Field Notes: Zach McDonald

Photos from Great Brewers Gran Prix of Gloucester – Interview by Chris DiStefano

The Cyclocross season has only just begun for Zach McDonald. As the weather takes a turn for the worse, his top-notch skills in the mud and slop have come to the fore. A few weeks ago, on day two of the Great Brewers Gran Prix of Gloucester, he put in a solid 5th place ride. Storms throughout the night had turned the previous day’s course into a mess. Faces were covered, bikes were covered, and the fans were covered with mud, cheering for Zach and his Team Rapha-FOCUS compatriots as they raced from corner to straight. If there was ever a doubt in the minds of the pundits, it was wiped clean the next weekend at the Providence Cyclocross Festival. On the second day, when the clouds opened up and let loose, Zach was at his very best, taking his first UCI C2 win.

Once again Chris DiStefano is the man on the scene with an interview that took place back at team camp, but he checked in with Zach this week so check the end for some updates to his questionnaire.

You are the 2012 U23 Cyclocross National Champion. What’s that been like?
I got to wear a different jersey in U23 World Cups, that’s about it so far.
What’s it like being a U23 rider pushing into the elite ranks so deeply? Is there any negativity about your age from peers?
I can’t say I really have an answer for that. In the U.S. we’re thrown right into the elite field once we leave the junior ranks so I guess I’ve never really viewed myself as a U23 rider in an elite field, just an elite rider that happens to be 7-10 years younger than the rest. You don’t gain anything by handicapping yourself. On the note of negativity, nothing to my face…
Do you pay attention to who is U23 in a race or are you always out for the overall?
Yes and no, it’s more fighting for every spot. If there is a series or separate U23 podium I’m going after then I’ll keep an eye on points, but there’s no reason for me to go easy just because I’m the top U23 or only go hard because I’m the second or third U23. They way the races pan out, all the U23’s are usually in different groups out on the course, but when we’re in the same group we’ve definitely watching each other and going at it for the finish.
You mention that you raced all of last season without going into the handlebar drops. Really? Do any of your older peers give you grief about that? Why don’t you ride in the drops? Do the Euros heckle you about it all? (I’m guessing they do.)
I’m sure there was some road section in a race where I got down in them, but never for anything technical or really even on road sections that I can remember. I don’t feel comfortable handling the bike from that low over the front, too much leverage on the brakes and the weighting is weird to me. No one’s ever said anything about it though.
Some people call you Nuke. What’s that about?
That’s a great question.
Music plays a large role in your life. How do you find new music?
I was just talking to someone about this today. We were talking about how, not too long ago, one would have to listen to the radio, gone to a record store, or just dig through someone’s cd/record collection to find new music. It’s rumored that there also used to be a couple channels on TV called “Music Television” and “Video Hits 1” that would play music videos. I’ve never found them though. I grew up with computers though and now everything is at your fingertips on the internet which I think is great, it opens up people to new genres and styles they never would have bothered to look at before. I usually end up going on a music “collecting” binge which starts with chipping away at a few of my playlist stashes (I’ll mark songs to download later via Youtube and Soundcloud playslists, along with just bookmarking certain pages). Then I’ll just start clicking on links and finding more and more and before I know it I’m something along the lines of 100 songs deep. Good mixtapes (with a tracklist) are gold mines too, they always lead to branching off into new artists and finding great tracks. I also use a lot of blogs to find new tracks.

What do you listen to during race warm up? Is it always the same?
It usually varies by week or by day. I almost always make a new playlist every day for my training rides and that habit usually carries through to the races as well. There will always be a few songs that stay there for a few weeks but everything rotates in and out as I find new stuff and rediscover old stuff that got buried in my itunes. A lot of times it’s pretty mood and ride dependent. I try to throw a playlist up on my twitter every now and then with the hopes that someone will look at it and find something new to check out. I will say I’ve had a few “how do you ride listening to that?” remarks. I’ll even admit that I can be pretty amused when I look at some of the playlists I’ve made, they can be pretty random.
Team camps are often a “hurry-up-and-wait” affair. What music would you chose as a soundtrack for this team camp?
Otis – Jay-Z & Kanye West. Paired with the music video I’d say that’s the best representation of our team camp.
What is a training day like for you?
Out of school: I usually wake up in the wee hours of the morning, around 10-11, eat some food, start to make a playlist, get distracted, finish my playlist, eat more food, get dressed and leave for my ride around 3-6.  Return, eat more food, and it varies from there. I’m a night owl.

