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An interview with Karl Menzies, October 29, 2007
A motivating, roller coaster season
Tassie rider Karl Menzies came to America four years ago while racing with an ad-hoc Aussie team at Superweek, with the team selling all its equipment after the series before heading back to Australia. The Tasmanian's results there put him back in the United States in 2005 with a small up-start team in the American Midwest and his results that year kept him there - racing the past two seasons with the top NRC team Health Net-Maxxis. This year was a roller coaster year for Menzies, from an early stage win at the Tour Down Under, a slow American early season, his father diagnosed with cancer, winning the Tour de 'Toona overall, father passing away and being part of an unprecedented fourth NRC team win. Menzies recapped the season with Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski.
Entering the 2007, the future looked bright for Health Net-Maxxis' Karl Menzies. The Australian from Tasmania had a good first season on the top NRC team, a restful and productive off-season in the Down Under summer and got off to a winning start, taking out the first stage and the leader's jersey of the Tour Down Under.
Returning to the States for the start of his trade team's campaign, Menzies was hoping to continue top results at the biggest race of the year - the Tour of California. But the two weeks between training camp and the race were spent at his U.S. home in Boulder, Colorado - under cloudy, snowy conditions. Needless to say, the legs did not come around for him. However, two months later in California, he and the team found early season success at the Redlands Classic, where team-mate and fellow Aussie Rory Sutherland took top honours.
Things were looking up as the American season swung into June, with historic races such as the Philadelphia International Classic. But that is when everything changed for Menzies, as he learned that his father was diagnosed with late stage cancer.
"What was tough was finding out on the Thursday before CSC that he was diagnosed with some kind of cancer," said Menzies. "He didn't say what is was at the time. So all through CSC and Philly week I was racing in a blur, just helping out the team in a support role. Then the day after Philly I flew back to Tassie and ended up spending three weeks at home."
"I'm not religious or anything but it was definitely a blessing to go back and have that time," admitted Menzies. "Some people don't get that chance to say anything, whereas I spent three weeks with him the whole time. When I left I pretty much knew that at the airport was the last time I would see him - so I got to say goodbye."
He returned to America with a new clarity to his racing, and after a quick couple of warm-up races at Superweek, Menzies headed to Altoona for the Tour de 'Toona, a race with which he had a bone to pick. In 2006, Menzies was leading into the penultimate stage, and was working his way back to the leading group on the road to defend his lead, when his group was misdirected off course. The time difference between the time lost and what the leading group won by was arguably the same. Menzies was on a mission armed with this and the words of his dying father.
"[My father] told me to come back here and keep doing what I love doing," said Menzies. "He was so proud of me. That turned into a huge motivation for me - I came into 'Toona and everyone knew my situation and stepped up. Rory pretty much stepped aside, he could have easily won the overall, but gave up every chance at a stage win to give me the stage win. That meant a lot to me. But it's a weird situation - you'd like to think somehow, somewhere he was looking down."
Menzies and his Health Net-Maxxis team tore up the 'Toona roads, winning the opening Team Time Trial and Menzies going on to three stage wins on the week. "Toona was great," said Menzies. "The boys rode pretty bloody hard there. We were pretty much on a roll after that - really since Nature Valley with the boys winning most of the stages there. Once you get a few performances everyone takes on that confidence and it went through to the end of the season."
Menzies admitted that he was taken aback not only by his father's diagnosis during the season, but the quick progression of his condition. "We talked every couple of days, but who's to know that two months after he was diagnosed he would pass away - it was pretty bloody quick!" he reflected. "I am just happy that I had that time. After Charlotte, that Sunday night, he slipped in and out of a coma. I got to have a quick word with him then and five hours later that was it."
Keeping it rolling
After avenging his 'Toona experience and returning to Tasmania for his father's funeral, Menzies once again returned to America and the bike to complete the season - something he knew his father wanted him to do and also provided a way for Menzies to cope with the grief. "Racing is a good thing," Menzies said. "As bad as it can get you can feel separated when you are on the bike. It was a huge distraction for me."
