The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
On the crest of a wave following his Tour de France debut last month, Australia’s Zak Dempster entered the Arctic Race of Norway with high hopes of helping NetApp-Endura teammate Sam Bennett to a stage win.
At least, that was the plan when I talked to him in the lobby of his hotel in the slightly bleak town of Hammerfest on the eve of the four-day race.
Chatty and immensely likeable, Dempster talked freely of his “surreal” Tour experience – which included being overtaken on a climb by Alberto Contador, despite the fact that the Spaniard was nursing a broken leg – before outlining his ambitions to, perhaps one day, ride alongside his good friends at Orice-GreenEDGE.
The 26-year-old classics specialist and lead-out man also talked up his sprint double act with Ireland’s Bennett – NetApp’s designated sprinter for the most northern race in the cycling calendar.
Yet after a tricky opening stage to the the isolated, wind-buffeted Nordkapp – the most northerly tip of Norway – Dempster’s world came crashing down less than four kilometres before his and Bennett’s first chance to shine in the Arctic.
After a hefty fall caused by discarding his water bottle into the wheels of another rider, Dempster – rather than leading Bennett to glory – was led over the finish line by his young teammate. The NetApp pair were the last two riders to complete the stage, more than 10 minutes down on home winner Alexander Kristoff of Katusha.
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Rewind 48 hours and the towering, softly spoken Dempster is sitting opposite opposite me in his hotel lobby, beaming as he recalls his maiden Tour de France last month – just moments before the team presentation in the quietly bustling port of Hammerfest.
“The Tour was a dream come true – not only to get around, but complete and contribute,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in having ridden the Tour – and I contributed too. It wasn’t as if we were hanging off the back surviving: we were riding when we had to, keeping position.”
Dempster took a strong 11th place on The Mall in London – but when teammate Leopold Konig started showing form and rising up the general classification, Dempster’s main priority switched to keeping the Czech rider out of trouble, primarily on the flat stages.
Riding a debut Tour was a “weird experience” for a rider who spent the past two decades of his life watching the race on television.
“I’ve grown up watching the Tour every day and then this year I didn’t see anything. Sometimes I feel like I’ve missed something in a way, but then I remind myself that I was actually living it,” he adds with a grin.
Stand-out moments of his first Tour included the Grand Depart in Yorkshire, and the day Spain’s Alberto Contador withdrew from the race with a broken shin. The crowds and atmosphere in Yorkshire for the opening two stages of the race “was crazy – just the noise, the whole day ringing in your ears, and the concentration required constantly. That’s what I imagine it’s like for a footballer walking out into the MCG on grand final day back in Australia.”
As for Contador’s withdrawal, Dempster and his teammates were actually caught up in the whole story – the full details of which are still emerging through various sources. Dempster, Jose Mendez and Andreas Schillinger were off the back of the peloton to wait for teammate Tiago Machado, who had crashed heavily on a descent. When they passed Contador on the side of the road, Dempster initially thought it was Rafal Majka, the Polish Tinkoff-Saxo rider who would go on to win two mountain stages and the king of the mountains classification in his leader’s absence.
“We were catching up with the gruppetto and I’ll never forget seeing Contador – who had got back on his bike with his whole team, [Nicolas] Roche and all – I’ll never forget seeing him pass me and then climb the next climb faster than us and the whole gruppetto. It was just crazy,” Dempster says, shaking his head with a laugh.
“I mean, he’s one of my favourite riders and I’ve seen him whizz pass me, and then I see him getting into the team car and I think, ‘what’s wrong?’. Then you later find out that he has a broken leg and he’s just out-climbed you on a Cat.1 climb – and you’re supposed to be a professional cyclist.”
Despite a couple of early crashes, Dempster arrived safely in Paris to take 152nd place. “Reaching the Arc de Triomphe was a pretty special feeling,” he says. “Being there, getting through it all, just the emotions of it – that’s something will stay with me forever whether or not I get to do it again.”
Whether or not Dempster gets to do it again soon depends on the result of his current contract negotiations with NetApp, which will take on a new sponsor – BORA, the kitchen cooker manufacturer – from the 2015 season on.
