I talked with Zach about his motivation for keeping all these plates spinning, and how it all fits together.
DR: How did you get involvedâ€¦you started the team, right?
ZA: Started the team, and I’ve been running races and things for the last 3-4 years, and have been running a junior race series for the last four years. When I started racing, it was through Mike Kuhn’s series, Pennsylvania Scholastic Cycling League (PASCL). He moved away from the area, to State College and then Allentown, and the name changed, but I revived it this year as a legitimate, recognized school series. Trying to market it to schools, I guess. I raced on my own for the whole last season, I coach as well, and I started coaching a number of these kids, and it just seemed like something I wanted to do, have a team and run it.
DR: A natural pairing to haveâ€¦
ZA: The coaching, the team, the eventsâ€¦ it all kind of intertwines. I get the kids to help out with all the events and they get to see a little bit behind the scenes, what it actually takes to keep the sport aliveâ€¦be a part of the sport instead of just taking from the sport.
DR: That’s a good thing to get kids into. So how old are you?
DR: And you’ve been putting on races since you were how old?
ZA: I ran the 2006 PA State Cyclocross championships as a 16-year-old. And uhâ€¦I had to take a short break after that. It wasn’t exactly kosher. You won’t find anywhere that there’s an age requirement for promoting races. They weren’t exactly excited about thatâ€¦ but, it was a good event, and that’s what I like to do, I like to make good events, not just run a race. I go to a lot of races, 30-40 times a year, go to a lot of different events, and they’re all different, and they’re not all “events.” I think there’s a big difference between just running a race and having a good event that people are going to come back to and talk about.
DR: How many years has the junior development team been going?
ZA: This is the first year for the team. Itâ€™s been a good year. I still have yet to put together my mid-year reportâ€¦I was trying to put that together three weeks ago. But, weâ€™ve been going since January/February with camps and weekends and stuff.
DR: Yeah, Loretta was telling meâ€¦it sounds very involved. How did you decide to start the team?
ZA: We started planning the team around May last year, looking for sponsors, laying out the framework and structure that we were going to base it on, and the big picture that I wanted to see.
DR: Whose idea was it? Was it your idea initially?
ZA: Yeah, it was my idea, and Jake Davidson, a friend of mine that is living around the same area right now, and we ride together a lotâ€¦ He is helping out with it, and carrying out some of the stuff for me. You know, we sat down, talked it out, and itâ€™s been going strong.
DR: How did you attract people to join the team?
ZA: At that point I was already coaching a couple kids in this area, and I was still a juniorâ€¦it was my last year racing as a junior when I started it. So Iâ€™ve actually raced against a few of the kidsâ€¦itâ€™s actually funny to say that. I always keep my eye open and I run a development camp too, in the spring.
DR: Thatâ€™s part of the team too, or is it a separate thing?
ZA: Itâ€™s a separate thing. Thatâ€™s where I met a lot of the kids from last year.
DR: Itâ€™s open to anyone?
ZA: Yeah. I had 15 people show up last year, and theyâ€™re pretty much all on the team now. But it was only open to juniors last year. I actually lost a good bit of money on it. Itâ€™s a good thing thoughâ€”I think that when youâ€™re trying to make events like that, you have to look at it as a multi-year picture, and you have to establish ground somewhere. This year we had 61 riders come and spend the weekend with us, and walk away learning a little more and having a good weekend for it.
DR: So itâ€™s one weekend?
ZA: Itâ€™s one weekend, the last weekend in March. Thatâ€™s where I met a good bulk of the kids. I had seen them racing around.
DR: Did you advertise the camp through bike shops, handing out flyers, etc.?
ZA: Yeah. Bikereg.comâ€”Iâ€™m a firm believer in Bikereg. I think itâ€™s a great marketing tool, and itâ€™s a great service for not only promoters but racers as well. Bike shops, flyers, word of mouth, email blastsâ€¦kids really help out with getting the word out to a lot of different areas. My riders are spread out across Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey as well now, so weâ€™re a four-state team. Thatâ€™s a lot of ground that gets covered, a lot of word of mouth. Thatâ€™s really helpful.
