Higher and higher

Age: 25 Born: March 20, 1979 Place of birth: Eugene, Oregon, USA Residence: Tuscon, Arizona, USA...

An interview with Phil Zajicek, August 11, 2004

Danielson, Cunego - now Zajicek. The commonality between these three riders - all winners of the Tour of Qinghai Lake, revered as the 'highest' race in the world - suggest great things are afoot for this Navigators young gun from Tuscon, Arizona. Anthony Tan speaks with a man on a mission for success.

"People wandering across the street at any time, pausing in between lanes of traffic. Buses cutting across four lanes of traffic while laying on the horn and belching huge clouds of black smoke. Old guys riding rickshaws at three miles an hour down the center lane of traffic. And everywhere, taxis weaving in and out of the chaos, forever on the horn. Topping off everything was the fact that we were at 8000 feet and apparently China has no emission standards at all. Dirty diesels, buzzing two stroke motos, and dirty factories combined to make it just about impossible to get a lungful of air."

These were the sights and sounds running through the eyes, ears and mind of Phil Zajicek the day before the Tour of Qinghai Lake - a race he was hoping to win.

"At that point, it was 100 percent for Phil; we put all our eggs in one basket and felt pretty good about it." - Navigators team director Ed Beamon on the team's strategy going into the mountains at the Tour of Qinghai Lake

Yet the cacophony of distractions did little to unnerve him. Despite a strong pedigree, beginning with Mercury as a staigiare in 2000, followed by another two years with the team, then a year with Saturn in 2003, so far, he'd ridden just about every race he'd done for someone else. The trip to China could change all that.

"I knew I had to get a big win this year; I had spent the last four or five years riding for other people, all in good teams, and this year was the first year I had to opportunity to ride a few races for myself," affirms this softly-spoken voice, tinged with fierce determination.

Now in its third year, the race already held a feared reputation for being the 'highest' cycling race in the world; the lowest altitude being 2,200 metres and the highest an eye-popping 3,792 metres above sea-level. The precociously talented Fassa Bortolo pro from Colorado, Tom Danielson, won the inaugural edition in 2002; last year, it was no other than Damiano Cunego, the revelation of this year's Giro d'Italia. The 2004 edition, boasting 11 professional, seven national, and two regional teams and covering a distance of some 1,929 kilometres, was tipped to produce another future cycling star.

This year's edition was also expected to follow in a similar vein, in that the overall winner would be a pure climber. South African Ryan Cox, Phonak's Marco Fertonani and Iranian Ghader Mizbani all fitted the mould and were considered the biggest favourites. As a team, however, it was Navigators Insurance who appeared strongest on paper, bringing with them a well-balanced mix of climbers, sprinters, and all-rounders.

"We were optimistic about our chances for GC, but I really went into the race trying to play for an early stage win to kind of settle things down," recalls Navigators Insurance director Ed Beamon. "Some of our GC guys were a little concerned about going too hard early on though, so what we decided was to keep it low-key [the first stages] and just ramp it up near the finish, so we wouldn't end up burning matches the whole day."

The strategy worked a treat. By the race's midway point at the start of Stage 5, Navigators were on a roll, having won three out of four stages, split between Belerussian Viktar Ripinski and American Jeffrey Louder, as well as leading the overall, points and teams classifications. And while most teams had decided to wait for the following two days in the mountains, Beamon and his boys had other plans. "We felt that our best defence was to be a little offensive," says Beamon.

"Our objective was to kind of throw the other GC teams off-balance a little by putting our own guys up the road. We felt we had enough depth that we could take that risk," he adds with a hint of wryness.

After an animated start, Burke Swindlehurst covers the early move before a Kazakhstan rider tows Zajicek across and with nine riders in the break, it's game on. Then inexplicably, at around the 60 kilometre mark, the two riders from Kazakhstan - Navigators' two biggest threats to the overall - begin missing their turns. With the gap now under a minute and seeing one of the Kazahkstan riders dangling off the back, Zajicek turns to one of his breakaway companions, South African Jeremy Maartens, and says, 'Let's go.' Only De Nardi rider Devis Miorin reacts and jumps across to Zajicek, with team-mate Swindlehurst in tow. The quartet continue to pile on the pressure despite a 30 second advantage, and five kilometres later, the peloton cracks.

Zajicek takes up the commentary: "With a flat 60km to go, the pack starts to ride and our gap is coming down, but we start to give everything to the break, keeping the speed at a minimum of 50kph. The gap is coming down but not fast enough. Every turn at the front is now an exercise in pain management: turn the 11 [cog] for as long as possible, swing off and rest for 60 seconds, then do it again."

After 160 kilometres out in front, Zajicek's in yellow.

While Beamon admits he wasn't necessarily the best guy for GC going into the race, once Zajicek had the lead, it was all for one and one for all. "With the cushion that he had and the confidence the team had, we felt we could keep the team together and just keep him out of trouble," he says. "At that point, it was 100 percent for Phil; we put all our eggs in one basket and felt pretty good about it."

Swindlehurst, Chris Baldwin and Jeff Louder in particular showed complete dedication to the cause, nursing Zajicek up the climbs before drilling it on the downhills and flats, ignoring repeated attacks from other teams, riding their own pace, riding their own race. On Stage 7, the second and final day in the mountains, the quartet, isolated, reduced a 2'40 lead to nought with 100 metres to go - they'd done it.

Zajicek describes the emotion in his diary: "We all completely sell out and bury ourselves. We're giving each other hugs and high fives as Beamon runs towards us with tears in his eyes as it becomes apparent that our dream tour is set to continue for two more days!"

Just as US Postal's Blue Train demonstrated the sum of the parts is greater than the whole at this year's Tour de France, cementing Armstrong's place in the record books, Navigators followed suit shortly after. Sprinter Viktor Rapinski capped off a perfect tour by winning the final stage in Xining, finishing off where he began, and in doing so, contributed to a clean sweep of all of the major classifications.

Beamon believes what was achieved and the way it was done is one of the best team efforts he's seen in 11 years as a director: "In terms of our team really dominating an event over nine days at such a consistently high level, I can't think of any other time that they've delivered that. The confidence, the positive attitude, the fight, the focus and the desire, the coordination... and the complete unselfishness," he says, his voice smothered with pride.

Still jet-lagged - and maybe a little dizzy from his high-altitude win - Zajicek now finds himself back in Boulder where he trained for the Qinghai Lake race and where he'll train for his next major objective, the Tour de l'Avenir, beginning September 2. At 25, it's the last time he can ride what's known as the young riders' Tour de France, and not surprisingly, the Arizona lad has every intention of a solid performance to confirm his potential as a rider for the future.

Speaking of the future, what does the future hold for Phil Zajicek?

"You know, he's a young guy, and I think he's got tremendous potential," says Beamon. "I think this [win] is a breakthrough event for him in many ways, because it's his first opportunity he's had to be in a leadership role, and he should gain a tremendous amount of confidence from it because he did a superb job. In many ways, I think this could be a catalyst for him to push him to the next level."

Following in the footsteps of Danielson or Cunego may be a little optimistic, says a realistic Zajicek, but in a support role with the occasional opportunity to shine, definitely.

"If I can achieve half of what Danielson or Cunego has done, I'd be very happy," he says. "I would love to ride in Europe more, but right now I'm really content with the way things are going - I couldn't ask for anything more."

Photography from the Tour of Qinghai Lake

Images by Ed Beamon/Navigators Insurance Cycling Team

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