Blast From the Past: The Zapata Espinoza Interview

Originally posted on April 30, 2015 at 5:37 am


Editor’s note: “Zap” Espinoza is a Mountain Bike Hall of Famer who got his start with Hi-Torque Publications’ Mountain Bike Action magazine in 1987. He moved on to Mountain Bike magazine in 1993, where he filled the editor’s chair until taking the reigns as Trek’s mountain bike brand manager in 2004. In 2006 Zap returned to Hi-Torque, where he has since filled various roles within the company’s motorsports and cycling publications. This interview first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #99, published in April 2003. While some of the material is dated, there’s no denying that Zap’s candid take on the wild world of mountain biking is still as insightful and entertaining as ever. Interview by Michael Browne. Illustration by David Biber.

When the concept to interview Zapata Espinoza of Mountain Bike magazine came up at a Dirt Rag staff meeting, we compiled pages of questions before even figuring out if one of mountain biking’s long-standing journalists would be into such an idea. So when the email from Zap came back, “Are you kidding? As one of the most shamelessly self-promoting editors in the biz, I’d love to,” the question wasn’t, should we actually do it; the question was, how do we narrow down our questions? We didn’t.

While many of our past interviews have profiled interesting personalities, I think you’ll find this one most revealing of an interviewee’s true character. Chalk it up to great questions and a guy who just wants a forum for his views. I think he found the right place.

Dirt Rag: For our readers who might not know you, who are you?

Zap Espinoza: What? Start off with an insult? Oh my God.

DR: Hey man, there are some loyal Dirt Raggers out there.

ZE: Uh…Zap. Um…Mountain Bike magazine. Been at it since ’87 and I got bigger ear holes, far bigger than Mighty Moe will ever have. Him and his little [expletive deleted] starter kit he’s got there.

DR: So how’d you get introduced to mountain biking?

ZE: The very first mountain bike that I saw was a Mountain Goat when I was at UC Santa Cruz. I was in the cycling club and it was all road stuff in (I’m going to date myself) 1982. I went to the bike shop and there was this rad looking mountain bike with a camouflage paint job and it was just crazy. I didn’t really think about it or understand it all that much, but that was the first one I ever saw.

I actually professionally started in 1987 at Mountain Bike Action to get the job at Motorcross Action. I just started doing it even though I didn’t really want to do it. But growing up, Motorcross Action was my Bible and so that’s what I was all about.

Then in the summer of ’87, I went to Mammoth for the Swatch mountain bike race with Todd Smith, who was supposed to become the editor of Mountain Bike Action. So we went up to Mammoth and I fell in love with Ned Overend and Lisa Muhich and the sport of mountain biking and Todd came home hating it more than ever. So I came back and told Jody Weisel, “I want the job. Will you please teach me?” So from August of ’87, I’ve just been dedicated to it. That’s why I’ve remained more in love with racing and Ned Overend than most sane individuals. I’m a big advocate of racing, maybe because it came to me at Mammoth instead of at some willowy park in a big meadow. So, that’s all there too, but the seeds got planted at Mammoth in ’87.

DR: So there’s some secret love affair we need to know about?

ZE: Competition, brother. I love being competitive. That’s what spoiled the relationships with all the other magazine editors over the years. I just love competition and it’s not about just sitting around and drinking beer, about doing that old [expletive deleted] “my flip-flops are older than yours” routine or anything else.

The love affair with Ned? Any sane individual would know that you can’t help but be mesmerized by that guy. The same with Lisa too, just two fabulous people. They were champions, they were so competitive and yet, they were the most humble people in the world. There’s no pretense about Ned, never ever ever, and the same with Lisa. I guess I was just so awe struck—these two riders of such magnitude and so wonderful to be with and outgoing. But the love affair’s just with competition. I support it whether it’s the sport class kids or the Red Bull Rampage. It’s all good, as long as you beat somebody.

Oh wait, except trials.

DR: What do you have against the trials guys?

ZE: Well, they’re like the singlespeeders. They’re just generally… there was this one guy back in the day who was balling me out making me think trials was going to be the next big thing. Blah, blah, blah, my son deserves more than this, blah, blah, blah. And it’s like, dude, it’s [expletive deleted] trials. It’s a sideshow. Hans Rey, whatever. Andy Grayson, whatever. But it’s hard, whatever. It’s just not my cup of tea. Like I said, it’s like the singlespeed guys. They just think that there’s more to it than there really is.