DR: What did you guys do at the camp? Just a weekend, thatâ€™s pretty intenseâ€¦
ZA: Itâ€™s Friday through Sunday. Itâ€™s not necessarily a training camp, itâ€™s a development camp where participants come and learn. I try to pack a lot into it. We had maybe eight classes offered, some Q&A with local pros, some nice long rides and on-trail technique, learning to ride rock gardens, logs, cornering, brakingâ€¦ all the basics that we as elite riders kind of take for granted, that we think is just completely second natureâ€¦
DR: Weâ€™ve talked about that with some sports, even for adults, you start off taking lessons, and thereâ€™s clubs you can joinâ€¦for mountain biking the traditionâ€™s been that you go off on your own and you bleed.
ZA: Mountain bikingâ€™s a veryâ€¦itâ€™s a harsh learning curve. I took very well to that, because I think you learn your lesson better when you do that, but itâ€™s nice to have a lot of help on the way, too. I was lucky enough to get a lot of help from Mike and the other VisitPA.com guys. Iâ€™ve been a part of a lot of good teams coming up through the ranks.
DR: In addition to your junior development camp, you also do some events for the team?
ZA: I have eight events a year (I think)â€¦we started with the Michaux Mash, which is a 4-hour endurance race in the Michaux State Forest, one of the best places to ride in my backyard, I love itâ€¦super rocky, super awesome. We had a much better showing than I anticipated for that, which was good.
DR: When you sayâ€¦ you went to that event, or you put that event on?
ZA: I put that event on. Ran that, two weeks later, we ran the devo campâ€”thatâ€™s adults now as well as juniors. I opened it up to adults this year.
DR: That can be a good way to make some money.
ZA: Pretty much the bulk of the proceeds I make from events goes straight to the team.
DR: Loretta was amazed that you were able to pay for renting a house out on Colorado for the team to go to the Nationals. Thatâ€™s great.
ZA: I contribute a good bit of money to the team. Thatâ€™s why my company is a title sponsor. Fast Forward Racing Productions is meâ€¦thatâ€™s my events company.
DR: Have you had some people helping you figure out how to form corporations and all that?
ZA: The business is a sole proprietorship with a fictitious name, which is the easiest way nowâ€¦when I get a little bit further down the road Iâ€™ll probably do a limited liability, but for now it just doesnâ€™t make sense, cause I have positively nothing to lose. I barely eat. Iâ€™m a thing I like to call â€œbike poorâ€â€¦everything I have goes to surviving and racing. Itâ€™s not a bad lifeâ€¦I enjoy it.
DR: So youâ€™re in college now, right?
ZA: Iâ€™m in college, exercise science major.
DR: Have you found it hard to do both at once?
ZA: Not really. I was out at Slippery Rock for two semesters, and I raced around the Newark and Philly area most of the cyclocross seasonâ€¦I think I ended up driving about 15,000 miles. It was very hard. My racing suffered a lot. People wouldnâ€™t think so, but it did. It was just very fatiguing to drive 12 hours alone every weekend.
DR: So are you at a different college now?
ZA: Yeah, I transferred in to Shippensburg. Itâ€™s around here. Little closer to Michaux and the people I like and closer to the scene out here.
DR: Whoâ€™s been a big influence on you? You mention Mike Kuhnâ€¦
ZA: Iâ€™ve had a lotâ€¦Iâ€™ve been really fortunate in the influences Iâ€™ve had. I mean, Mikeâ€™s been a really big influence. Mark Laser, one of the head promoters of the Iron Cross , heâ€™s been a pretty big influence over the years. Runs the local club and I was pretty heavily involved in that for quite a whileâ€”Yellow Breeches Racing.
DR: This is the first year for the teamâ€¦thatâ€™s pretty awesome that youâ€™re able to collect everyone up and take them to the USA Cycling National races in Colorado. Are you and the team traveling anywhere else?
