Everyone in a race like Paris-Roubaix has a story. It’s near impossible to consider all the crashes and punctures and hard luck stories. Similarly, it’s difficult to conjure the emotions felt for someone who finished in, say, 24th place.
Zak Dempster is a rider on one of the wildcard teams, Bora-Argon 18, who got to contest the race for the fourth time. He is the guy who came 24th. He is also a guy who crashed and broke a wheel and considered quitting… then he realised where he was and what he was doing. So he kept going.
At the end, after reflecting on six weeks away from home with his soigneur he was given some surprising news…
Click the SoundCloud file to listen to Zak’s story and/or read the transcript below…
Roubaix Q&A with Zak Dempster
RIDE: I’m talking with Zak Dempster. He had a big ride on the weekend in a race in France. And then a compatriot of yours won it, otherwise we’d be saying how great your performance was because it was a good one for Australia.
Zak Dempster: “Yeah, I don’t think anyone could fault Mat Hayman’s passion for racing in general but especially the cobbled Classics and seeing him win gives a lot of hope to all the guys that try year in, year out.
“It’s always unbelievable that things like that come off still in a race like that but if they do then it’s cool.
“I don’t think you can pick anyone that deserves it more or appreciates what he’s actually done over the years, let alone on Sunday.”
You finished… 21st?
“I finished 24th.”
And that in itself is a remarkable ride but you were well off the pace and we didn’t really see you because The Show was really happening up front. Tell us about your experience.
“Yeah, so I crashed, I guess, five kilometres before the first section [of pavé]. I broke a wheel and I got winded… I got back on my bike and I was out the back of the convoy even and then I somehow fought back onto the convoy through a town and I spent about the first three or four sectors off the back, just in the cars and somehow [got] back on.
“To be honest, I sort of thought, ‘Ah, I’ll just get back to a grupetto’ because the race is splitting to bits and I’ll ride to the track because it’s Paris-Roubaix and it’s a privilege to be able to ride it so I didn’t want to just jump in the car or something. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself, I don’t think, if I was capable of keeping on going.
“Then I got back [to the peloton] at the feed and just sort of decided, ‘Oh well, I’ll press reset now I’m back…’ and I had pretty good legs. I could push all the time…
“Okay, I wasn’t in that break. It would have been good to be there but fortune favours the brave, doesn’t it? And I probably didn’t push as hard as I should have.”
It’s also that lottery isn’t it? Mathew was telling me [on Monday] that he found it easier being in the break and being able to sort of ‘cruise’ the cobbles and hit the road hard. How did you ride it?
“I sort of rode flat-out all the way to the track!
“It’s hard to explain it.
“It’s almost like riding a Bay Crit but for a really long time and with cobbles as well. You’re just like jumping into corners and jumping out of them… and usually you just stay in a line. But if you just stay set on the wheel in Roubaix – or any of the cobbled Classics actually – you lose like 10 or 15 places straight away, let alone if you touch your brakes. And then you lose 20 or 30.
“And then something is always going to happen.
“Like, even when I got back on, there were two more crashes and I was chasing again and that’s why positioning is so important and everyone is so aggressively trying to get to the front and taking risks – that’s just part of it.
“That’s just what it’s like: it’s like a crit but for six hours. And with cobbles. And way harder. The risks are the same, I guess.”
We’ve often asked the question about power. Did you monitor it on Sunday?
“Yeah. I averaged about 280 watts with zeros. And I think it was like a 335 normalised, or something like that.”
Okay. For five hours and 50 minutes…
“Yeah, close to six hours.”
Does it feel like an extraordinary day at the office or how do you take it in?
“I guess you get so gee-ed for it as well and [it marks] the end of the Classics campaign for most – like not many guys do [much] more after this, so you do have a break and you’re away so long…
“Since [Omloop Het] Nieuwsblad (27 February) I’ve been back in my own apartment – my own environment, away from the team – for four nights.
“We’ve had training camps and all those things.
“I know that’s not significant stuff or anything like that but you really crave that normality.
“Like right now I’m lying on my lounge room rug; no one is bothering me, no one is doing anything.
“I was speaking with Mitch Docker about it before [Roubaix]. There are so many things we look forward to doing this week when we have got that bit of freedom and then trying to stay concentrated on the race, which I was. And then, when you’re in the race situation you’re just thinking about that but it’s that build up – it’s like the end of term exams.
“You’re just building up for the best race of the year and, as well as that, you get to go home after it. So it’s pretty cool.”
It’s good that you mentioned Mitch. I tried to call him earlier but he’s still in hospital and is expecting an 11-hour ambulance transfer back to Spain. Have you spoken to him since his accident.
“We text. I’ve been speaking with his parents a little bit…
“I got to the bus [after Roubaix] and I didn’t see anything because I was in front of [the accident] but Shane Archbold got to the bus and said, ‘Call Mitch’s mum and dad right now and make sure that he’s okay.’ It was haunting.
“And then I’ve seen the one photo that I think everyone has seen and I felt so worried and so sick to see him like that. It sucks you know.
“It’s part of the sport and you think about the things that have happened the last few weeks and [realise]: we dance on the edge sometimes.”
And thankfully you arrived safely in the velodrome. And did you go through the rigmarole? Did you get to speak with Mathew? Did you go to the shower? How is it really for the bike rider? Is it really like that gladiatorial finish?
“Yeah. I’ve been four times to that track now; I’ve started four and finished four. And you get there and I just want to sit on the grass for a little bit and enjoy it with the soigneur that I’ve been working with for all that time. His name is Lars and it was really nice to enjoy that with him because they are almost like your Sherpa: you know, you’re training and races go shit sometimes and then you think you’re shit and you’re trying to solve [problems] the whole time…
“And we spoke a lot about Roubaix and it was really nice to just sit there with him on the grass.
“I happy with my result – especially considering the crash early on – and it was a cool moment to just sit there and enjoy it.”
Did you stay there and watch the podium?
“No, I didn’t see the podium actually.
“But then ‘Durbo’ came over to me and I didn’t even know Mat had won – I just assumed Boonen or someone like that had won. Then [Luke] came over and said ‘Well done’ and we had a hug and he said to me, ‘Hayman won!’
“And I was like, ‘What!? That’s crazy!’
“It was a bit like I mentioned before. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t even know he was starting. Early in the race I was next to Durbo and we were having a laugh when we were jumping around for breaks and stuff. Then I saw Hayman and I go, ‘Hey man! Good to see you. I didn’t know you were coming.’
“And then all of a sudden, he’d won Roubaix. It was out of control: it’s awesome.”
It is amazing. I picked him for years and I didn’t nominate him at all, didn’t mention him because I didn’t even know that he could make it back [from injury]. So I was like you and a lot of other people… but there’s a wide acknowledgement of joy in the Australian cycling community because of it and it’s really quite pleasant. Do you experience that over there? Do you feel that recognition?
“Yeah, definitely. [Monday night] we had a few drinks with our closer friends and Dan Jones finished off the Backstage Pass so we went out and had pizzas and a few drinks and watched what he put together. It was a really cool moment…
“It was like watching a film clip and you see a life of, I don’t know… for Mat especially it was such a big moment… But I’m doing races as well and you see how cool it is, what we are creating for ourselves – all these memories and stuff like that.
“No one deserves a day as cool as that more than Mat Hayman.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold