Australian Zak Dempster finds himself in new territory next year as he leaves behind the Bora-Argon 18 team after five seasons for new pastures with Israel's first Pro-Continental team, Cycling Academy. The 29-year-old will be a key rider in the spring classics for the team and also provide experience to a squad of riders predominately born in the 1990s.
The 2016 season was Dempster's fourth in the Pro-Continental ranks and one he was largely content with as he explained to Cyclingnews from his European base in Girona.
"I think I had a step up in a few departments. It was a lighter year of racing through the middle where in the past I have done the Tour de France twice, and the Vuelta a Espana so I probably focused a bit more on one-day racing. Especially with the world championships being so late it ended up quite well," Dempster said of his first elite Worlds appearance in which he finished 51st. "I made a good step up, especially in Roubaix or GP du canton d'Argovie where I was sixth so I feel I made a step forward," he said.
With a young roster, Dempster's experience will be crucial to Cycling Academy's success and he is looking forward to helping out his teammates in the role as road captain.
"A lot of what you get from your first year as a professional is that you find yourself in the races," he said. "Jeremy Hunt was really important for me when I was racing for Endura, and he wasn't even on my team, but we were speaking and training together in Girona. Little bits of information that I can pass on and then in the race, they might see how I move in the bunch and seeing if I am doing the right thing, and I hope I am!," he added of how he will help.
In 2017, Dempster will also be looking to pursue personal opportunities and start challenging for wins. Something he hasn't done as much in recent years.
"The big, big races if you are trying to have a good performance you are just training to be strong. In my head when there is going to be a select group of say 40-50 riders then I am training a little bit more to kick for the win rather than for the lead out and that kind of thing. If training to win was just a decision, then everyone would do it," he noted.
"So you can't necessarily say I am going to do 20-second efforts because that will win me the race rather than 30-second efforts or something like that. My objective there would be the years of racing that I have done already are going to help me with that as much as the training I do every year. I feel next year I am at a pretty good level already and with the work I did this year and previously will help me to be able to hopefully win."
Having ridden the last two editions of the Tour de France, Dempster admits he "was a little disappointed" to miss out in 2016 but he isn't going to "cry over split milk". Missing the Tour meant Dempster finished the season without a grand tour legs in his legs for the first time since 2012 but he isn't concerned going forward.
"When you have a look at the load I had this season, just in training even, I don't think it should affect me too much because I trained so well and met objectives quite well. It is always good to get a grand tour so I will be interested to see the effect of the training I was able to do," said Dempster.
While Dempster missed the Tour, he rode Paris-Roubaix for the fourth straight year and also rode Tour of Flanders for the third time. 24th was Dempster's best result yet at the 'hell of the north' which also came on a good day for Australian cycling as Mat Hayman became the second rider from down under to win the monument.
"Mat Hayman is a real role model and to see someone who has worked so hard and intensely focused on the classics, it is just reward and I think it was really cool," said Dempster who added Hayman's teammate and compatriot Luke Durbridge told him of the result before the duo shared a celebratory hug.
Seeing Hayman take the victory ahead of Tom Boonen along with his result was a confidence boost for future campaigns as Dempster explained.
"No miracles happen overnight in cycling. Mat, Simon Gerrans, and these guys you see racing Bay Crits when you're a kid and then see how they are competing on the international stage does always give you confidence to believe that if you do the right thing and make the right choices every day in training and who you select to be around you and things like that, anything is possible. He'd done so much already, it wasn't like he'd just arrived on the scene. He's easily in the top three or five more experienced Paris-Roubaix riders [in the peloton] so it wasn't like he was an overnight sensation. He's been such a contributor to all the teams he's been a part of that he has arrived at this point that he could win Roubaix."
Dempster and his teammates will have to wait for ASO to announce the wild card teams for Paris-Roubaix but regardless of the races the team is invited to, the classics are his primary aim.
"Everything I am working for is for that early February-March period," he said. "For me, obviously being a Pro-Conti team we depend on race starts. Without knowing exactly what we are doing, that March period for the team is a big goal and for me in particular being one of the older and experienced riders, it's a big goal to try and step up and be a part of that front group."
The deal with Cycling Academy is a one-year contract for 2017, but as Dempster explains it could prove to be the beginning of a fruitful relationship. First up though is the classics campaign where Dempster is aiming to continue his progression and make a mark on the races.
"It is hard to say. The point of signing a one-year deal is that, with Ran [Margaliot] I had a really good rapport and the team in general and some of the guys they have signed I know we are going to get on great and do some great things together," he said. "It's more a case of focusing on doing a really good spring and then you are open to anything. If it turns out to be one of my favourite years, why not stay on? You never know what is going to happen.
"The main focus now is to do really great performances, pass on my experience to the guys that I can assist and after that, we'll see. That is the whole point of doing the one-year deal, to really feel each other out and do as best as we can together and then after that is the part I don't like very much," said Dempster with a laugh. "I like the racing part."
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