ZA: Well, weâ€™re going to do the Valley Point-to-Point in Winter Park the weekend before. Kind of set up as a race to get adjusted, to, first of all, the altitude, which is a major changeâ€¦itâ€™s 9000ft. up there, itâ€™s a big deal. And just the style of racing out there, because itâ€™s way different. Weâ€™re used to slow, twisty, rocky, punchy stuffâ€¦ski resorts where you climb for 20 minutes. and descend for 8. itâ€™s the NORBA-tized course. Itâ€™s all fast and flowy and smooth, with some big stuff, berms andâ€¦your west-coast riding style. I think thatâ€™ll be a big eye-opener. That race on the weekend before is definitely going to help out with that, kind of get the chills out of the kids, and take off that edge, and I think thatâ€™ll really help them out.
DR: And then the week after that is the Nationals.
ZA: Yeah. Theyâ€™ll start racing Thursday. Weâ€™ll spend two weeks. Weâ€™ll leave the day after the Long Pine Classic, next weekend, which is also one of my races. Itâ€™s the next cross country race in the MASS series.
DR: Thatâ€™s ambitious.
ZA: Iâ€™m gonna be hurtinâ€™ on the drive out.
DR: But it sounds like you have it pretty well planned.
ZA: Yeah, uhâ€¦the pre-registration is 17 riders as of Thursday. Iâ€™m not sleeping too well right now. But I think itâ€™ll all come together really well, and work out, and itâ€™ll be a good race and a good platform to build on. This is the first year Iâ€™ve had a date in the MASS series. Kind of getting my foot in the door with them, establishing a solid date.
DR: That seems like a good series to get into.
ZA: It definitely isâ€¦itâ€™s a very large pool of people. Itâ€™s a place where I think a good solid event will help the riders as much as the promoter.
DR: What do you hope to accomplish this year? At the Nationals, do you hope to dominate, orâ€¦?
ZA: For the team? Iâ€™d like to see some kids on the podium. Last year most of the kids I was involved with at the time had jumped up to the next level, and it showed, but they took it for what it was, and theyâ€™ll come back stronger. With the kids this year, Iâ€™ve seen such a vast improvement over last year. Itâ€™s been mentioned to me on more than one occasion, itâ€™s night and day with where these kids were last year and where they are this year. Part of thatâ€™s just them being a year older, part of thatâ€™s just the attitude theyâ€™re bringing to it, and I think part of thatâ€™s also been the program. We did four weekend camps throughout February and March, lot of skills stuff, learning to take the next step. I think the kids have really taken to it, and Iâ€™m very proud of them all. Itâ€™s awesome to see all your kids clean up and sweep the podium. Second-to-last MASS race we were at, we cleaned the podium. One of my kids is leading the expert senior menâ€™s series as well, at 16 years old. Weâ€™ve been working pretty closely for two years now.
DR: You probably give advice on nutrition, andâ€¦?
ZA: They get the whole nine yards. I coached three of the seven kids on the team right now, and Iâ€™ve taken a short stint with a few others, and they get it all. I really preach recovery, and more or less the attitude you go into things with. Racing is a highly mental game, and you have to have the legs for it, but if youâ€™re legs are there and your headâ€™s not, youâ€™re still not going to have a good race. I think the biggest thing is just realizing, and letting them realize in their own ways, that theyâ€™re juniors, and that I want to see them when theyâ€™re 26, being the pros out there, just completely housing it up every weekend.
DR: So you donâ€™t want them burning out, in other words?
ZA: No. Thatâ€™s actually why I started coaching the kids. I see a lot of pressures from parents, I see a lot of pressures from teammates that mean well, but arenâ€™t necessarilyâ€¦ they donâ€™t quite have the grasp on it. I want to see these kids being lifelong members of the cycling community.
DR: Thatâ€™s awesome.
ZA: One of the kids, him and his dad are already stepping up to start a race, a local race on their own.
DR: Gunnar and Randy Bergey?
ZA: Yeah. Gunnarâ€™s been helping me a lot out with the team as well. He stepped up and took control of the team website, and heâ€™s been handling all the race reports since about April.
DR: Who gets your race reports? The sponsors, and do you have a newsletter signup?