My standing joke for years has been always making fun of the trials guys. It’s just useful fodder for saying mean things.

DR: Are you into the whole freeriding thing?

ZE: I don’t buy it… Of the many things I continue to be uptight about in life… I think all this crap about freeriding… anyone who was back in Moab in 1987 with toe straps and Lycra shorts, it was just as much about freeriding then as it is these days with some knucklehead wearing baggy shorts with twelve inches of travel.

There are plenty of people in the cycling industry as it tries to define itself over and over again, to the degree that the word “mountain bike” has almost become a dirty word ‘cause it’s not specific or niche enough. So when you say “are you into the freeriding thing?,” I think the ride I did last week with Ned was freeriding.

I guess extreme riding is what that is to me. But like everything else, it’s going to have its day in the sun and then next thing you know, everyone’s going to say, “remember when we used to watch those silly freeride videos? What a waste of time.”

I was just back in Pennsylvania putting the new issue down, and we were picking photos and stuff, and I did the story on Frischkeneicht and put a bitchin’ picture of him on the table of contents. And there he is with a freakin’ flat bar and Lycra shorts and three inches of travel. And to me, it just warms my heart because everything that Frischkeneicht is all about is just so [expletive deleted] right on.

All these numbskulls that just walk around sayin’ “Oh, the cross country racing isn’t about the lifestyle.” They’ve got their heads up their asses. ‘Cause on any given day, whether it’s Megan Long or Tomas Frischkeneicht, they’ve got just as much lifestyle as any dozen beer-drinkin’, baggy short wearin’ freeriders.

DR: So this was a current picture of Tomas?

ZE: No, it’s about three years old, ‘cause he’s on a Ritchey. There’s a story inside the magazine. But why would anyone care about Frishy? He’s not in the videos, he’s not doing the big huckin’. But Frishy, like Thomas Jefferson stands for democracy, Frishy stands for things that are far more pervasive than anything in freeriding right now. There are things that every mountain biker and every cyclist can draw on from Frischkeneicht and his legacy, just by being as unfashionable as what he represents is.

I’m just defensive now because I have to listen to companies telling me that, “Oh, well, that kinda stuff doesn’t represent the lifestyle that we want to try and get involved in.” What? Are they out of their [expletive deleted] minds? How can Frischkeneicht not represent the lifestyle of cycling? He’s a cyclocross champion, an Olympic rider, World Champion. He’s been racing mountain bikes for twelve or fourteen years. It’s just the bias that comes from the people who fall into it for the fashion of the times, and for me personally, I’m not ready to jump on the bandwagon by wearing [expletive deleted] Oakley baggy shorts, no matter how stupid they are. Not just Oakley, but all baggy shorts.

Ya know, Matt wears baggies here, and Bill wears them every once in a while, but to me, it’s not about the bandwagon mentality. That’s not what mountain biking’s about either.

DR: So are you saying that not much has changed for you since you’ve gotten into it?

ZE: Oh, huge changes. Technology, far and away, is the biggest change. And the sport’s changed. I’ve had to deal with Back-In-The-Day knuckleheads like Dondo, who just bitches and moans, “Oh, it’s not like it was back in the day.” Weeping and moaning that it wasn’t like it was back when he was drinking beer at Mt. Snow. Blah, blah, blah… I have as many Back-In-The-Dayisms as anybody and I relish those days. And I don’t wear baggy shorts, but in no way does that mean that I don’t either recognize or embrace the change, because that’s what has made it as good as it is today. It’s not that it’s better or worse today, it’s just different.

You can either embrace that and get along with it, or sit back and look like some knucklehead who can’t fit in—like Dondo and his ilk. In the magazine world, it’s not our place to format this whole Back In The Day routine where you’re unable to bring your readers around to where they can experience all the new things out there. I think that’s irresponsible, unless the title of your magazine is Back In The Day Cycling or We Refuse to Evolve Mountain Biking.

All these concepts about who has more soul, it’s all a bunch of [expletive deleted] crap. And the idea that somehow something that was before yesterday or before last year is somehow better or has more soul than something that’s out there now, it’s entirely ethnocentric and just so prejudice, that really raises my hair, what little I have left.

DR: You’ve talked a lot about the positive impacts of technology on the scene, but what other positive changes have happened?

