Don’t let the seemingly lackadaisical attitude (or the hairy legs) from the youngest member of the Rapha Focus Cyclocross team fool you, he is serious about his racing just as he is serious about his schooling. And there’s the rub for the 20-year old (almost 21) Zach McDonald who might soon be facing a tough decision, school or racing.
To facilitate his racing this year, McDonald switched his major at the University of Wa.shington from Aeronautical Engineering to Business. And it paid off results-wise this year with the overall U23 USGP title, a very strong solo win at the USA U23 National Championships in Madison and a fourth place after an amazing chase the following day in the Elite race won by his teammate Jeremy Powers.
Europe was also on his schedule. In October, he claimed 10th at the U23 World Cup in Tabor but his second trip to race at the Koksijde World Cup in November caused havoc with his schedule. After a somewhat-forced break in December, McDonald returned to EuroCrossCamp before winning his title in Madison. That led into the final two races to ramp up for the World Championships where once again, after a bad start, McDonald chased back to finish 12th at the final World Cup in Hoogerheide, Belgium.
With his proven technical skills, the goal was for a top 10 at the World Championships on the tough sandy course in Koksijde.
“I’m confident in my sand riding, it’s more an ability to hold a rut more or less so and knowing when to get off and when to stop.” McDonald said. “We’ve solidified that I don’t need to work on that in my training program so we just go pure fitness. This year I was riding with road wheels every day.”
But once again, his nemesis hit. Another bad start which pushed him back to mid-30s in the field. And another chase after which he crossed the line in 12th.
“There’s only been a few races this year where I’ve been able to pull everything together. I know I can start, the question is actually doing it consistently. The races where I pulled it off together were Cincinnati, Elite Nationals, when it comes together, it comes together, I just haven’t been able to get it all in one race.” McDonald said a few minutes after crossing the finish line.
But even though he’s been talked about as the future of American Cyclocross, McDonald says that he is not feeling any pressure. “I’ve always done my own thing and if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
We sat down with McDonald at the team house in Belgium a few days before the World Championships to get to know a bit more this complex individual who wants to do it his own way.
Let’s talk about your amazing form at the end of the season. Was this all according to plan?
I don’t really divulge too much of my training program (chuckles). Always the ultimate goal is to be fast the whole season and we’re getting better, I’m definitely a lot more consistent than I was last year.
I don’t remember such a strong finish last year.
Last season I wasn’t consistent, I was good one day and a little bit slower the next day. The goal is to be fast the whole season, you can definitely look at this season, I was faster before I started school and I was, I guess, faster after. They’re all skewed at how poor December went, I had a lot of time off the bike in December and a lot of easy rides. It was almost a rest period in December and then we used the races at EuroCrossCamp more as training races, so we brought it back from there to bring the form for the rest of the season because December was (pause) – I probably took more or less close to half of December off, just not in succession, random.
Was it for school?
No. After I got back from Koksijde, I didn’t really ride that week and then I raced California which I shouldn’t have, that dug me into a deeper hole. I just didn’t get back into my sleeping schedule after Koksijde like I did after Tabor. I just didn’t manage that week very well at all, like when I raced in California, I had to get up to the airport at 5:30, I didn’t feel asleep before I got up to go to the airport so the only sleep I got for the races in California was the plane ride. So I just shouldn’t have raced and did race and then it was actually Saturday night where I got back fully into my sleep schedule but it’s still wasn’t… I had no sleep that week, it just didn’t mesh with my school schedule. Like Tabor, I came back a day later, I came back on Monday instead of Sunday, which really did mesh with my school as far as when I needed to get to sleep. Because one day I had an 11:30 class and the next day I had a 2 o’clock class so it meshed well with Tabor, it didn’t mesh well with Koksijde. And I really shouldn’t have raced California but I did and that kind of screwed up the rest of December, so we were trying not to break the ice for Bend and took some time after Bend and went to Europe so used those European races to try to get so more endurance.
Looking at it maybe it was a blessing in disguise.
It would have been nice to take a legitimate break, a real break after Koksijde, a legit week off. Because it would have been nice to be fast when I was over here in Europe versus I couldn’t even finish a 50-minute race. I was struggling, with one or two to go, I was hitting the wall.
Coming for Europe for training is…
Well the ticket was already booked. That’s what we changed it to once we hit the first race, this isn’t going to work then it was alright these are training races, not necessarily racing to get a result.
So how long have you been racing cross?
My fifth year over here so maybe one year before that.
How much are you adjusting every year, learning with your training and your preparation and your racing? Has it changed a lot?
The training plan is pretty similar, I just follow it a little bit more. Originally I didn’t follow it so now I actually follow it and actually do all my training which helps a lot. It hasn’t really changed, obviously workouts get longer as races get longer, all that fun stuff and just adjusting as it goes and learning on the way.
Why were you not following your training plan before?
I just wasn’t as into the sport. I’d burned out of a lot of sports before and still I’m not like (smiles) there is still a lot more that I could do than I am which I like that option, that there is something else I can do and not be maxed out.
Are you able to compartmentalize school and racing, to think of school when you’re in school and racing when you’re at a race?
Yeah, it’s definitely hard when you do really well at a race and then come back and try to focus on school but at the same time, I have no issue in school actually focusing if I like the class I’m in. I’ve gotten 4.0s in full blown race season and I’ve gotten 3.5s in full blown race season and those are the two extremes that I’ve hit in the race season. And so if I like the classes, it’s no problem I pay attention, if I don’t like the classes…. I don’t put any less effort in school because I’m racing.
So you approach school the same way you approach racing?
Yeah, more of less you could say. The one thing that gets me with the racing, no matter what the class or how easy the class is, I hate missing class so. I was on the road I think 30 days this season, there’s 70 days in the quarter because of the 10-week quarter and I think I flew about 45,000 miles but I never missed a day of class. That’s where the weekend trips to Europe came in, I have no class on Friday, I could fly out Friday, get there Saturday, race Sunday, come home Monday and I just made sure, my Monday class is either 1:30 or 2:30 and so I’d land at 11:45 or something like that, go home, throw everything inside, shower, change and go to class.
Good thing you’re young. How long do you think you can sustain that?
We’ll find out (laughs) With all the travel I made sure my school schedule would adapt, and that’s why I’m in Business now instead of Engineering. Business you can get away with not having class on Friday which helps a ton but the Engineering I was having more fights with the school about missing exams and stuff, that was more an issue with that, not the missing the class but not as much flexibility when you have 40,000 other kids at your school.
Are you okay with that? I know that you liked Engineering.
(sigh) It lets me race. Every time I fly I want to go back to Aero, so we’ll see what happens, maybe post back.
Where are you? Are you on the Jamey Driscoll six-year schedule?
I think I’m longer than Driscoll. I’m 70 credits deep and that’s after three years. It’s 90 credits to be a junior, I’m not too far behind as far as actual quarters go, this is the third winter quarter I haven’t gone since I started just which is all of them because I’m over here and I have not found a teacher that’s too stoked that I’m missing the first weeks. That only thing that sucks about that is that the rest of the quarter I’m doing nothing, so it would be a great time for me to be in school.
That’s tough. Do you want to keep continuing for awhile and see what happens?
We’ll figure it out after U23 because what will happen then is I’ll either race full-time probably or the other option which would work out pretty well is if I didn’t race in Europe, or if I only raced Worlds and didn’t do these two World Cups. Then I could one more quarter which would allow me to do winter, spring, summer in succession which would then allow me to go back into Engineering. Another thing when you skip winter quarter, I can never take any sequence class in sequence so I would take Chem142 and then wait a year to take Chem152, wait another year, take Chem162. So I’ve already run into the same problem with math so I’m done with math until I can actually get some succession in my schedule, then I could not go in the fall and go (to school) in the other three, or go fall, winter, spring and take summer off. If I didn’t have the two World Cups to hit.
And you have one more year as a U23.