ZA: I plan to have a newsletterâ€¦it hasnâ€™t quite worked out. Itâ€™s something I want to see be resurrected, and actually enacted as a decent way to do it. I mentioned my year-end report and I plan on sending that out to all the sponsors, all the parents that are involved but didnâ€™t have the budget last year. People like to see these kinds of programs.
I like to work with companies that I can wholeheartedly endorse, not just companies that are names. When I was getting the kids to race for me, I told them my philosophy: Anybody can give you productâ€¦you can get money from people, you can get product, you can get a jersey, but it doesnâ€™t mean youâ€™re on a team. Somebody gives you a bike, still doesnâ€™t mean youâ€™re on a team. A team is the network and the infrastructure that youâ€™re racing with, the guys that youâ€™re spending time with, racing and training withâ€¦itâ€™s so much more than about what youâ€™re getting out of it.
DR: I think thatâ€™s a great concept, and thatâ€™s something that cycling really needs. We said thereâ€™s no real instructional structure. Itâ€™s great to see kids getting some structure and support, and not just â€œmaybe you can get a name on your jersey, and go to it.â€
ZA: And understand that thereâ€™s a bigger picture to it as well. Thereâ€™s more to cycling than racing. Racingâ€™s not the end of the world. I fully encourage the kids to do other sports as well, enjoy them while they do themâ€¦I kind of base most of what I do with them off of my mistakes. Iâ€™ve made just about every mistake out there.
DR: Do you feel you got too serious too soon?
ZA: I got real serious probably when I shouldnâ€™t haveâ€¦Iâ€™ve gone through a lot of really harsh burnout cycles.
DR: Already? At 19?
ZA: Iâ€™ve been racing for 6 or 7 years. The first year I raced, I started with 30 events, and Iâ€™ve been racing full seasons since I started.
ZA: When I started I was a 195lb. 6th-grader. Itâ€™s been a â€œ180â€ turn in my life.
DR: How did you get involved in the first place? What drew you to cycling?
ZA: Mark Laser was actually a teacher at our school, and he ran the Yellow Breeches Racing, and Iron Crossâ€¦and there was actually a lot of juniors at my school that raced. Iâ€™m the last one that actually races still. Very recently one of them got back into it, butâ€¦ theyâ€™re all burnt out, and donâ€™t ride. Not only do they not race, they donâ€™t ride.
DR: A shame.
ZA: Iâ€™ve seen a lot of burnout. Itâ€™s not a good thing.
DR: You mentioned your personal goals. What do you hope to do this year?
ZA: Iâ€™m playing around with this Cat.1 category and this USAC mountain bike stuff. I donâ€™t knowâ€¦I want to see where Iâ€™m at. Iâ€™ve been doing pretty well, I won the Maryland state championships by a lot, did the second-to-last Kenda Cup at Massanutten, got fifth after cramping really bad, I think I was in second most of the race without really knowing it. So Iâ€™m kind of waiting to go out there, I think short track will go really well for me.
DR: So thatâ€™s your event?
ZA: Iâ€™m a cyclocross racer. Iâ€™m actually not really racing right now. I might race this weekend, short-track tomorrow, but Iâ€™m kind of in my off-season-ish.
DR: Your focus is later in the fall?
ZA: I plan on racing through January.
DR: Is that partly because thatâ€™s what you like, or is that because of the schedule with the team?
ZA: Itâ€™s been nice to be able to focus on supporting the team and the program and doing my events this year. My goal for the mountain bike season was a 24-hour solo race, which I did in Wilkes-Barre, North Carolina, in Mayâ€¦I will never do another one again.
ZA: I wasnâ€™t having a lot of funâ€¦except for the last lap when I rode with one of the kids .
DR: Has it been hard in general to do both, to support these kids and also do your own thing? Since youâ€™ve got the different schedules, that helps a lotâ€¦
ZA: It works out really well. They help each other, the parents help a lot. Most of our structures are in the off-season, and thereâ€™s a lot of race-day support. Iâ€™ve had the pleasure of racing with the kids a couple of times. I raced the weekend after the 24-hour race and Gunnar caught me, and I ended up racing with him for the rest of his race. I think my legs were fine but I was mentallyâ€¦didnâ€™t want to race. So when he caught up to me, it was likeâ€¦I kinda want to see how heâ€™s doing. To be a coach it really helps to be able to see your athletes.
