"...No, he’s not Lance Armstrong, and that’s a good thing. Remember, Lance was
no Andy Hampsten or Greg LeMond."
By Dave Shields
Who is the next big thing in American cycling? As there
anybody out there who can build on the momentum started by Greg Lemond and
increased by Lance Armstrong? I think so. Recently, an exciting crop of young
cyclists have exploded onto the scene. If you’ve read many of my columns you
know who I’m highest on.
No member of the new class has shown me as much upside
as Dave Zabriskie, the man whose blistering Tour of California time trial on
Wednesday lifted him to second place overall. I like him not only because he’s
an incredibly skilled cyclist, but also because he’s got the entire package. Z
is a superstar in the making.
First, regarding skill: Last year Dave became the first
American in history to win a stage of all three Grand Tours (accomplishing them
consecutively!), and the third American in history to wear the Yellow Jersey in
the Tour de France. He added all of this to a US National Time Trial
Championship the year before. Those sorts of credentials should speak for
There are two main criticisms. Some say he can’t climb. I
can only assume those people weren’t watching the 2005 Giro where Z Bizkut tore
up the peloton on the lower slopes of critical mountain passes in service of
Ivan Basso. I also doubt they are aware that he shredded the field at the
prestigious Snowbird Hill Climb in 1998, a ten mile long 3500 vertical climb
pain fest with a mountain top finish at the Snowbird ski lodge in Utah.
This January cycling papers were abuzz when Basso set his
wintertime record on the Monte Serra, a favorite training ride in Italy. The
news that didn’t get quite as much run was that Zabriskie
beat his team captain to the top. Z’s already proven that he can fly on
any terrain, and cycling insiders know it. The only reason the public isn’t yet
aware is that he’s a consummate team player, burying himself in the service of
others and doing whatever is asked.
The other skill oriented criticism you’ll hear of Dave is
that he’s not a good bike handler. Critics point to his crash while wearing
yellow in the Tour de France as evidence, but I’ve yet to hear anybody suggest
what could have been done to prevent that incident. An athlete who wants to win
must also ride the knife edge between what’s possible and what’s not. It should
surprise nobody that discovering where that edge is takes experience, and on
this occasion Dave pushed too hard. The chain skipped and the torque he created
literally flipped his bicycle upside down. Despite serious injury, he continued
on for a couple more days.
Zabriskie has had other high profile crashes including a
training accident in Utah when a driver underestimated his speed on a screaming
canyon descent and pulled into his path. The collision resulted in a broken arm
and a broken leg (plus mangled bike and a severely dented SUV).
Later that year
at Redlands he spelunked into a pothole in the midst of the peloton, suffering a
concussion and lacerations so severe that he had to be helicoptered to the
emergency room. So, he’s had three significant accidents over the course of tens
of thousands of miles of riding. Put into perspective, that’s not so alarming.
The more significant takeaway is that he’s proven himself resilient enough to
come back from career threatening—even life threatening—injuries. Z turned these
disasters into the sorts of character building experiences that define
champions. The mental strength he’s built in the process will pay big dividends
in the future.
Dave at San Francisco Grand Prix 2005
photo c. Lily Trevisanut &
Back in my opening paragraph, though, I claimed that he had
the whole package, and that’s the cool thing about the Z Man. He’s the sort of
character that you can’t help but like. My most recent encounter with him was
riding up Big Cottonwood Canyon outside of Salt Lake City. He’d just led a
charity ride to the mouth of the canyon and was getting some extra spinning in
before speaking at the closing ceremonies. As I puffed alongside he told me
about his experiences in Europe, his upcoming wedding, and his opinion of my
novels. He said, “I tried to read The Race. The crash at the beginning
was too depressing. If I’m going to bother with a book it needs to be about
happy stuff.” I told him that there was a lot of happy stuff in the book, and he
said, “Yeah. My mom loved it. I’ll give it another shot. Sometime.”
I’m not going to hold my breath, but I did tell him how
often people contact me making comparisons between Ben Barnes (my fictional lead
character, also from Utah) and him. A local television station even ran a “Truth
is Stranger than Fiction,” story.
Despite all his recent success, Dave is still the same
unassuming, laid-back, soft-spoken guy he was when I first met him two years ago
at Interbike. Those don’t sound like the traits of your everyday media darling,
but Z adds to them great honesty and a quick and insightful sense of humor. He’s
a sound bite machine!
For example, at Interbike he was sitting at the US Postal
booth signing autographs, except that there were few takers. I showed him my hot
off the press copy of Lance Armstrong’s newest book, Every Second Counts
and told him that I’d just read about him in it. He looked surprised and asked
what it said. I flipped the book open and read a scene about him and Floyd
Landis each drinking thirteen cappuccinos on a rainy day. He said, “Figures. I
take one day off training and that’s what Lance decides to write about. Besides,
he got it all wrong.” I asked him what the error was. He took the book from my
hand and wrote across the story, “I drank more than 13.” Then he signed it.
We talked and laughed for half an hour in the middle of the
convention floor, uninterrupted. If you think that would be possible now, you’ve
never experienced the madness that is Interbike. Nowadays, when Z steps onto the
convention center floor, the autograph seekers fly to him like bees to nectar.
Zabriskie at speed going away photo c. Andy Rogers &
Every experience I’ve had with the guy leads me to one
conclusion. Zabriskie is the perfect sort of star to lead this great sport into
another decade of growth in America. No, he’s not Lance Armstrong, and that’s a
good thing. Remember, Lance was no Andy Hampsten or Greg LeMond.
articles by Dave Shields:
Welcome to le
Tour: “Survivor on Speed”
Defined in a Nanosecond
The Crisis in
A Little Chat
with Dave Zabriskie by Cathy Mehl
Dave Shields is the author of the bestselling and Benjamin
Franklin Award Winning novel, The Race. His sequel, The Tour, will
be on bookstore shelves this April. By special arrangements with the publisher
the Daily Peloton copies are available