Canada’s Zach Bell was a wrestler in his younger days – not a bad skill set for an omnium rider to have. But Bell – 2012 Worlds omnium silver medalist – has turned his back on the track for 2013 and recently landed an excellent win for his new team, Champion System – Stage Four of the UCI 2.1 Tour de Taiwan.
Bell’s last international win was in his breakthrough year of 2007, riding for the Symmetrics team, with stage wins in the Vuelta a El Salvador and Delta Tour in Canada, plus the overall GC in the latter. He was second in the individual time trial at the Pan Am Championships; won the Burnaby six day track race in Canada and took a World Cup silver in the scratch race at Melbourne behind German strong man, Roger Kluge.
In 2008, still with Symmetrics, he rode the Olympic points and madison; won again at Burnaby and in the Delta Tour and won a World Cup scratch in Cali, Columbia. The following year he signed with Kelly Benefits and took overall victory in the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic in the US, also winning the Bank of America Wilmington GP.
On the track there were more World Cup placings and a silver medal in the fledgling World Omnium Championship, behind talented Australian, Leigh Howard. Commonwealth Games year, 2010 and still with Kelly saw him take bronze in the scratch in Delhi behind World Points Champion, Cameron Meyer as well as standing on World Cup podiums in Australia, China and Columbia.
Season 2011 and now with SpiderTech, again saw numerous World Cup podiums and an overall win in the UCI Omnium World Cup competition, as well as third in his National Championship road race behind Svein Tuft. His final tune up race for the 2012 Melbourne Track Worlds was the World Cup omnium in London where he finished third.
He duly converted World Cup bronze to Worlds silver in Melbourne – but unfortunately couldn’t keep the progression going through to London and the Olympics. For 2013, after the untimely folding of Spider Tech he’s with Pro Continental squad Champion System and focusing on the road. We spoke to him soon after his win about his fine ride, Asian racing, the London Olympics, his move back to the road and the personal tragedy which he’s had to endure.
PEZ: Tell us about your stage win in Taiwan, please Zach.
It was the result of a lot of hard work both from the team and me. I worked hard early to get a gap established with a Japanese rider; then as the race progressed GC moves started to come across which played to my favour a little. With GC players in the moves I was less obliged to do work to keep the group away.
Once the Australian Drapac guys had bridged across with some numbers it was all on their shoulders in the last 10 kilometres to keep the time gap. That left the rest of us in the group as passengers and from then on I just concentrated on making sure I was with the lead group that went to the line. I knew if I was there I would have a good shot at being the fastest guy over the last 500m. When I opened up the sprint I was fresh enough to hold off the others all the way to the line.
Taking that important UCI victory in Taiwan
PEZ: How does the level on the Asian Tour compare to the US and Europe?
I think the level is between Europe and the USA. The riders in Asia all want to race and make the race hard; I would say they’re at a similar level to riders from North America. The big difference is the Asian riders will race hard to win, whereas in North America you tend to see more guys interested in trying not to lose. The racing is more passive.
The length of stages and technicality of the courses in Asia don’t compare to the higher level Euro races obviously but I do think Asian races provide a good platform to develop racing fitness on courses where you can be competitive and not have to worry as much about technical course features like you would in Belgium or France.
PEZ: How well are the races supported by fans and media?
Asia is really starting to discover cycling. The fans are definitely starting to enjoy the spectacle of cycling more and more. They don’t always understand the finer points of the sport yet but that will come with time. What they do have is an enthusiasm for all the athletes, which is great to see. All the riders feel welcome and important in the race, which is how it should be – the best riders are only the best because they have others trying to beat them.
PEZ: How does the long haul travel associated with the Asian Tour affect you?
I love racing in Asia. I live on the west cost of Canada so generally the travel and jet lag associated with the Asia tour is much easier for me to manage then racing in Europe. It rarely takes me more than two flights to get to where I need to go.
PEZ: Was it a shock when SpiderTech folded?
SpiderTech has not folded. The parent company of the team is still in place, the infrastructure is still in place. The intention is that the team will financially restructure so that it can make the jump to the next level. The problem was mainly that there was not enough man power to focus on the sport and business sides of the team simultaneously.