“If I sign, I’d love to do the Tour again. It was an amazing experience and you always want to be part of the biggest race in the world. That’s the thing with amazing experiences – you always want another go. Negotiations are going on at the moment and we’ll see where I’ll end up.”
I ask him whether he sees himself riding for Orica-GreenEDGE one day and his answer clearly shows that it’s something he’s given a fair bit of thought.
“I’m happy with my path at the moment,” Dempster says guardedly before opening up a little. “But for sure, at one point I’d like to ride for a big leader like [Simon] Gerrans or Gossy [Matt Goss]. I’m mates with pretty much everyone on that team – so, of course, it’s more than an interesting team for me.”
It’s easy to understand why Dempster is cautious when talking about his future. In 2009, less than six months after he decided to leave the comfort of Australia and move to Belgium, the pro continental team he signed with folded and left him very much in the lurch.
During the ensuing period of uncertainty, Dempster even took on a role the Carlton Blues as a fitness instructor in the winter season – off the back of half a sports science psychology degree and a chance encounter in a bar during a night out.
“At the moment, let’s see,” he says with regards to Orica-GreenEDGE. “You have to fit in with the team – I don’t want to go to a team merely because I’m Luke Durbridge‘s mate, you know? I want to go to a team because I have the qualities to contribute significantly to the success of that team – whether that’s me going for sprint jerseys or that’s me going for bottles, or whatever.
“Despite the fact that I’m friends with the guys on GreenEDGE more than anybody, I’d have to say that my main priority is to be on a team where I have a specific role.”
While he feels he is capable of a Grand Tour stage win (“Yeah, I think so. It might be a bit of a winding path to get there, but I have a bit of a kick and situations arise in cycling for riders like me to take their chances”) and he thinks that next year will be a “really good” classics season (“I’ve developed my engine year-to-year and I think I have the tools to do well”), his role for the four days in the incongruous settings of the Arctic Circle lies alongside Bennett in the sprints.
“He’s got a really good kick and I think he’s someone who can win some big, big races, and I’d like to work with him to achieve that,” Dempster says of the 23-year-old Irishman.
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Thursday’s opening stage to NordKapp was never going to be one for Dempster and Bennett to combine in a bid for glory. Demspter predicted a “slow-motion climb with numerous splits and with the wind playing a factor” on the approach to the finish – and that is pretty much what happened. Norwegian Lars Petter Nordhaug (Belkin) broke the pure sprinters with two attacks before soloing to take the glory, the home supporters who had braved the bitter chill seeing a bit of history.
The 207-kilometre second stage from Honningsvag to Alta looked better on paper for NetApp – but a fierce headwind put the peloton an hour behind the race schedule on a day when, at least, the sun decided to put in an appearance.
But then just as the stage was set for Dempster to put his plan into action, an absent-minded tossing of a bidon caused a mini pile-up that brought a number of riders crashing to the earth inside the closing few kilometres.
“I’ve made a stupid mistake today and caused a big crash,” Dempster tweeted later from his hotel room. “I can’t apologise enough to everyone involved and I hope they’re okay.”
I've made a stupid mistake today and caused a big crash. I can't apologise enough to everyone involved and I hope they're okay.
— Zak Dempster (@ZakDempster) August 15, 2014
Later that night, I bump into Dempster at the dinner buffet at the hotel. He winces in pain when I mention the crash and holds his hands up and says it was his fault. He confirms to me that he chose the wrong moment to toss away a bidon: Roger Kluge of IAM was coming on his outside in his blind-spot. The German went down, taking Dempster, Bennett, Martin Reimer (MTN-Qhubeka) and Danilo Napolitano (Wanty) with him.
Demspter was clearly contrite and even a bit sheepish when describing what happened. But he’s ok and will continue racing. “Maybe we can get something in Sunday’s final stage,” he says.
And every cloud has a silver lining: in his teammates’ absence, NetApp’s Scott Thwaits – the English bronze medallist from the Commonwealth Games road race – took fifth place in the sprint, one place behind quadruple Tour stage winner Marcel Kittel.
Now I was spending the day in Kittel’s Giant-Shimano team car. But that’s an entirely different story…