The first race back for Menzies was the U.S. Criterium Championships, where he helped his team-mate Kirk O'Bee to claim the national championship by leading him into the final, rain-soaked turn. "I pretty much was the first through that corner, but I swung right and let Kirk through the inside," he said. "Once he and Gilbert went through that was it and I just moved to the fence. From there the only way Kirk was going to lose the jersey was if he dropped it. If he was going for the overall win and not worrying about the jersey he would have won it, but instead he erred on the side of caution."
What followed for Menzies was not a season highlight as much as a blooper as the rest of the race decided to follow him to the fence, causing a massive pile-up. "Kirk was playing it safe around that corner and Martin got a bit of a gap, so I was yelling to my mic to start sprinting! The next thing I know is Tony Cruz coming across my front wheel and Huff with Barrajo coming flying around the corner, side-by-side - and the only place they are going to go is right into me - so I got poll axed from behind. But thankfully it had no bearing on the race."
With the national criterium championship win the team moved on to focus on getting the team NRC win for the fourth year in a row, spending all of a few minutes on the effort. "It wasn't really a goal, we didn't go out to win," said Menzies about the NRC title. "We say it a million times, we go to win races and whatever happens after that always falls into place. If you get the win you are going to get the most points anyways. The only time we went after it was Chris Thater a little, that was the first race we had to defend anything. And we all hated to race like that - it was us following Toyota the whole race - it was all negative racing. But it's what we had to do."
At the final NRC race of the season in Atlanta, Menzies got a chance to repay the favour to Rory Sutherland from 'Toona, as he helped him out in an attempt to secure an individual NRC win for Sutherland. "To lead someone out there can get a bit touchy with a downhill sprint," noted Menzies. "So I played it a bit conservative, moving up when it was safe. If someone is following you there, you lose them once and that's it. So you had to err on the side of caution. We just didn't have enough speed at the end for the race but we set Rory up to be top 10, so it worked out perfect."
On the market
Menzies' results over the past three years put him in a good position as his two-year contract with Health Net-Maxxis came to an end this year. Regardless of teams changing and riders uncertain about their future, Menzies was a sought-after resource - with teams such as BMC and Rock & Republic courting him. But in the end, he decided to stay where he feels most comfortable.
"I had quite a lot of options with different teams who had great team-mates and great directors, but there aren't a lot of teams out there where you'd say I won't ride for them," he expressed. "Every person I talked to were great options. But I have total confidence in my team-mates for next year and what we've started at the end of this year is just going to get better and better. I'm impressed with our young guys like Matty Crane and John Murphy, it'll be good to see these couple of kids mature."
One of the things Menzies had to weigh in his decision was the fact that Health Net-Maxxis has decided to downsize the team for next year, moving back to what used to be considered a division three team, as well as changing leadership roles on the management side. "It was definitely a big question, going back to division three and getting a little smaller...everyone who had signed saw a new direction we are going in - a new director on board and we definitely see the opportunities in it," he said. "You aren't going to sign-up with someone you see as failing, so I definitely have confidence with all of the riders we have."
Looking at himself for next year, Menzies said he would like to better his racing for the Tour of California. "This year California was a huge target and I thought I had my plan and training down, but my legs were just not there," admitted Menzies. "I definitely want to change that plan for next year - I think I will stay out in California after training camp. This year I went back to Boulder for two weeks after and it was just snow and cold, totally miserable outside!"
"I also want to work my sprinting - I'm not fast, I don't pretend to be fast like Gord Fraser or Hendey," he added. "But in certain situations I can put more power to the pedal than other guys and I want to improve that so where if I get to a sprint I know I can win a bunch kick. Also work on Time Trialing for the smaller tours where Time Trials and the time bonuses make the difference. "
Right now Menzies is set to return to Australia for his 'second summer,' preparing to come out swinging early in California. And if he improves there like he bettered his 'Toona performance this year, watch out.