Chances are pretty good that as you’ve driven along the roads in Woolwich you’ve encountered Zachary Hughes. The 20-year-old cyclist can be spotted riding along the countless kilometres of roads near his hometown of Winterbourne.
But you probably didn’t know you were passing a provincial cycling champion.
Last Saturday, Hughes finished first in the Under-23 Men’s Cyclo-Cross Provincial Championships at Kelso Conservation Area in Milton. He beat nine other competitors in his age group to win the gold medal with a time of 1:04:15, 1:12 ahead of the second-place finisher Tyson Wagler, and 2:14 ahead of Jared Stafford in third.
“He has a lot of European experience, and it was a big challenge because he has a lot of speed,” said Hughes about Stafford, whom he considers his biggest rival on the race circuit. “I had to start at the back of the pack, but quickly moved my way up.”
Hughes said cyclo-cross is a mix between traditional road racing and mountain biking. The bike resembles a road bike, but with more durable tires and a different gear system. It involves riding along steep hills and rugged terrain, as well as on roads and even beaches. And if that wasn’t tough enough, competitors have the added challenge of having to hop over a series of one-foot wooden barriers placed throughout the course.
“It’s a real technique,” Hughes explained. “People think you can just stop and lift your bike over them, but we’re going full speed and trying to hop over is tough.”
Riders are travelling anywhere between 30 and 40 kilometres an hour while trying to dismount, he adds. The Milton track was a three-kilometre loop, which he circled 10 times on his way to victory.
Hughes moved to the area from Cambridge about three years ago, and credits his father, John, for getting him into the sport. He said he probably couldn’t continue to train without his father’s support.
“A lot of the guys I race against, their parents aren’t really involved. I’m pretty lucky, he has really helped me out by getting me to the races and with any bike issues I have had, and financially for sure.”
The one-time motocross racer made the switch to mountain bikes and cyclo-cross when he was 14, and hasn’t looked back. He said his ability to navigate rough terrain and generate power with his legs is his greatest strength as a rider.
When he was 15 he began training under former Canadian national team coach Frank Fogoglin, who is also the coach of Canadian Olympian Leigh Hobson, and for the past two seasons Hughes has been sponsored by Norco Performance Bikes, one of the biggest bike companies in North America.
With bikes and other gear that can run into the $5,000 range, sponsorship is critical for Hughes to afford to continue his training. His long-term goals are to race professionally in Europe, and make it to the Olympics.
“Until you see first-hand his commitment, intensity, and drive to succeed, you can’t grasp how much work goes into getting where he is,” explains John Hughes. “It is a way of life.”
Hughes already has some international experience on his racing résumé. He was one of only two under-23 men chosen to be part of the Canadian national team earlier this year, and has competed in the United States, Guatemala, Great Britain and Belgium.
“Cycling is one of the biggest sports over there [in Europe], they take it pretty seriously. There are about 50,000 spectators for races [and] 200 top-notch riders in every race, so the pace is just unreal.”
It was his first time racing in Europe, and coming from the small town of Winterbourne, racing on the European circuit was a bit of a shock.
“I’ve never experienced a crowd that big. Your adrenalin gets going and once you get going and people are really cheering you on, that’s what you do it for.”
Next up for Hughes is the Under-23 National Championship on Nov. 6 and 7 in Toronto. When the cyclo-cross season ends, he will take a week or two off before he gets back on the bike to begin training for next season.
“People think it’s crazy,” he said with a laugh. “For me, it’s a full-time job.”