-y things like which way the road bends and which side of the bunch you need to be on and when you need to make those two hard pedal strokes to get your hips past someone.

From a young age I was always racing track and I think that’s super key because even some of my teammates over the years perhaps came through a MTB background or they just raced road and concentrated a lot on fitness. I think I had a really, really good eye for how to move around the bunch and where to put myself to make my life a little bit easier … even though I was probably flat out because I didn’t have the biggest engine!

So I think I really made the most of that more than anything. That was just purely from my upbringing, I guess, from a young age, knowing how to move people, if you had to make contact, or knowing how to get your handlebars past the next person, which I think will serve me well if I go into a management role, trying to help guys understand how big a difference that can make.

Of course, a guy like Sagan or Van Avermaet — those are the guys that are best at it. They’re way stronger and then on top of that they just know where to be. And that’s something that was cool to see up close because you see these guys with these huge engines and how they move and how smart they are. It might even be 100k to go but the energy they save there is critical in allowing them to make the most of their capacity at a later point in the race.

That was the thing I was probably most surprised by when I turned pro. You would see these guys, especially the big classics guys up close and how ruthless they are. Like Niki Terpstra: he just moves around so well in the bunch and he also doesn’t really care about what other people are doing.

At the end of the day you’re going along pretty hard most of the time, especially in those one-day races, but [it’s so valuable] knowing when to go “OK, I really need to make three hard pedal strokes now to get into this corner and then I’m going to suffer less the next two minutes.” Having that sense of when to do that and how to do that: phoar, you can gain so much.

Besides your win back in August, what are the memorable moments that stand out to you when you look back at your career?

I think when I got 24th in Roubaix [in 2016], that was pretty cool. Roubaix was the race I grew up watching and it’s the best suited race to me because it’s just the positioning and the energy you can save over a long time, plus it’s flat and on cobbles. That day, like everyone in Roubaix, I had super bad luck — I crashed, and then I sort of just rode back through. And Matt Hayman won, which was pretty cool, and I felt like I really got the best out of myself that day, for the luck I had. That was a super good experience.

And probably when I won the Austral [Wheelrace – Australia’s biggest track race] when I was 16. For me, that was so cool because I was just a little kid then but that sort of started everything off for me. I’d been training like a pro since I was probably 15 or 16 and I didn’t even realize it. I didn’t realize that till quite far into my career that those formative years as a kid racing hard all the time [were so important] … and when I won the biggest wheelrace in Australia I was like “Oh wow, maybe I can make a go of this.” That was so special for me.

Do you have any regrets? Anything you look back on and wish that you’d done? Or anything you wish you hadn’t done?

One thing I wish I had done better early in my career was just to be a little less intense, to trust in the process more. I look back at the person I was from 20 onwards to maybe … it took me a long time, until I was 28 or something like that, to really just relax and trust the process and put it in place and then leave it there.

It’s a classic thing to bring your work home but wow, I was so highly wound at times. And I look back on that and think how I affected the people around me. If I wasn’t having a good day or it wasn’t going the way I wanted … [I just needed to] let go and relax and say “That’s OK” or “Whatever turns out, that’s OK.”

I’m not sure if I really relaxed after I got to do the Tour the first time or how it really worked, but there’s a point in my career where I wasn’t so highly wound all the time.

What will your role be with Israel Cycling Academy next year?

Right now I’m focussing a little bit on the development side of things. Of course you’ve got the big teams that just have big teams and it works quite well because they have proven development paths. Right now I’m just trying to work on creating a bigger base for the tree. With Israel Cycling Academy we’re going to be at the top level next year so [I’m] trying to create really good pathways and be there for the younger guys on the team.

If you have a WorldTour team and you just put guys from non cycling countries there because you want to … that’s great but unless you concentrate on the lower levels and getting effective cyclists from a very young age and get some pathways in place, then it’s sort of pointless. And I think that with the Guys — both Guy Niv and Guy Sagiv — they’ve both finished the Giro now and then you’ve got Omar Goldstein coming through and Itamar Einhorn [ed. all Israeli cyclists] — they’ve all made huge steps, and made mistakes, too, and that’s fine, so just concentrating on allowing them to have a better platform to perform off.

Because at the end of the day, the good pros are the ones that come through, they have a good platform and good processes, and that’s it. That’s the secret.

Is getting into team management something you’ve always been interested in?

Not really. I knew I wanted to work in sport from when I was a young age. So that’s why I went into studying sports science/psych even though I didn’t get to finish.

The other thing was that I wasn’t sure where I was going to live. Some guys get to the end of their career and they can’t wait to go back to Australia. Whereas my fiancee is from here, from Catalunya, so the ideal job for me would be to be over here and carry on basically what I’m doing.

So geographically, it suits me really well. I guess with Israel Cycling Academy I got the chance to be one of the older riders on the team. So that allowed me to see that I did really enjoy explaining things or trying to help guys learn and being there for young guys.

So, yeah, definitely the last couple of years, especially after the first year with Israel Cycling Academy, I realised that this would definitely be work that I would like to go into.

Will we see you in the team car as a sports director at some point?

Possibly yeah. Next week I’m doing my sports director’s course, so if I can pass the exam … I should be able to, but I might have to brush up on my driving skills. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a race car but it’s pretty gnarly! I might be happy back at second car for a little bit, or watching!

But I think for me it would be cool to be involved and learn. The good thing with Israel Cycling Academy is there’s so many good directors to learn from. I’ve called all of them almost to ask for different things because like a rider, a director or team manager has different strengths in different areas, so I really tried to assess that myself and then contact them for different things.

And in the same way with soigneurs and mechanics, I’m just trying to better understand what they need for their job, really, from a director. If you can provide them the easiest way to work, the whole system just works so much better.

That’s all the questions I had, Zak. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I guess the thing I liked most about being a rider was you got to share all these awesome moments with people that are there in the fight with you. That’s definitely the thing I’ll take with me always. You can win all the races you want and have all these amazing experiences, but they don’t really mean anything unless you’re sharing them with these people that are there with you.

That’s the thing that I’ve loved most about being a cyclist and I’m so thankful for that.

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