In school: I usually wake up in the wee hours of the morning, around 10-11, eat some food, go to class, return from class, start to make a playlist, get distracted, finish my playlist, eat more food, get dressed and leave for my ride around 3-6. Return, eat more food, start any school work I have, get distracted, and finish and school work that needs to be completed for the next day (I’m not a “day of” kind of guy).
What do you do on a day with no training?
I don’t understand the question.
You are part of the first  generation of professional cyclists to use social media to connect with fans. But you and your peers also use social media channels to call out and challenge each other. How much does this interaction play a part in your relationship with other riders? Can it go too far online and spill over onto the race course?
Social Media and the Internets are serious business.
About the team, the 2012 team is three men and three women. That’s a big team. What do you expect life under the team tent to be like this season? 
We had some squatters last year so I’m thinking it should actually be pretty similar.
You’re a mountain biker who’s made the National team for the World Championships. You have a lot of experience with bicycle components. What is your position in the disc brake vs cantilever brake for cross debate?
Personally, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have enough braking power in a cross race (I’m not particularly heavy though). I’m holding out for hydraulic before I give them a go.
What will be the decision making points for you in choosing between the two?
If they can modulate, don’t rub and aren’t heavier I can’t see why not to convert.
What are your decision points for choosing tires and psi for certain courses? 
Magic 8-ball or Go as low as I can go without folding the sidewall for dry courses and as low as I can go without being terrified of pinch flatting for everything else. As far as tread goes, the fastest tread that allows me to hit the corners at a speed I want.
Do you look at what other riders are doing for tire choice? 
Generally no, if I think I can get traction with what I’ve got then I’m pretty content. I usually error on the side of traction though and go mud.  I’m also gaining more experience every year which gives me more confidence in my tire choice.

Ed Note: The following was submitted after Zach’s win at the Providence Cyclocross Festival.

1) You mentioned in a post-race interview that you chose to do on-course recon yesterday rather than on a trainer in the tent. You did one easy recon lap and one hot lap looking for lines. Looking back, how pivotal was this decision for you or would your skills have made the difference anyway?
I think it helped out quite a bit on the first lap since there were a couple lines I changed up from my first pre ride. It provided more mental security and confidence in my lines than any thing else as I didn’t really change any. Later in the race it became irrelevant since the lines are always changing but it was definitely helpful for the first couple laps. And I probably got a better warm up in than if I had been on the trainer.

2) No wheelie this time. Why’s that?
My last couple have been pretty poor…next time.

3) Can you hear the crowd when you’re on the front? Are there cheers or heckles you can recall from Sunday?
There’s always a bit of both, nothing that stood out enough for me to remember.

4) The team has pretty much been together since CrossVegas. What’s it been like now that the Women’s team has expanded?
It’s been solid. Good energy and good times all around it seems.

5) In our previous interview we talked about riding in the drops. On Saturday of last week you won a three-up sprint for 5th place riding the hoods against two guys in the drops yet you were still called out on Twitter for not sprinting “properly”.  Cycling has many traditions and protocols which seem to have become gospel in online communications. (People arbitrarily argue to “slam that stem” without considering factors related to fit for example) Are you frustrated by the all the attention you get for what you’re doing “wrong”?
If no one ever asked why, wouldn’t we still believe the earth was flat? “Progress is not possible without deviation.” – Frank Zappa

In a series of Team Rapha-FOCUS interviews, Chris DiStefano sat down with the riders at the start of the season. New addition to the team Gabby Day up along with a brief chat with the current Elite Men’s National Champion Jeremy Powers and French Rider Julie Krasniak. Stay tuned for further talks with the rest of the riders as they head into their second month of racing here in the States and head overseas.