PEZ Talk: Canadian Champ, Zach Bell
The last time we caught up with Canada’s Zach Bell (Champion System) was just after he’d won stage Four of the UCI 2.1 Tour de Taiwan, back in the spring. Since then he’s been busy; collecting another stage in a Far Eastern race – the Tour of Korea – and pulling on the maple leaf jersey of Canadian Elite Road Race Champion.
Prior to that Taiwan stage, Bell’s last international road win was in his breakthrough year of 2007, riding for the Symmetrics team, with stage wins in the Vuelta a El Salvador and Delta Tour in Canada, plus the overall GC in the latter.
He was second in the individual time trial at the Pan Am Championships; won the Burnaby six day track race in Canada and took a World Cup silver in the scratch race at Melbourne behind German strong man, Roger Kluge.
In 2008, still with Symmetrics, he rode the Olympic points and madison; won again at Burnaby and in the Delta Tour and won a World Cup scratch in Cali, Columbia. The following year he signed with Kelly Benefits and took overall victory in the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic in the US, also winning the Bank of America Wilmington GP.
On the track there were more World Cup placings and a silver medal in the fledgling World Omnium Championship, behind talented Australian, Leigh Howard.
Commonwealth Games year, 2010 and still with Kelly saw him take bronze in the scratch in Delhi behind World Points Champion, Cameron Meyer as well as standing on World Cup podiums in Australia, China and Columbia.
Season 2011 and now with SpiderTech, again saw numerous World Cup podiums and an overall win in the UCI Omnium World Cup competition, as well as third in his National Championship Elite Road Race Championship behind Svein Tuft. His final tune up race for the 2012 Melbourne Track Worlds was the World Cup omnium in London where he finished third.
He duly converted World Cup bronze to Worlds silver in Melbourne – but unfortunately couldn’t keep the progression going through to London and the Olympics.
For 2013, after the untimely folding of Spider Tech he’s with Pro Continental squad Champion System and focusing on the road. We caught up with Bell soon after he’d been earning plaudits for his aggressive riding in Norway’s Arctic Tour.
PEZ: Tell us about your stage win in Korea please, Zach.
It was another one of those days that’s just different. We started in the host city for the 2018 Winter Olympics, on top of a mountain, in a thick fog and then plunged for 10 kilometres down a descent, barely able to see three or four riders in front of you. The Day had some pretty significant climbs and I was motivated to stay with what would surely be a dwindling lead group.
After the first significant (10 km) climb of the day and about 10 km of chasing solo I found myself back in the lead group that was about 20 riders. It would swell to about 40 over the next few km and the attacks started again fairly quickly. A new selection formed of about 12 that included myself and my team mate Kai Feng. The group had several GC riders in it so the pressure stayed on right to the end of the race.
In the end Kai came by me at about 800m to go and just put me in a perfect position to finish off the sprint from the group. Everyone in the group worked hard and I needed some of the best legs I have had all year both for the sprint and to make the selection. It was great win to get because it was the product of great team work as well as tactical and physical ability. It’s hard to get all of these things right on the same day.
When you do it is nice to be rewarded by crossing a fresh finish line.
PEZ: What’s the Tour of Korea like – are there big crowds, good media organisation and media coverage ?
It was another great race in Asia. At the start I was a bit sceptical but the organization pulled though. The crowd presence went up and down but there was certainly people out to see the race. It’s obvious that the sport is growing and still trying to gain traction in Korea.
But it was a healthy event and with consistency and a growing number of Korean riders finding success I expect to see the support for the event and the sport continue to grow.
PEZ: And you’ve been winning in Canada – Devo and White Rock . .
I’ve had a steady supply of the kind of form I need to find myself at the front of bike races of various levels this year. It has been refreshing to be fairly competitive since March. It has been a lot of hard work and focus on just becoming a better road rider.
It was my hope that this year I could build a foundation of fitness that would allow me to be more competitive in the longer grueling road events and so far that seems to be happening. But in the end I think a lot of the success has just been about racing without pressure and just having fun.
Taking it day to day and taking advantage of any opportunity that presents itself. It has given me a chance to enjoy more of the racing this year and race in the moment and not worry as much about what I am preparing for and what might put that next thing in jeopardy.
PEZ: And there were the Nationals, of course – tell us about that one.
Well I knew going in it was a course that I should be able to be competitive on. It was a challenging course but no climbs long enough to put me right out of it, especially with the form I seemed to have going out of Korea.
But in all honesty I though my chance of coming away with a medal from the Olympics last year was far better then me winning the National Road title. In the end though it just came down to me trying to engage in the race have fun with it and not leave anything out there.
I wanted to come off my bike feeling like I did all I could to be a part of the race. Once the move formed I knew I had a chance and I just tried to do all the right things to keep the group moving and keep myself fresh. It was a hard day on the bike but I am glad I was able to win it the way I did. Every rider fought hard for the win.
It was real bike racing and now it’s one of those wins you take with you even beyond your career.
PEZ: But only fourth in the TT – we’re used to seeing you on the podium . .
