Zach McDonald talks like he rides: he cuts to the chase and rarely holds anything back. He’s an American cyclocross racer full of candor who won’t tip-toe on eggshells, but instead focuses on the art of the racing line above other things. He graced the cover of our Issue 22 just as he sustained an injury that would lead to a season he later described as “kind of crappy.”
Now that he and Rapha-Focus have parted ways, he has joined forces with KCCX. Flying the colors of his new team, McDonald is preparing to start the cyclocross season out with a bang by contesting the early season UCI cyclocross race in China along with Ryan Trebon, Justin Lindine and a slew of other Americans.
The move from Rapha-Focus to Kansas-based KCCX is quite a change. KCCX owner (and 2007/2008 Cyclocross National Championships promoter) Bill Marshall said he initially contacted Zach McDonald in 2009 in hopes of signing the rising star to take his racing program to the next level, but McDonald was about to join Rapha Focus at the time.
Although Jeremy Powers told Cyclocross Magazine at Sea Otter in April that the Rapha Focus team was no more, and that he’d be doing his own program (which he recently named Aspire Racing), McDonald didn’t officially hear until May that the team was ending, according to Marshall, but after receiving the email that the team was ending, McDonald reconnected with Marshall and restarted their talks.
“That’s when we really sat down, I put everything to paper what my expectations were, he put everything to paper what his expectations were, and what we needed to do to get the ball rolling,” Marshall told Cyclocross Magazine. The pair quickly came to agreement, and five years after Marshall initially contacted McDonald, he finally landed his target rider.
Since their agreement, Marshall worked quickly to line up new sponsors, and as a result, McDonald and the KCCX team will be switching from Fuji to Ridley Bikes this season. McDonald and team will be riding the flagship Ridley X-Night model, with Challenge Tires as a tire sponsor.
In an exclusive interview, we connected with McDonald as he was preparing for the season to discuss his new team, his season to forget, and his 2014 program.
Cyclocross Magazine: The biggest news is that you’re changing to KCCX this year. How did that relationship come about?
Zach McDonald: I’ve known the team personnel for a while, but the opportunity has never been there. We almost had a past partnership, but the Rapha-Focus deal came through and I’ve been riding with them for the last four years. Now this year I was looking for a team, Bill [Marshall] was there and able to help me out.
CXM: Do you anticipate any changes this year, or more specifically, how will joining KCCX affect travel, support, mechanics that follow you?
ZM: Of course it will be different. Rapha-Focus is like a full factory program…it doesn’t get better than that with their support program, which is one of the best in the country, maybe even compared to many European teams. On the other hand, Bill knows how to get things done, and working with him means you’re operating on a pro level and everything runs according to plan. I’ll have consistent mechanics at most of the races, but in some cases, it won’t be logistically possible to do that.
CXM: Will you have a similar schedule?
ZM: I hope so; we’re still running through that. Depends on the budget. I don’t think we’ll have the money to go to Europe, but domestically it should be similar. Sponsors are going to get their biggest return for riders staying here, unless your name is Logan Owen, because you’re not expected to get on the podium. No sponsor says, “Hey, look, our guy got 47th in the latest World Cup!” That really doesn’t roll off the tongue. Plus it’s logistically more difficult to send riders over there.
CXM: You’ll be switching to a Ridley with Challenge tires, any specifics you are getting excited about for this year?
ZM: I don’t think it will take too long getting used to the bikes. I’m looking forward to riding them. For me it’s always fun getting used to the new riding positions, there’s an entertainment factor in getting the bike dialed and making a few early mistakes until everything comes together. I think I’ll be on the new SRAM CX1 [1x11] system and looking forward to it.
CXM: How does your class load look at the University of Washington this upcoming fall?
ZM: I’ll be back to where I was a few years ago. Last year I took a minimum amount of classes while still being enrolled, basically I took one class last spring quarter.
CXM: What’s your current focus?
ZM: I switched from aerospace engineering to business finance, and I will be looking to law school after I’m done with my undergrad, and that’s when I will be making the biggest decisions, like what I will do with my racing.
CXM: Do you foresee any challenges in balancing the workload?
ZM: I took some classes in the summer terms to help balance the load for the fall and winter, so we relaxed the training program for a few weeks. Obviously looking forward to law school, I have to keep my grades up.
