Cyclist's brief glory in yellow brings scrutiny, renewed focus
Two seconds. A couple of half-hearted pedal strokes. Or maybe just a slight break in concentration. Any number of lapses might have cost cyclist Dave Zabriskie those two precious ticks.
That small margin over Lance Armstrong in the opening stage of the Tour de France in July put the 26-year-old Salt Laker in the yellow jersey, making him just the third American ever to wear it. Images of him receiving kisses from the podium girls popped up on televisions worldwide and photos of his nervous grin as he clutched bouquets of flowers were plastered on the covers of sports pages.
"It feels different. That thought goes through your head when you train and when you ride now," Zabriskie said. ''You know like, 'Wow, look what I did.' It's good to have that in your head. It makes me want to try to do more, try to re-create that feeling.''
Though he lost it three days later after a still perplexing crash in the team time trial, which eventually forced him to abandon the race, wearing a yellow jersey just one time in a rider's career is roughly the sporting equivalent of winning a major in golf. That rider's name will always be associated with the French words for the jersey, maillot jaune - an counterpart to the green jacket at the Masters.
His brief stint in yellow made a nonexistent late season racing schedule more palatable, gave the public a brief glimpse of a guy who comes across shy but is known for his offbeat sense of humor and afforded him a unique celebrity status back home. Salt Lake County put on Dave Zabriskie Day. When he mentioned on a local radio show that he'd always wanted a hot-air balloon ride . . . voilà, it happened. And while he decided where he and his future wife, Randi Reich (now Zabriskie), would call home, the Canyons gave him a condo for a month.
The longtime couple married in October and finally settled on Salt Lake City to make their home, though the bulk of the year will still be spent in the pro cyclist hub of Girona, Spain. She has been prepped for a life of naps, coffee, travel and miles and miles on the bike.
"It's like I had this life she never knew about," Zabriskie said.
That life starts in a hurry. A professional cyclist's season is nearly year-round. Fresh off his best season as a professional, Zabriskie starts his next season on Dec. 1 when CSC's first training camp begins in Denmark.
Watching his every move: With success comes scrutiny. Zabriskie's name pops up more often than ever on cycling Web sites and magazines - sometimes followed by a phrase like "the future of American cycling," but other times by labels like "poor bike handler," or "jittery in the peloton."
Zabriskie takes exception with both sides. The next Lance? No way, he says.
"I'm young and I'm American and I have a few more years to do this and I think within those years I'll get some really good results," he said. "I still don't see myself dominating or even winning the Tour de France like Lance. I think I'll do well here and there, but I'm a different kind of rider."
Steve Johnson, the chief operating officer and director of athletics for USA Cycling, is a little less conservative about Zabriskie's chances of becoming a Tour contender.
"I think he's a better climber than he thinks he is," Johnson said. If his climbing can improve, Zabriskie can follow the winning formula used by Armstrong and five-time winner Miguel Indurain: "Dominate in the time trials and defend in the mountains."
As for the more derogatory labels, Zabriskie admits there is some truth when it comes to having shaky nerves in a pack, but being accused of bad bike handling, that irks him.
''So, they can say that I'm a rider that crashes a lot, but I don't see it,'' he said, ''I see me as a rider that when I do crash, it's just 'Holy s---! Did you see that crash?' It's a big 'wow' crash.''
Of the three big wrecks in his career, one involved an automobile, another an unknown road hazard and the third, well, no one can explain the third. So baffling was the wreck near the end of the team time trial at this year's Tour de France, where he crashed going through a corner less than a mile from the finish line.
He also shows an introspective side, and an honesty from an athlete in a sport where wrecks are a part of life, but talking about them is taboo. Does he get nervous riding in a huge pack of riders? Sure. But, as he found out at one of his team training camps last year, he's not alone, he's just more willing to talk about it.
"Dave kind of kept that a secret until the second training camp. He kind of came clean," teammate and fellow American Bobby Julich said. "He expected us to belittle him. Other guys kind of came forward and said the same thing. We definitely look out for him."
Nonetheless, it's a dangerous atmosphere, where one wrong move can leave riders strewn across the pavement with skin shredded and bones snapped.
"There's a 180 guys in the race and there's 20 team directors behind the race and everybody's got a radio and these guys are telling 180 guys to be at the front. And there's just not space for that. . . . And if you're fighting for it all day, it's six hours of fighting . . . and it's very stressful. It's stressful for me, it's stressful for everyone," Zabriskie said.
Neither the team nor Zabriskie see it as something he can't overcome. CSC just extended his contract through 2007.
Setting new goals: A cyclist's fate as racer often comes down to physiology as much as it does to training and dedication. Zabriskie's combination of size - 6 feet, about 155 pounds - and aerodynamic position on the bike that is so perfect the team doesn't even bother sending him to wind tunnel testing, make him a natural for the man vs. clock event.
"He's a remarkable time trialist and we haven't seen what he's capable of," said Johnson, who recognized Zabriskie's talent when Zabriskie was a teenager.
"He had a big engine, a great attitude and the requisite personality to spend hours on the bike," he said.
His climbing improved last season, and team director, Bjarne Riis - cycling's equivalent of the NBA's "Zen master" Phil Jackson - has Zabriskie working to shed a few pounds. In cycling, riders make up for their almost emaciated upper bodies with muscular, pistonlike legs.
"If I got down to 148, 149 that'd be a good weight. You gotta be careful when you do that because you can lose all your power," he said. "If I could drop the weight, but keep the same power, then you can just go uphill faster."
For now, Zabriskie's main motivation for next year's Tour de France is making sure the team leader, and race favorite, Ivan Basso reaches Paris in yellow.
Next year's Tour setup might make earning another maillot jaune tough for Zabriskie, but as he proved last year, don't underestimate his chances of adding more yellow to his wardrobe in the future.
Reporter Michael Yount can be reached at myount@sltrib.
com. To comment on this story, write email@example.com.
l Residences: Salt Lake City; Girona, Spain
l Team: CSC (Denmark)
l Scary moments: Zabriskie was involved in a pair of career-threatening wrecks in 2003 and 2004. An SUV turned in front of him while he was descending Mill Creek Canyon. The second was in a race in Redlands, Calif., where a "crater in the road" forced a nasty spill.
"I hate to always go back to the accident in Mill Creek Canyon, but the way I was feeling before that accident it just still angers me because I felt so good then. . . . That set me back two years, at least a year and a half," he said.
l Highlights: After the wreck in California he pulled a stunning solo victory in the Vuelta a Espa a (Tour of Spain), then was fifth in time trials at the World Championships while still riding with Lance Armstrong's Postal Service team (now Discovery). This season, riding for CSC, he won a stage of the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy), and later won the first stage of the Tour de France, becoming the first American to win a stage in all three of cycling's grand tours.
"I'm young and I'm American and I have a few more years to do this
and I think within those years I'll get some really good results."