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An interview with Dave Zabriskie, December 10, 2003
Dave's excellent adventure
A very promising start to the season for Blue Train member Dave Zabriskie was cut short when he was swiped off the road by yet another unsuspecting motorist, almost wrecking his chances of ever racing again. But as Anthony Tan discovers, Dave Z's back on his bike and just can't wait to "go and kick some ass!"
THERE ARE PLENTY OF COMPLEX CHARACTERS in the sport of cycling. Recently retired Jonathan Vaughters and Chris Boardman were considered the professors of the peloton for their wealth of knowledge on training and racing, their ideas and habits often considered extreme and a little kooky at times; Frank Vandenbroucke, or 'Francky-Boy' to his friends, one of the most naturally gifted riders in modern-day cycling, struggles to cope with the expectation of the local press and mental rigours of the sport, with depression and drugs seemingly never too far away; and Lance Armstrong, who incessantly battles his own demons, cancerous and mental, in his quest not just to live, but to live life to the fullest.
Then there's Dave Zabriskie.
"Errr... not really," he says when I ask him whether the decision to turn dedicate himself to the sport was a difficult one. "I just decided I'd kinda put everything towards cycling - I couldn't really see myself trying to do school full-time... so I just decided all for cycling while I'm young and see how it turns out."
Dave's Mom couldn't see him going to school full-time either. Seven years ago, Sheree Zabriskie made a 1200 mile round-trip journey by car from Salt Lake City to Colorado Springs to see if her 17 year-old son warranted a ride at the Olympic Training Center as part of the junior national team. (Thankfully, the drive turned out to be worth it.)
Zabriskie tells me his entry into the sport wasn't marked by any significant event, such as watching a stage of the Tour de France on television or knowing anyone that rode a bike. "It just kinda happened... we always had a lot of bikes around," says Zabriskie, not really too sure himself. "I used to rollerblade a lot, and I broke my arm doin' that, so I got a road bike, and it just kinda snowballed (his thick Utah accent pronouncing the word snowbaaalled). I wanted to keep going farther and farther, and then I went to the Olympic Training Center and did the national team thaang."
While others may have basked in the glory of simply being chosen, Dave Z's time on the national squad sounds more like the start of a big adventure than anything else: "It was pretty laid-back - we were all pretty good friends and we would always work together to try and good one good result... I mean, we weren't trying to snake each other in the team," he says. In fact, the more we talk about his early days as a cyclist, the more the 24 year-old sounds and behaves like Keanu Reeve's character played in the film Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure; it's not too difficult to picture Zabriskie catching a flight to San Sebastian for the '97 Junior World's - his first exposure to world-class competition - finishing fourth in the time trial, then saying, 'Whoooah... excellent! Party on dudes!'
"I was 18, I think. That was my first real international competition and I got fourth in the time trial, so it kind of... I mean, I'd never been over there [Europe] before and done any other races, so I was kinda excited about that result. So I figured I'd give a go and stay at it a little while and see what happens," he says in a happy-go-lucky sort of way.
'A little while' later in the year of the millennium, the boy from Salt Lake started kickin' some serious tail: Zabriskie went on to become the US Under-23 time trial champion, won the U23 GP des Nations (also a time trial), and achieved the same result at the espoir world time trial championships in Plouay as he did as a junior in San Sebastian three years prior. As Ted would say, 'a most excellent' performance, with US Postal confirming their interest by offering him a ride for the 2001 season.
However, turning professional came as a bit of shock for Ted, ummm... I mean Dave. "I didn't know what I was doin' in my first year... I'm lucky they asked me back again," he says frankly.
It probably didn't help signing for arguably the strongest team in the world with the expectation that that carries, though just 12 months later, Dave Z began to find his feet, placing third and fifth overall at the Sea Otter and Redlands Classic - two nationally-ranked and hard-fought events won by Chris Horner, the most successful US rider the last two seasons (according the National Road Calendar's final rankings).
"Yeah, the first time I tried it three years ago, I couldn't even finish," he remembers, not one to boast or elaborate. Only 23 at the time, Postal directeur-sportif Johan Bruyneel already decided Zabriskie was ready for his first Grand Tour: the Vuelta a Espaņa.
