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Play it as it Lies
INTERVIEW: Jeremy Dunn
PHOTOS: Tom Robertson in Belgium
Zach McDonald has had a pretty good year. He might still be getting beat up by the older kids at school (just take a look at Jonathan Page accidentally T-boning Zach into the pits) but they are at least starting to realize he’s here to stay. Having stamped his authority on the U23 race at the US cyclocross nationals in Madison, Wisconsin, the Elite Men’s race the next day was where ‘The Kid’ (he’ll be 21 next month) really showed the extent of his ability.
Team Rapha-FOCUS is currently in Belgium, preparing for the World Championships in Koksijde this coming weekend. We took a moment to catch up with Zach and get a few insights into the life of one of cyclocross’s true rising stars.
JD: How's school going? It must be hard to go to school, effectively a full-time job, as well as race at such a high level, another full-time job. What are you studying?
ZM: I’m currently on the business track. Part of me wants to move back to the aeronautical track [his original major was aeronautical engineering] but I'll have to make a truce between racing a full cycling season and school before that happens.
What has it been like, juggling training with studying? And what about other collegiate duties – like partying?
It hasn't been too bad. I planned my classes so I could fly anywhere in the world and not miss any. I flew around 45,000 miles in one 10-week period; I was gone roughly 30 of 70 school days but never missed a class. That’s with two quick trips to Europe thrown in as well. As far as training goes, we sometimes have to move the plans when finals roll around. If possible, we'll plan ahead and work in a taper, rest days or easy ones. As far as the partying and other collegiate duties go, I have to work those around the training, or at least come to some sort of compromise. A no-race weekend usually means a 5-6 hour training weekend. Sometimes you get up a little late and have to finish a ride in the dark but again, that falls into the compromise category.
Your travel schedule has been pretty hectic this year, travelling back and forth between Europe and the US, sometimes in just a weekend. How do you cope with all that travel?
I actually enjoy it and that helps. I love planes (hence the aeronautical engineering major), I love airports and just the overall journey. I have the ability to sleep on planes; I stay up the night before an international trip, sleep for the flight over and I’m more or less good to go when I reach Europe. I usually get hit harder when I come back from Europe. The first weekend trip to Europe that I did this year caught me a bit by surprise – the jet lag was the reverse of what I expected. It has definitely been a learning year but I don't regret any of it and I'm ready for next year.
Any secret travel tips for those aspiring racers who are hoping to do what you do?
Just stay relaxed and don't freak out if something doesn't go your way. Why stress about factors you can't control? And remember to sleep on international flights. Sure, the movies might be good but you'll regret it later. Just turn the screen off and sleep.
How has the season been with Mr. Powers? I heard he was coming down hard on you for not shaving your legs. We assume he’s been providing a bit of mentoring?
It's been good, Jeremy’s a great addition to the team and has helped with the assault on the European front. People are really going after the leg shaving thing, eh? Show me a study that provides some quantifiable evidence that it indeed makes a racer faster, then I might consider it.
I was fortunate enough to see your finish at Zolder a few weeks ago. That was a pretty big result for you, a bit of a breakthrough. It’s given you some well-deserved confidence so what’s it going to take to defeat the big names in the Worlds at Koksijde. Wietse Bosmans is on home soil, while Lars van der Haar [Netherlands] is in great form. What’s your plan?
Nothing more than play it as it lies and adjust to the situation when it finally comes around.
The Worlds course is one with a lot of running from the looks of it. Have you altered your training plan at all to try and handle this?
Honestly? Not at all.
When is it that you actually turn 21?
Next month, February 13th.
You have a background in downhill racing. Do you ever think about taking it to Danny Hart when summer rolls round? Or is now the time to finally shave your legs and take to the road?
I'll be out on the downhill bike in the spring and every now and then in the summer. I probably won't race past April and I’ve always dabbled in the local road races for training.
OK, let’s talk about the Nationals. Was there any doubt in your mind about the U23 race? There was some back and forth with Yannick Eckmann during the USGP but was there anyone else that could have given you trouble?
I wasn't sure what Cody Kaiser might pull out. In theory he could have been really fresh having not headed over to Europe at the end of December. He's consistently been right behind Yannick and myself all year. My main goal was to just race a clean race, as I had some bad luck the previous two years.
After you won the U23s you decided it would be a good idea to race the Elite Men’s the next day. Rumor is that, as a result, the USAC may change the rules so that U23 riders cannot race the Elites. What’s your response to that?
It would be a bummer, since I'm sure it's more due to UCI pressure than anything else.
What happened in that first little crash on the course? Was it just a case of coming in too hot, or a bobble maybe?
I made a ‘minor misjudgment’ in the first left sweeper, and by that I mean huge miscalculation. I came in too hot on the wrong line and simply couldn't make the corner. There isn't much more to it.
Then there was the moment with Mr. Jonathan Page, where he came at you like a battering ram and forced you into the pits. What happens when you are forced into the pit like that? The rules state you must take service if you enter the pit. What did you do?
He ended up on my left by the pit entrance and he was planning on going into the pit when I wasn't – the only time I took a bike was right after I crashed at the start. I guess he either didn't see me, or he was trying to ride through me. Who knows? I ended up in the pit and the rule states, if I'm not mistaken, something along the lines of having to put both feet on the ground at some point if you enter the pit lane.
Apparently, some of the ‘older’ dudes riding out there were upset that you made your way through the group and finished where you did. Did any old goat in particular give you trouble?
Nope, but I find that amusing.
What are your actual plans for the spring and summer? There are always rumblings that surround racers like Powers and Tim Johnson. They talk about the ups and downs of racing on the road and keeping their competition level high over the summer. What do you do during those months? Whatever it is, it's working.
I'll just be training and relaxing. I'll have some local races scattered around, then throw in a few Whistler days for fun, probably with a break half way through. That's about it.