ZE: I mean, between now and back in the day, every time any one person has discovered mountain biking and gone out and had a good time, whether they’re in the sport now or not, that’s a positive change. There’s an awful lot of people who’ve discovered mountain biking in the last ten years, and they may not be doing it now in the same numbers. But [expletive deleted] it, the mountain bike brought a sense of liberation and adventure [to people] who may never have enjoyed that or experienced it. And that’s all good. Nothing but good. If, let’s say, 80 million people found mountain biking and 40 million left to do something else, but if 20 million of those just use the mountain bike as something to do, something to be healthy with, we still win. It’s still a positive thing.

There’s all that weeping and moaning about people who say it went too commercial and blah, blah, blah… that’s just a bunch of baloney as well. To weep and moan is to deny the natural evolution of modern civilization. Like back when GT took the first big truck to the races, that just comes about, and then it’s gone. It’s just like Enron. It’s all part of the ebb and flow of life. But the way you asked the question, it’s like you had a sense of doubt. I’m not quite sure what you mean. I wonder if you doubt anything good ever came of anything.

DR: I was listening to the positive changes you listed, and you focused on the positive impact of technology. I was curious what else was out there, for you, aside from the positive impact of technology. But you answered the question. I’m curious; do you still have that old Mountain Goat?

ZE: No. It’s a shame, but I do have the Yeti that John Parker gave me as wedding present that John Tomac rode in 1990. The one he rode in 1990 is the one with drop bars, and besides my daughter, that’s my prize possession.

The technology’s been there, and the adventure’s been there. It’s brought things like Dirt Rag, which is one of the best things about the sport. That’s the real deal.

I guess you can say it’s provided more people the opportunity to be outdoors, outside of their living rooms, bathrooms, bedrooms and shopping malls. It makes the world a better place.

DR: Is that one of the reasons you voted for Moe and Elaine for the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame instead of your co-worker?

ZE: [pause] Oh, Koeppel you mean? I find his humor has had a great impact on me personally and I think so many magazine editors, yours truly included, were suffering from delusions of self-importance. Koeppel came out and said let’s celebrate donuts and singletrack and have a good time. Koeppel woke me up. When I was at MBA, there was a fierce fight for editorial and Koeppel was just this frumpy little Jew who just didn’t care about any of that, who was willing to just look in the mirror and laugh. And that’s what he taught me—the ability to not take everything so seriously.

I don’t know Moe or Elaine that well, but in terms of what the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame represents, what Maurice and Elaine have done with Dirt Rag is far and away more worthy of a Hall of Fame nomination than anything Dan’s done. And that’s hard for me to say.

But Dirt Rag, I mean I had this little punk rock ‘zine that I did back in college, you know, Xerox and staples. So I guess I still have a soft spot in my head for what Dirt Rag once was and what it’s become and what it still is. Plenty of times, I’ve been singled out and called the corporate lackey, and blah, blah, blah, ‘cause I work for Rodale and we’re big and we have a marketing budget and we… whatever. But Dirt Rag has stayed true to what they wanted to be from the beginning and you’ve been determined and different and doing it your own way. At the end of the day, it’s so important when you’re in a society where, again, you’ve got this bandwagon mentality of everything. The history of Dirt Rag covers—ya know, for me forget The New Yorker—Dirt Rag covers are where it’s happening. It’s definite museum fodder, to have a collection of Dirt Rag covers. It’s just representative of the magazine. That was a real easy choice to me.

DR: We appreciate the compliments, but you stole my question. I was going to ask what you thought the best and worst things about Dirt Rag were, but you’ve already voiced your disdain for the beer-drinking, sandal-wearing society. Did you ever get a chance to look at the noogie picture?

ZE: What was that?

DR: We ran it about a year ago. I thought you had seen it.

ZE: What was it?

DR: It was Maurice giving you a noogie on the streets of San Francisco.

ZE: [laughs] I apologize for not being able to recall it. But hey, any press is good press, right?

The infamous noogie photo (thanks to some Photoshop magic).

DR: So you’re a self-trained journalist?

ZE: Yeah. Politics major in school. That’s definitely one of my major shortcomings, I’ve always said I’m far and away much worse of a journalist than plenty of other editors out there. I’m not half as good as an actual bicycle rider as half the riders out there. I’m nowhere nearly as mechanically inclined as some of the other editors out there, and so going into it each day I realize all these things and I say OK, all I can do is [expletive deleted] work harder than any of those other bastards out there. I think that personally, the longevity of my job is testimony to my ability to do that. There were editors back in the day who wouldn’t travel on the weekends because that was cutting into their personal time, and I was like “Are you out of your [expletive deleted] minds?” How can you take this job and not travel on the weekends? That’s when it all happens. Whether it’s a race or a Saturday night stayover. That was something I learned from Jody back in the day. His whole thing was to outwork everyone. And that’s all I’ve been fit to do.

