Zach Bell’s road gets rocky

With the Beijing Olympics just four months away, Zach Bell is getting very close to realizing one of his biggest goals.

With the Beijing Olympics just four months away, Zach Bell is getting very close to realizing one of his biggest goals.

At this point, the Watson Lake native is nearly guaranteed a chance to represent Canada in track cycling at the Olympics.

Bell returned to the Yukon last week, and stopped by Porter Creek Secondary School on Friday to talk about goals, achieving them, (or not) and more importantly, learning from the experiences in between.

He had a lot to talk about.

The Olympics have been in Bell’s plan for most of his life, first as a wrestler in Watson Lake and then at the University of Calgary, where he came up against athletes that he knew were out of his league.

He told the students at Porter Creek that he got slaughtered consistently on the mat, and it was starting to take its toll on him physically, and otherwise.

Back trouble forced him to find a new route.

“I started cycling as a cross-training exercise,” he told the students.

With wrestling turning into a dead end, he realized that if he put the same effort into cycling that he did into wrestling, his Olympic dream could still be realized, but in a different form.

That was six years ago, and since then Bell has become one the best track cyclists in the world, a member of the Canadian national team, and a professional rider with the Symmetrics team out of Vancouver.

It’s been an uphill climb, though; riding a bike for a living isn’t exactly lucrative, unless you’re European or your name is Lance.

Bell has struggled to make ends meet, even though he’s a nationally carded athlete.

And the politics of sport make it hard to depend on funding.

“I get $18,000 from having the card,” said Bell after finishing his talk with the students.

“Ideally, that’s supposed to go directly to living expenses — rent, food and maybe physio. But I’m using that money to get myself to competitions, and to keep my bike running — because the team has no money.”

Sport Canada’s focus for cycling during the Beijing games is on BMX and women’s mountain biking, and those two events are eating up 85 per cent of the budget, he said.

Bell would like to go to the Pan-American championships before the Olympics, but it’s unlikely.

“There’s just no money left,” he said.

The Yukon athlete gets funding from the territory, which eases things a little.

“I’m fortunate to be from Yukon, where there isn’t such a huge pool of elite athletes — riders from Quebec get nothing, they’re competing with hockey players for money.”

Financial troubles aside, the road to the Games has been anything but smooth for Bell lately.

He separated his shoulder after crashing in a track race in Australia a month ago. He ran into a fallen rider and went over, landing on the concrete surface of the outdoor velodrome at Bendigo.

He should have been preparing for the World Championships, but instead returned to his home base in Vancouver to see a surgeon and start physiotherapy.

He felt well enough to compete in the points race, his best event, at the Worlds in Manchester last week.

But his bad luck continued — he crashed once again, and his coach pulled him out of the race.

“I wasn’t prepared to race,” he said.

For now, Bell is resting. He hopes to get back into competitive form for some road races in May with the Symmetrics team.

“A rest period would have gone into the schedule anyway,” said Bell.

Fortunately, his rivals aren’t performing very well right now either, so he’s not too worried about slipping in the world rankings. (He’s currently sitting around 12th in the points race.)

Bell can see his Olympic dream coming to fruition, and though it’s been challenging, there is progress.

“The Olympics are the holy grail of track cycling,” said Bell.

However, he admits that track has limited potential.

“The future of my career is on the road, that’s where I have to put my energy after Beijing.”

That’s where the Symmetrics team comes into the story.

Bell joined the all-Canadian team, based in Burnaby, last season, and it finished tops in North and South America last year.

But as its fortunes rise, the team has hit a roadblock that may force its riders to find other pro teams to compete with.

“We lost our biggest sponsors to the Olympics  … VANOC,” said Bell. “Everybody wants to get on board with 2010.”

It’s ironic that just as the team starts to really flourish (three riders are likely for the Olympics) the rug is pulled out from under it, he added.

“The reality of the sport is that our top riders will have to move on to other teams — they need to make a living.”

Last week, Bell was looking into corporate sponsorship opportunities in the Yukon.

He sees his home territory as a great chance to keep the Symmetrics team afloat.

“I’m out there riding as a Yukon athlete, with international exposure,” he said. “I’m hoping a mining company or somebody can get behind that, and see the potential there.”