Zach Koop Memorial Crit: An Interview with Tomi Ketcham
The New York City cycling community is made up of a diverse and impressive cast of characters. Sadly the community lost one of its brightest stars last year when Zach Koop of Blue Ribbon Cycling passed away following a battle with cancer. Zach was one of the top racers in the area, collecting palmares that included the CRCA Boyd Cup, the New Jersey Crit Championships and too many other races to list here.
However, in the aftermath of that difficult loss the New York City cycling community, led by Zach's family and friends, is coming together to honor his memory with an important fundraising effort centered around Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the upcoming Zach Koop Memorial Crit. I had the opportunity to speak with Tomi Ketcham, Zach's close friend and teammate, on Zach's influence as a racer and member of the cycling community and what is in store in the coming weeks, months and years to honor Zach's memory.
To Be Determined: Those of us who have been a part of the CRCA community for several years certainly remember Zach and the impression he made on races but for those that joined the cycling community more recently or didn't know Zach personally perhaps you can touch upon who he was and how this effort came to fruition:
Tomi Ketcham: Well, I think there are really two very different Zach’s that people knew, and their juxtaposition is what made him so special.
As a racer, Zach was a force of nature. He was gritty, fearless, and aggressive. Always the protagonist, he would bend and break the race at will, attacking relentlessly. It didn’t matter how the race unfolded. Every move he made was a threat, every pedal stroke had to be respected. Hesitate and he’d be gone. He would go at it solo, or in a break, and if somehow the field managed to survive his onslaught of attacks, he would dismantle you in the sprint. Entire team strategies boiled down to “follow Zach.” His presence on the bike was big, loud, and confident. As a racer he gave his all, and this inspired loyalty and commitment from his teammates. I knew that if I did my part and buried myself, he’d deliver his best. On the line he would say very little, and ask nothing of you, but his presence had an unsuspecting way of convincing you to completely empty the legs. Being a part of his success was magical; I still get chills thinking about our races together.
And then the race would end, and he’d pull off his helmet and glasses and there was a different person standing before you. His features relaxed, and his mean mug turned into a coy smile. He was shy and reserved. Sneaky and childlike. Authentic and humble. He never let stress, anger, fear, or anxiety get the best of him; he exuded positive energy, and shared a calmness that would seep into those around him. I mean, Matt, you knew me before I raced for Blue Ribbon, I was a hot headed firecracker. I’m a different person today in large part to Zach. He had the ability to soften the hearts of anyone whose life he graced. Those who knew Zach were better because of it, and his reach extended into every corner of his life. As a racer he was a killer, but off the bike you could not find a gentler soul.
When Zach was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2014, we were all pretty crushed, but we thought that if anyone could beat it, it was Zach. He finished chemo on June 3rd, and was back racing the next day, where he won the field sprint for 3rd while trying to lead me out. As incredible as that moment was, no one was even surprised. It was just like, “yea, it’s Zach, of course.”
But within 3 months the cancer was back and more aggressive than ever.
Zach passed on May 3rd, 2016: 17 months after being diagnosed with colon cancer. After his passing, the team wanted to pay homage to him, as a racer, and as a dear friend. We began pulling some pieces together with the CRCA and Cycle for Survival, in hopes of putting on a great event in memory of Zach. And here we are, one month out from the inaugural Zach Koop Memorial Crit. It feels surreal.
Against this backdrop can you touch on the importance of Memorial Sloan Kettering and how you selected MSKCC and Cycle for Survival
Memorial Sloan Kettering is a cancer research institute in New York City, and it’s where Zach was treated. The Koops, Jill, myself, and those closest to Zach spent countless days and nights at MSK. It’s a wonderful hospital, full of devoted professionals that are doing great work to help people like ZK.
I had never heard of Cycle for Survival, but Steve Magyera and Abe Soler, of Foundation Cycling, reached out when they heard Zach was sick. They told me all about CFS and the work being done. The Foundation cycling team had been involved for a few years, and they invited Blue Ribbon to team up with them.
My team jumped on board, and we had a short but great fundraising effort last year. At the end of the fundraising, I got to attend one of their events. It was so moving, and the energy was palpable. Cancer had touched every person in that room, and here we all were, united and fighting back.
The room transitioned back and forth between dance party/spin class and tear jerking testimonies of battles won and lost. It was a heart-warming experience, but more importantly, 100% of every dollar raised went straight into life saving work at MSK, including Zach’s treatment.
I knew immediately that we needed to do more to support this organization, and to memorialize Zach. This year we are hoping other cycling teams join us in our annual fundraising effort in tandem with the Zach Koop Memorial Crit.
You can read more about Cycle for Survival here: https://www.cycleforsurvival.org/about-us
Or about MSK here: https://www.mskcc.org/about
What is the significance of Orchard Beach (the venue for the CRCA Zach Koop Memorial Crit) for Zach’s memory and how did the event become the focal point for your fundraising efforts?