DR: I donâ€™t know of another sport where you could potentially be out there with your athletes competingâ€”thatâ€™s pretty great.
ZA: It worked out really well. Massanutten Hoo-Ha was a mass start with all the Cat.1 categories, so I got to race with Jeff Bonson as well, another one of my athletes, heâ€™s a two-time cyclocross national champion. I got to see him ride to third, and I was riding to fifthâ€¦we rode the whole lap together in the top 3, 4 places. It was a rough race, but an amazing course.
DR: What are your plans for the future?
ZA: Iâ€™d like to live the dream. Race as a pro for a while, take this team a little further. Keep this grassroots development thing going for a while, but Iâ€™d also like to have a nationally represented squad as well. Probably a much smaller programâ€¦thatâ€™s actually in the works for next year, as far as the team, Junior Cat.1â€”kids that are going to be on the national team, kids that are going to represent at Worlds. And helping them, the more serious ones, take the right steps to get in on the national pipeline, which is a pretty big deal. Itâ€™s hard to get into.
DR: At every level thereâ€™s a big jumpâ€¦something that American racers have struggled with is the final jump to the world level.
ZA: Got a lot of really good guysâ€¦Aaron Snyder just went with the national U23 team to Germany for two weeks, for the training camp. Thereâ€™s a lot of good directions that the local guys can go in. The talentâ€™s here, the depthâ€™s here.
DR: Are you familiar with the NorCal Cycling League?
ZA: Thatâ€™s actually what Mike based the PASCL series off of when he started it. The moneyâ€™s not quite here to do what theyâ€™re doingâ€¦I think a lot of their success has been the sponsorship that theyâ€™ve been able to get for it. When you have that sponsorship, you can have somebody dedicated to itâ€¦I mean, weâ€™re all trying to fit it in to our livesâ€”the teams we run, the events we run, our own education – jobs – careers – families. It takes a lot of time and energy and itâ€™s hard to do it because you have to coordinate with a bunch of schools, and thatâ€™s a lot of maybe paperwork, but a lot of high-energy communication to get it settled out and structured with schools. I think itâ€™s great though, and Iâ€™d like to see something like that in PA.
DR: Like an officially-sanctioned school sport sort of thing?
ZA: Iâ€™m planning on having it USA Cycling-sanctioned next year, working with some officials and hopefully we can do it. When Mike did it, they were USAC-sanctioned, and he ended up paying a lot out of pocket for the series.
DR: The USAC thingâ€¦it sounds like recently theyâ€™re trying to change some things and do some better things, but traditionally if you want to get involved, you have to pay quite a bit of money.
ZA: I think with some of this restructuring that weâ€™re on an upswing with this sport, but thereâ€™s a lot of other things that have to happen to see what we might have seen in the past, and see that kind of energy and involvement again. Itâ€™s a cycle and weâ€™ll see a high side again relatively soon.
DR: What youâ€™re doing I think is the most important thing, getting kids involved, and not in such a way that theyâ€™re slaves to the sport, they can enjoy it.
ZA: Theyâ€™re going to be around for a while. I think how much fun theyâ€™ve had is just because theyâ€™re around kids their age, racing, riding and training. We would spend weekends together, away from their parents, away from adult teammates. It was me, Jake and them, maybe another adult or two, but adults they donâ€™t necessarily know, maybe hipster typesâ€¦people they look up to. They can have fun and be kids while on their bikes, they donâ€™t have to make the separation. And I donâ€™t think you have to make that separation. Itâ€™s about having fun riding your bike. I have no problem dropping out of races if Iâ€™m not having funâ€¦Iâ€™ve been known to do it.
DR: It sounds terrible, but thatâ€™s a great attitude to haveâ€”donâ€™t kill yourself.