Erik Zabel: ‘As a father I try to step away’

Sports dads often struggle to manage a healthy father/son dynamic, and Erik Zabel says he is no different with son Rick's cycling career.

During his storied cycling career, German sprinter Erik Zabel won more than 200 professional races, grabbed the Tour de France’s points title five times, and won cycling’s World Cup overall once. Zabel also fathered a son, Rick, who was born in 1993, the same year he joined Germany’s Telekom team.

Rick Zabel followed in his dad’s footsteps, and is now a domestique on the Katusha-Alpecin pro cycling team. That makes Erik, now 46, cycling’s (current) most decorated dad.

Sports dads often struggle to manage a healthy father/son dynamic, and Zabel said he is no different. Rather than function as a coach or advisor, Zabel says he is more of a fan of his son.

“You’re always a father, so you’re following more closely. As a father I try to step a little bit away—I’m more or less a supporter,” Zabel said. “When my son is asking me I have good advice for him, but you know how it is. I wait to see if he asks. Some distance is good.”

Erik Zabel is attending this week’s Amgen Tour of California as a sponsor liaison for the Canyon-SRAM professional women’s team. At men’s races he is a fixture around Katusha as well, which is also sponsored by Canyon bicycles.

Zabel said he and Rick took several years to establish the dynamic. In the early years of Rick’s career, Erik says he was often fearful about crashes and even results. Rick, 23, was a member of Rabobank’s development team during his under-23 years, and he won Germany’s U23 national road race title in 2013. In 2014 he joined the pro ranks with the BMC team.

“There was tension at first,” Zabel says. “When my son first stated riding the bike and going to his first races, I was a bit too nervous.”

Throughout his career, Rick Zabel has regularly been asked about his father’s legacy in Germany. His first year as a professional came just one year after Erik Zabel admitted to having doped during his career between 1996 and 2003. After Zabel came clean, he was dropped as a sponsor representative from Canyon Bicycles, and he resigned from cycling’s Professional Cycling Council.

In 2014 Rick Zabel told website that he was, “writing his own story.”

“He made a mistake, for sure, so I don’t have to defend him,” Rick Zabel told the website. “That’s how cycling was in that time. I’m happy that I can ride in a time where it’s possible to ride your bike good without taking [anything]. The time for my father, that was his time and now I’m writing my own story.”

[pullquote align=“left” attrib=”Rick Zabel”]”He made a mistake, for sure, so I don’t have to defend him. The time for my father, that was his time and now I’m writing my own story.”[/pullquote]

A decade after Zabel retired, cycling is back on the rise in Germany. This year Dusseldorf hosts the race’s Grand Depart, and broadcaster ARD is again broadcasting the race live (it dropped the Tour from 2011-15). Sprinters Marcel Kittel, Andrei Greipel and John Degenkolb are among the fastest men in the peloton, and time trial ace Tony Martin has won four world championships over the last six years.

While Rick Zabel does not have the same palmarés as his countrymen, he is undoubtedly part of a new generation of German talent.

Erik Zabel says he is convinced pro cycling is cleaner than in his day. He believes that cycling’s cleaner image — when matched with Germany’s new generation of cyclists — is why the sport has made a comeback in his homeland.

“With all of the problems from the past, cycling’s coverage was not so great. Now, slowly, it comes back to the German media,” Zabel said. “I am always a dreamer. I really believe cycling is so much cleaner now.”