CXM: How do you think it will be getting to the start line with Jeremy Powers now that the two of you are no longer teammates?
ZM: It probably won’t be much different. The cycling community is so small, and we’ll just be in different colors. We’d be in different colors anyway since he’ll be wearing the red, white, and blue. I bled a lot of points last year, so I think I will be on the second row anyways. That stretch of UCI C1 races last year hurt me a little bit, which I had done well in previous years, so I did have those points to lose.
CXM: Powers talked freely about his ideas for a new team during Sea Otter in April. Did you feel caught off guard when learned you would have to be looking for other opportunities?
ZM: Not exactly. Although for me the official confirmation came late, and then I felt like I had to quickly nail down new sponsors.
CXM: What has your offseason training been looking like?
ZM: Well, this was the week I hurt myself last year, so this year so far so good. I had to do a bit of restructuring with school, but I did a few local road races and see huge benefits with motorpacing. I like local crits: they’re low key. As long as I can stay competitive in the races they keep me interested.
CXM: Now that the whole St. Louis Gateway Cup barrier fiasco has blown over, how do you reflect back on that race?
ZM: I wouldn’t call it much of a fiasco. A few people got bent out of shape, but I really just stayed out of it and let it run its course. The rules have been explained to me, but I still think they are rather vague. The rules are so open to interpretation, and they should really just rewrite the rule. I come from a downhill riding background, so I think between the tape, and picking the best line is just ingrained in my brain. But I broke a rule, got punished for it, and now it’s over. [Ed. Note: Our poll at the time suggested that more of you blame the promoter and officials.]
CXM: You are considered a very technically savvy rider, so how do you approach a power-heavy course like CrossVegas?
ZM: I try and sit in and save as much energy as possible. Doing crits in the summer is my training for that. I know where I’ll be strong, which is in the corners. Anywhere I can save energy, I try to close gaps in those corners or open one. Anywhere I can be more efficient than the other riders is what I’m going to do.
CXM: Last year at Nationals you got some flack on social media for drinking beer right after pulling out of the race while it was still going on. Now that you’re starting a fresh season, do you feel like you would say that drinking during the race after a DNF is a part of cyclocross culture, or have your thoughts changed on this?
ZM: This is the first I’ve heard that I got crap for it.
CXM: Yeah, there were a few social threads concerning you with a beer in your hand while the race was still going on. So what would your reaction to these critics be, to shrug it off or change the approach?
ZM: It’s just like the barriers, I have to shrug it off. I think there’s always two sides to the pro rider aspect. I’ll get crap for both and I know other riders will too. Out there we have a job to do, and it’s to race our bikes. We’ll get crap for not spending enough time with fans when we’re instead spending 40 to 50 minutes on the trainer, or on the other side, you could get crap for not doing well in a race. As for Nationals, I don’t see any problem with it. I was more or less already out of the race. I don’t see how anyone could expect someone with bronchitis to go out to altitude and do well in that race.
CXM: I know there’s a spectrum of riders out there who would approach this issue in different ways.
ZM: Well, exactly. I don’t mind if people don’t like it, and I don’t mind if people like it. I was done [with the race] and somebody just handed me a beer. I’ll have some fun and continue on for another day.
CXM: Are you looking forward to the UCI race in China?
ZM: Yeah! I’m making preparations now, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m heading out to China, then coming right back for a clinic and then going off to race CrossVegas, so there’s not a lot of room for getting sick. But part of the fun for me is making the travel arrangements work and being able to follow through, like racing in Vegas and no one realizing you were racing in China just a week and a half before.
CXM: Are you working on phrases in Chinese?
ZM: No, I have such a busy schedule, with landing, racing, I think we’ll have a community ride on Sunday, and then soon after head back, so there’s not much going on otherwise.
CXM: Did you feel like making the cover of our Issue 22 set the right expectations for you?
ZM: [laughs] Probably, I don’t know! It would have been nice if I hadn’t gotten injured right before it came out. It will take me a little time to get back into it, with the new team this may be a working year as well. We’ll do our best, but we’re on a long-term recovery plan from the injury. We’re rebuilding from there and rolling with the punches. We’ll be moving up from there.
CXM: We look forward to seeing you back running at full gas. Thanks for your time.
ZM: It’ll be fun to be back in that situation. Thank you!