Yes. Hopefully we’ll have it figured out, or that’s what I tell myself at least. (laughs)
Heck, you could be an engineer and become a media person.
I’ve thought about graphics design instead of business. I could do it on the road.
What else do you do apart from school?
Bike riding. A lot of music, a lot of nothing.
Like a lot of bike riders.
(nods) A lot of music, I’m trying to go skiing a lot in the off season, we’ll see how it works out.
How were your last two World Cup races in Europe? How different is it for you not knowing the competitors as much as you do in the US?
I don’t know them personally but I know who most of them are. It’s pretty familiar as far as the first two lines, all the same guys. The same guys you saw as juniors, that you saw last year, the same guys you’re racing with at all the World Cups except that I tend to start poorly, and then you’re back in the 40s so then you don’t know who those guys are. But once you get back up to the front you see ‘alright there’s that guy, that guy and that guy….’
Tell me about Hoogerheide.
It could have gone a lot better but it could have gone way worse, so… I had a really bad start and just ended back around 40th, and then nice thing about that course is that you can pass, it’s one of the courses when you can go. It’s one thing that I like about the courses over here versus the US – I was thinking about this the other day – you can actually open up and use some power whereas in the US, it’s so stop and go. Like the Madison (Nationals) course, there was a long straightaway – if you look at the start of the road section all the way to the first 90 corner – that’s a long section of just power. Which I didn’t used to like but now I like, that’s where I was catching people when you got out on the road section, you can get up to speed, it’s not all these constant accelerations. In the US, it’s just sprint, slam on your brakes, hit a corner, sprint out which can be a big surprise for people at Louisville if the course doesn’t change. We’ll see what happens there.
So how come you’ve been having these bad starts?
Well in the US, you don’t get penalized for it, it’s not as aggressive. In the US, if I have a bad start, you’re back in 20th and it doesn’t take time to move back up.
Is it a bad habit or something you’re not focusing on during training?
I’m just not aggressive enough. When I have ten guys sprinting around me, they’re just a lot more into sprinting to the first corner and slamming on the brakes and then I’d just rather not do that. In the US, if you do that, you know that the guy next to you is not going to crash you out, over here you don’t know that, you don’t know the guy next to you, you don’t know, and they’re all going for the first corner. Next weekend will be worse because everyone thinks they can win, everyone in the first four rows is thinking ‘oh I’ve got this’.
So your future is still pretty much up in the air.
We’ll find out. The bike racing really has to pay like a real job before it phases the school out.
Well there’s road.
(smiles) Well, there’s also law school which sounds about as interesting.
Are you seriously thinking about law school?
My dad’s an attorney. (laughs) Yeah I am. Patent and contract law that’s where all the engineers go.
So we’ll see is the answer.
Law school has definitely been on the radar, that’s the under-the-radar on-the-radar. I was trying to suppress that probably because my dad is an attorney but everyone has always been like yeah you’re going to be an attorney. It turns out they may have been right.
So in the meantime…
The only thing about law school is that I have to make sure that I keep my grades up, that’s where the graphics design came in. Seeing how competitive law schools are these days, schools figuring out how much money they can make by adding 20 kids to their classes.
You’re going to have to make a decision one day.
Soon. This isn’t just take less classes.
Which is what you did this semester.
Isn’t that why you didn’t race collegiate (at USA Cross Nationals)?
I didn’t race collegiate because I wanted to race the elite race. Basically because of that, I asked (USA Cycling’s Mark) Gullickson back when I was registering for classes this quarter and I asked him back in May or June, ‘hey can I race?, and he was like sure. If I couldn’t race the elite race then I probably would have taken the credits to race collegiate. And I still started the quarter with 15 credits, my third class was just a filler, Scandinavian Litterature…. 10 credits is still a full-time student so I’m still completely full-time so I didn’t save any money not taking the class but it was so worthless that…. (laughs)
The laughter-filled conversation on filler classes and school for a few minutes before we called it a night.
“There’s always next year, I’m glad the season is over. Top 10 would have been nice to finish it but given where I was.”