"Oh yeah, I remember all right," he says about his first experience at 21 days of pain. "It was challenging for sure. I was young and it was hard to get up and do that every day; I mean there were good days and bad days... but it was exciting and I'll never forget that - I want to do more."
Atypical for a second-year pro, Zabriskie went stronger and stronger as the Vuelta wore on, and on the final stage to Stadion Santiago Bernabeu, a 41.2 kilometre test against the clock, he finished fifteenth - the second-best finisher in the Postal camp and just one second behind his leader Roberto Heras, who relinquished the golden jersey to Aitor Gonzalez. "It made me feel that I could be competitive in the future in races like that, and I learned the body's capable of amazing things," says Zabriskie laughing half-heartedly, his mind still juxtaposed between feelings of pain, the elation of simply finshing, and what it would take to win one day. "I don't think it's possible to over-train now."
Zabriskie continued his upward progression into 2003, repeating a solid schedule of racing in April, where he took fourth overall in Sea Otter and fifth at the inaugural Tour of Georgia - he, team-mate Michael Barry and Fred Rodriguez the only riders capable of fighting the might of the unbeatable Saturn trio of Horner, Tom Danielson and Nathan O'Neill. Then, less than two weeks after Georgia, Zabriskie went totally awesome, dudes.
It was at the Four Days of Dunkirk where the cycling world saw the emergence of a future superstar from Utah. On the fourth stage from Wimereux to Boulogne sur Mer, featuring seven difficult climbs in the space of 179.5 kilometres, Dave Z went into overdrive, finishing fifth on a stage that deciminated a class field save five men. With his speciality discipline the following day, he did enough to secure his top five overall placing and earn himself the best young rider's competition, beating up-and-coming talents like Anthony Geslin, Jurgen Van Goolen, Michael Rogers and Mark Scanlon. "That was far more exciting for me than Redlands or Sea Otter," says Zabriskie, now totally in love with the European lifestyle and way of racing.
After Dunkirk and the Tour of Belgium, Zabriskie was flying, and the programme of races he was scheduled to do suggests that a ride at the Centenary Tour may well have been possible.
"No, we didn't talk about that, but I guess it's always possible. They know every rider pretty well, and they may have thought that [saying the Tour de France is a possibility] might've freaked me out a little bit - if that was the case, they may have sprung it on me right before," he says, sounding as if he would have liked that surprise very much indeed.
Asked if he was thinking about it at all, Zabriskie says "only a tiny bit". "I was kind of getting really excited for Philadelphia [the USPRO Championships] actually, 'cos I was feeling amazing and that race was coming right up... "
Unfortunately for us but more himself, which way either of those situations or decisions may have gone, we'll never know. Swiped by a careless driver at the end of May and lucky to come out of the crash with 'only' a broken leg and wrist, it was season over before he could say, 'total bummer, dude'. Six months later and after countless hours in the gym, Zabriskie's back on the bike but still in rehab mode, doing his best to build a base and regenerate the massive muscle loss from his right leg.
"It doesn't really bother me when I ride, but there's still not the full range of movement - all my muscles aren't back yet either. I think I can race, but I'll just kinda wait on the intensity until camp starts, I guess... I just want to get back into it," he says, sounding a little despondent yet hopeful for the future.
Talking of the first unofficial Postal training camp in Armstrong's hometown of Austin, Texas - just one week away now - it doesn't take long for him to get fired up. Says a charged Zabriskie, almost incomprehensibly, "I just want to kick ass! I want revenge... I don't want the lady that ran me over... she's not gonna end my career... I'm gonna come back after what she did and do well."
Which is about as far Dave Z's got with his plans for 2004, although briefly mentioning the Olympics are also on the agenda. "Yeah, I'd really like that [the Olympics] to happen - that would be very nice," he says. "I'd just like to kick a lot of ass and then kick some more ass!"
I think you get the picture. However, Dave Z's excellent adventure at Postal will also depend on the program of races he is scheduled to do and the freedom he is granted; Lance and Johan's coterie of young acolytes are paid to take orders, not give them.