I was surprised that the team and company (SpiderTech) took it upon themselves to do what was best for both the riders and the potential future of the team. You can see already that from a sporting perspective the athletes are continuing to excel with good results. I think there is still the potential for a big future for this Canadian team, but what that will look like is yet to be determined. For now I am happy that SpiderTech has continued to support me and has helped find me a situation where I can continue to perform at Champion System.
PEZ: How did you get the Champion System ride?
It was collaboration between the management and both teams (SpiderTech and Champion System). Ed Beamon was good enough to keep a spot open for me while I worked through some difficult family challenges in the fall and winter. Champion System and Team SpiderTech both played a big role in helping keep the door open for me to race. Without the help of all these people I think you would likely have seen the last of me at a high level. Now I have just picked up one of the biggest wins of my career thanks to that support.
PEZ: How does the culture of Champion System vary from that of Spider Tech?
It is very different; the culture and language gaps on Champion System mean things move at a much more muted pace. It is a team full of guys with a great deal of patience. But I think it is a good mix. There are no egos on Champion System, just guys that want to see the team win.
I am enjoying the new group of guys and learning about their varying back grounds. SpiderTech was a great place to race, but for different reasons. It was comfortable, a friendly group of rambunctious kids that happened to be super talented on the bike. In contrast, Champion System is a lot more like riding with a group of monks. Methodical, simple and dedicated guys, that quietly go about doing what they do – they do it well and seek little praise for it.
Life is good with the ‘monks’ at Champion System!
PEZ: London, the Olympic Omnium, you were eighth after second in the Worlds; but won the 15 K scratch so you must have been in good shape?
London was some of the worst track form I have had in four years. After the dust settled I think it just came down to mistiming the taper. We trained so hard which got me to a point where I was faster than I had ever been – and then in the space of about 10 days I lost all the form. It was one of the most difficult races of my life because I knew that I had actually got the training right.
The times I was doing the weeks before showed that – just the timing was wrong and I was unable to hold that form for the Games. The scratch race was just my way of putting some kind of punctuation on the games for all the fans back home that I had disappointed. I know even when I am not my best I can win the scratch race so that’s what I set out to do when the opportunity presented itself.
PEZ: Any ‘with hindsight’s’ from London?
I just know I learned a lot about myself and about training from the Games. I doubt I will ever approach the sport in exactly the same way again. But that doesn’t mean I think I would change anything about what we did leading in.
PEZ: No Minsk Worlds, are you finished with the track – or just having a break?
I am focusing on the road for the immediate future. I love the track still but I think some time away will do nothing but good for my performances in both disciplines. I burned the candle at both end for four years. Now I have taken just a few months break and have my first UCI Road win to show for it already. Until I know what the new track program looks like I can’t really say how or when I will come back to it. I do feel like there are a few things I want to do though before I say goodbye to the boards.
PEZ: What’s the programme, now?
A full road calendar with Champion System.
PEZ: Do you think Spider tech will be back in 2014?
I think there is a chance there will be a team. What that will look like and who will be a part of it is hard to say right now. For the moment I am focused on performing for Champion System; they have put a lot of faith in me and I want to reward that.
PEZ: Will we see you in Glasgow, next year at the Commonwealth Games on the Sir Chris Hoy velodrome?
I hope that is something I can do. It’s too early to say for sure but the Commonwealth Games holds a special place in heart. It is where I got my start; I’ve won a medal at the Games. So yes it is something I would like to do – but it is not a certainty just yet.
PEZ: Is Rio in your mind – word is that endurance may come back?
It is not something I am thinking about at the moment. I am at a place in my career where I need to take it a bit more day to day for the moment. I know I can get to that level and when it starts to heat up I can make the decision then.
PEZ: If it’s not too painful, can you tell us about the personal tragedy you’ve had to endure?
Our son Paxton was born Oct 13 but due to complications during the later stages of labour we lost him on the 16th. We are still not sure what happened. All we know is that he suffered some form of brain injury just before birth and despite fighting to help him for three days we were unable to do anything for him. This is why I have been late to return to the sport this season; it’s also why I may come across as somewhat unsure about my future. Things in my life changed a great deal with that experience and I have re organized many of my priorities. It has also changed the way I approach the sport.
We’d like to wish Zach all the best for the rest of the 2013 season with his Champion System team and that his recent UCI win in Taiwan is the first of many more to come.