You never know what's going to happen on the Orchard Beach course. Sprints, splits, breaks, solo moves, sunshine, monsoons, etc; any rider can pull off the win with some guts and panache. This is the kind of racing that Zach loved and thrived off of, though he only got to race here twice.
In 2013 a big break of 9 held a 30-40 second gap, lap after lap. Zach was out numbered by multiple teams, and forced to cover late moves, but he still managed to pull off a huge upset win after a very long sprint to the line (2013 Orchard Beach Crit).
In 2014 the conditions were atrocious. Wind and rain swept tents, bikes, and babies away. After a big group lapped the field, nearly every rider dropped out. Those who didn’t were begging the officials to cut laps or call the race. This was also right when Zach started regularly getting sick, battling the onset of his cancer. Despite that adversity, he still pulled off a podium.
Orchard Beach was one of his favorite courses, mostly due to the racing, so it made sense as a venue. The race also occurs during the first week of May, the anniversary of his passing. We thought it would be a great opportunity to celebrate his life.
Below: Zach winning the 2013 Orchard Beach Crit:
What are the best ways for people to support the fundraising effort? For those that are interested in contributing their time to the effort are there volunteer opportunities available?
We could always use a little help with race day operations; if you would like to get involved, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. But I think the best way to help is to register your team or self with our fundraiser, and help raise money for CFS (see below for full instructions).
Spread the word to your friends, family, and colleagues. We’ve all been affected by cancer, and many of us wish there was more that we could do. I’m never going to invent a drug or treatment to save someone’s life, but I’m confident that the doctors at MSK will.
This is how we do our part to facilitate their work. The crit should be a great time, but the real event happens in the labs and patients’ rooms at MSK.
What are your goals for this year’s CRCA Zach Koop Memorial Crit and is there a long-term vision for the event or other associated fundraising efforts?
Well, we’re hoping to create a sustainable event that can continue combining philanthropy and bike racing in honor of Zach for years to come. An event where people can come together in their common struggles to find support and love in a way that carries on the essence of Zach’s spirit.
We’d also love to see the Zach Koop Crit become a regional level race that is a staple on the annual calendar. We’ve set a soft fundraising goal of $10,000 for CFS this year, but I’m hopeful that we can raise significantly more.
Ultimately, it would be great if we could start building a model that encourages other races to partner up with charity organizations to make it about more than just bike racing. Cycling has shaped so much of each of our lives, and I would love to see the sport stand for more than just competition.
Most importantly though, I hope those in attendance are able to garner a little bit of who Zach was, and carry that ethos out into the world after the race. The world would be a much better place with more people like him.
What is your favorite memory of riding or racing with Zach?
Man, this is a tough one… Most of my fondest memories of Zach are off the bike, since we became closest when he was too sick to ride. I’m going to selfishly keep these memories for myself, but I can share some thoughts that capture Zach and his place in the NYC cycling community.
In terms of racing, I remember the final Rockleigh race of 2014. We knew Zach was sick at the time, but we didn’t know the extent of it. His doctors thought it was a severe Crohn’s flare up, but it would turn out to be colon cancer, and he had been battling it all season.
Zach had barely slept, ridden, or eaten in days. But he was in 2nd place overall, and our team hadn’t lost a Rockleigh series in years, so there was nothing that could prevent him from being there. The race was ugly. He didn’t have enough energy to ride there, or warm up.
People could tell he was having a bad day, and they were out for blood attacking us over and over again. We had a couple guys at the front trying to keep it together, while the others were at the back trying to smooth the pace and keep ZK in contact.
I blew up bringing the race back together for the sprint with a few laps to go, and peeled off to watch the finish. As the field came into the final stretch, there was a wall of sprinters, covering every inch of the road, but no Zach. My heart sank a little, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit of despair.
Luckily, Zach doesn’t need any road. In the final 200 meters, I saw his figure creep out from behind the wall, ripping through the grass and over the road lip to nip everyone at the line for the win. He coasted a bit, and then was immediately off the bike. He thanked everyone for their work, praising specifics for each rider, and then basically collapsed in the car.
There are few guarantees in bike racing, but what you could always count on was that Zach would give it his all, and every ounce of work that you put in would never be unrecognized or in vain.
This isn’t a specific memory, but it must be said: you can’t have Koop bike racing without the entire brigade. At nearly every race, you would find Pete, Allison, Barbara, and Jill on the sidelines cheering, filling bottles, pinning numbers, and brightening the race for everyone around. Bike racing was a family affair for Zach, and the Koops were always willing to bring other racers into their embrace. Racing with Zach made being on the bike and at the races exponentially better. Knowing the Koops made the world exponentially better. We were, and still are, all family.