Yes, well I had a very tight travel time from Korea to Quebec. Also I have focused my energy on the road racing this year and had limited time and access to the TT machine.
I think before the Nationals I spent maybe two hours on it. All of these things led to me and the bike maybe not being as cohesive as I have been in the past. The TT requires a very specific kind of attention and I was very conscious about trying to get better at one thing this year and that is road racing. I think many other parts of my riding have been sacrificed for that goal but they have not been lost – just set aside.
When the road foundation is finally set I hope to polish up some of the other pieces again and the TT will certainly be something I hope to get back.
PEZ: Has the jersey gained you a lot of exposure ?
I definitely think it changes the way you’re seen as a rider. But I have not done too many races with it just yet. At first I struggled with the weight of it a bit.
In my own head I had gone from having no expectations for myself and no pressure to a place where I felt I had to live up to what the jersey represents. As time goes by I’m just proud to be able to have it on when I start a race. It has presented me with some opportunities to talk about my home and my team, Champion System a bit more which is always an honor as an athlete.
PEZ: How much of your road success this year is down to you not riding the track ?
I think it goes both ways. Without the intensity of the training and track preparation over the past few years I would undoubtedly be lacking many of the tools I needed to win races.
With all that focus though I was like a handyman without a truck when it came to road racing. I had a lot of the tools to do the job but I could never get them to the places I needed them. This year has been about getting the truck running.
It also means that some of the tools have sat in a box and may not be as sharp as they once where but at least they see the finish line and are starting to leave their marks there. So to answer your question I think the success on the road has come in large part due to the fact that I can rest and recover and focus on the one thing that has given me trouble in road races before. But I do think the track work will continue to pay dividends into the future.
PEZ: Have you started to think about the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, yet ?
In so much as I have talked about it yes. The Commonwealth Games is a special event for me.
It was the first big goal of my career. The first place I saw what racing at a high level could be like. Glasgow will be a special environment for these games as well so it is certainly something I want to try and fit into my future.
PEZ: If you ride Games track as well as road will you not have to ride qualifying races ?
It’s my understanding that as a medalist from the last Commonwealth Games I have a spot on the team without any pre requisite qualification needed. Now whether that is a track spot, road spot or both I suppose is up to the organization.
Right now I don’t know what my involvement will look like exactly but I do think I have shown that I have the capacity to be an asset to the Canadian team in a variety of capacities.
PEZ: Tell us about the ‘Arctic race’ in Norway.
I am in the process of writing a full length piece on this for a publication so I can’t give too much away! What I can say is that it was a really fantastic and healthy race to be a part of. It was one of the most unique racing experiences of my life.
I felt really privileged to be a part of its first running and it is a race I would try to keep on my calendar in the future. Plus being that far north, I couldn’t help but feel a little more at home then I usually do in bike races.
PEZ: You were most aggressive rider on the last day – is that a Champion System hallmark ?
I don’t know that it is a hallmark of our team. As a team we are exceptionally grateful to all of the races that choose to include us.
Not that we don’t feel we are deserving of the invites we get but we understand that there are many teams that may have athletes that deserve to be there just as much. I think in a lot of the racing now teams say, “oh we have this sprinter or we have this climber so we are going to look after them because that is what the biggest teams do”. But if everyone does that it not only makes a lot of the racing boring for the spectators because the whole group sits back waiting, but it also doesn’t make a lot of sense.
In reality there are only a couple of guys on every start line that have a better then average chance of winning the race as a pure “whatever”. If everyone else sits back and plays the same tactic it is like saying “yeah we will try to win but only in a way that is ok with you guys at the top”. This may lead to a result (top five ?) or something but in the end how many wins will you get ?
As a team we are growing and realizing that we need to engaging in racing our bikes. That means taking chances. That means putting on a show and trying to do things a little differently. We have a lot of strong guys but if we are not aggressive it means many days our guys can’t use the tools they have to put the big teams under pressure.
Yeah we don’t often put on enough pressure to crack the bigger teams but even if we don’t we still put on a show and as professionals that is part of our job as well. Being aggressive is always a gamble, but sometimes the gambles pay off, and for our team it is often better to try the gamble then be a spectator to the glory of someone else.
PEZ: Korea, Canada, Norway; you have a pretty cosmopolitan programme – doesn’t that take it out of you ?
Champion System has been really good with trying to balance my program in terms of travel. It does wear you out but if you do get it right it makes for fewer days but more meaningful contributions to the team results.
I have a lot of good rides for the team this year but I have not been subjected to a grueling schedule like many of our other guys have been. I think the variety has helped to keep my mind fresh. I have had a good mix of races that are both challenging and great opportunities for results.
PEZ: You rode Koln – how well was that race supported given the ‘down’ on cycling in Germany ?
It seemed to me like a very healthy event. A beautiful course and a great deal of fanfare, particularly at the end.
PEZ: Will we see you in action in Alberta, Quebec or Montreal ?
Alberta is on the plan now. Quebec/Montreal are not on the Team Plan but there may be some possibilities with national team projects. But this has not been worked out just yet.
# With thanks again to Zach for his time and patience and to Champion System press officer, Sean Weide for making this interview happen. #