“I’m definitely super-stoked with how I was riding, it’s been awhile since I was up there, it’s been a couple of years. I’ve never been actually in the group too I’ve always been dangling in the back.” a muddy Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus) said after the U23 GVA Azencross race.
A strong ending for McDonald to his Christmas racing in Belgium. Though you might not know by just looking at the results, the espoir rider was battling in the front group. Not only was top 10 in his grasp but top 5 and possibly a podium finish. That is until he was taken down in a crash with two laps to go.
“I was like in sixth or something and I was riding faster than all those guys in the mud and that snow crap. I’m just trying not to get too pissed so that’s why I’m only a little pissed.” McDonald said seconds after crossing the line in 19th. “On the mud they were struggling like none other and then I’d get dropped on the pavement so that every lap I was dropped here [finish straightaway] and right after that first corner there I’d catch them. It wasn’t ideal for sure, I had fun, I got a gap on the last lap so accomplished that goal.”
One rider, eventual winner Belgian Wietse Bosmans (BKCP-Powerplus), was off the front when a group caught the 5-rider chase group that included McDonald on the finish straight pavement just before the course took a left turn into the narrower muddy section.
“They caught us on the pavement and then everyone sprinted into the corner, about eight wide and I was just dangling in the back, like ‘whatever there’s mud, f*** all those guys’.” But the momentum and ruts took riders to the right where McDonald was and then the crash. “Two guys were behind me and I was like on top. At that point, there’s nothing [I could do], I started to back off and heard a ‘kkrrrra’ and some dude’s bike hits me on the back. So I got around and came back up to speed but after that you aren’t coming back, at least I’m not coming back.”
The conditions in Loenhout were perfect for McDonald. With the temperatures a few degrees above freezing, some of the snow had starting to melt giving mud, tractor-pull kind of mud in certain sections but still surrounded by snow. Finding a line was difficult for many riders but not McDonald who relishes technical muddy courses.
“The mud was pretty slow, I ended up in the snow a lot but if you can hit the ruts and keep your momentum going you can just keep going. As long as you keep your momentum you can fly, so I was cutting in the snow.”
After a slow start, McDonald moved up to the lead group. “I was a ways back at the start start, got to the front group, I was dangling around 17th for awhile.” Then McDonald used his skills on some of the ‘bumps’. “The area after the two roller things, you go through the trees and there are two bumps, everyone messed those up and I just skated through them and then I was in third.”
“Van den Haar started to come by me and I just pushed by him I don’t need him breathing down my neck.” laughed McDonald when talking about European Champion Lars van den Haar who was also in the lead group. “He remembered me, he’s not going to put me into the fence or anything but he’s still a little guy, he can come underneath me so I got by him and then I was just sitting there for awhile, dying on the road for sure but I was trying not to be cocky I was stronger than most of them in the mud. Bosmans was off the front then obviously he was the strongest but it’s so much easier to ride alone.”
In some spots McDonald chose to ride instead of running, including some of the slow turns by the techno tent (yes there is often a techno tent). “Those are really slow, I was riding those and people were running, people would pass me but then when they’d remount I’d pass them back. And it allowed me, after the last one I got a lot more speed through that long section before the pit, I was able to pass people, I wanted to try and get around most of them I’d pass them in the snow and hopefully put a little bit of a gap.”
With less than three to go and only Bosmans off the front, McDonald started to think about making a move. “I was like alright this might not be bad, maybe I can try to get around them in the mud and just go for it, I wasn’t expecting to beat them but at least gap them so they’d have to come back to me, hopefully make them a little bit more tired for the road and then I got caught up in that crash and f***.”
With the Elite Men’s race coming up, McDonald then took off to do one pre-ride lap with his EuroCrossCamp housemates. But before leaving, he was sharing tips: “The mud is super slow and the snow is super fast. When you come off this [straightaway], you’ll see the ruts and the flat between them, the flat’s really hard. Skate the flat and work your way right.” And they were off.
Fifteen minutes later, we continued our conversation as McDonald, still picking mud off his face, was smiling and happy with his trip and his four races. “I’m definitely content, definitely a good ending well kind of a good ending, it was going to be a good ending,” he laughed. “hopefully. That’s bike racing and at least it was by another racer.” Another laugh. McDonald was taken down at USA U23 Cyclocross Nationals by a spectator that made his way on course.
“I’m happy because I was up there, that’s always a start and I have two more years to get up there too, hopefully I’ll get faster.” Two more World Cups on the UCI calendar before the World Championships. “I’ll be back for Hoogerheide, maybe Pont-Château but that’s kind of a logistical nightmare, I’m not going to end up in the World Cup in the top two rows anyway, third row no matter what because I don’t have enough UCI points.”
McDonald is now back home to rest, train and do a fundraiser before returning to Europe and some then some time off. Studying aeronautical engineering at University of Washington-Seattle, he’s thinking of taking the winter quarter off and going back for the spring quarter. Like other athletes, he’s balancing schedules. “I started last fall and after this quarter, I’ll finally not be a freshman.” he nodded and laughed when I asked if he was on the Driscoll 6-year plan.
And balancing weather this year. “The problem with this year is that we had a couple of snow days back home, one of our tests was moved and so I had scheduled around the test in its original spot and then they moved it to a day I was gone and then I got a make-up and instead of doing a multiple choice one I had to do an essay test and that screwed my grade.”
The current US Cyclocross Collegiate D1 Champion is also contemplating not racing Collegiate. “With the Collegiate there’s always one class that’s like the random class [I have to take], so I might just stop racing Collegiate and just be part-time. The extra class is not really hard but it’s just an extra thing and that might helps a little bit. It’s not the riding but more the focus on school, not having to deal with that extra class.”
McDonald concluded. “We’ll see what next year brings and hopefully I can stay quick.”