DR: Where’d you gain your work ethic?

ZE: My grandfather. He just passed away last year at 99 years old. He was an old school steel worker, went to night classes to be an engineer in the ‘20s. His sense of self and his sense of accomplishment were tied into his ability to work hard and do his job. My grandfather was my hero and I can’t say I was ever able to be as well mannered as he was or as understanding as he was, but he was a good Mexican Catholic. A Republican, God forbid. We used to work construction together and he sort of taught me the stuff back then, in terms of his philosophy on life.

You’re defined by your work ethic. Back in the day, to make up for my own deficiencies, compared to what other editors had, I could never build a frame or be as smart as Cunningham, but I was just [expletive deleted] determined to outwork that guy.

And so again, a lot of guys have come and gone, and I can’t say that I’m still here cause of my sparkling personality, that’s for sure.

DR: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment in the mountain bike world?

ZE: Still being here, for one. For the fifteen years I’ve been in this… a lesson I learned from Jody, I take a lot of personal time out of it, but I don’t complain and I do it. Chasing down stories to provide readers with something they can ogle. As a corollary to that, to be an advocate for the bike industry. Joe Murray called me a cheerleader for the industry, and it’s like you’re damn [expletive deleted] right I am. The damn industry pays my bills and put my kid through college. Absolutely. I’ll wear that crown any day.

‘Cause it’s just so fashionable, the nattering nabobs of negativity, to quote William Sapphire, who just think it’s so cool to do that whole routine of being down on NORBA, it’s just pathetic. The knobs who wouldn’t even go to the races, from the comforts of their freeride sofas, slamming NORBA and cross country racing. I don’t know.

DR: Sounds like you don’t like those guys.

ZE: No, just don’t complain about the NORBA Nationals if you don’t go there. Like the last story I did on Mt. Snow, it was called something like “Freaks in the Woods” and I go there and I walk the course and I ride the course, and I fill those pages with those knucklehead freaks. They’re riding their bikes. It just pisses me off to hear Joe Murray bitching about the races when he comes down from his lofty wooded house in Arizona to do a NORBA National to bitch about stuff he has no idea about. His blanket denial that you can’t go to the races and have a good time. There are thousands of people there that are having a good time. But to me, it’s a great distinction if I’m a cheerleader for the industry.

‘Cause bicycles can deliver people with a sense of freedom and adventure that you can’t get anywhere else. I was never a track geek or a road geek. There’s that bias as well. The whole road geek background that I never cut my teeth on. I have pictures of me right now, jumping Schwinn Stingrays back in 1969, and it’s that life-affirming joy of riding your bicycle through a puddle or falling down and scraping your knee. Every great thing that’s ever been said about bicycles from Albert Einstein to Joe Breeze, it’s all true. They’re environmentally friendly, wonderful, personally liberating vehicles that make them worth being a cheerleader for. And I know the industry works hard, but though there’s knuckleheads galore, everyone from John Burke to Dave Turner works their asses off to make bicycles better. And the end result is a better experience and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And in the same way that I do my best to make a magazine that will entertain and inform people… my version is different from Moe’s, neither one is right or wrong, but it’s just a different take on the best way to do it. And it doesn’t mean that any of it is above criticism, I could be just as critical of any issue of Dirt Rag as I am my own magazine, ‘cause we all make judgment calls. And that’s part of it too.

Cycling is just such an incredible, diverse sport, with so many different experiences. All it takes is a willingness to throw your leg over and start pedaling, eh?

DR: Do you have any goals yet to be attained?

ZE: [20 second pause] Maybe. I’ve just led such a blessed life. From day one, in the bicycle front as well. I’ve sat on the podium for downhill races, I’ve finished off Canada’s NORBA cross country races, I’ve been freeriding around Lake Garda and gotten drunk with Ned over in Italy. I’ve had dinner at Valentino Campagnolo’s favorite restaurant. I’ve ridden in Hawaii. I’ve met incredible people, and even coming home last night at the airport, some people recognized me. It would just be foolish for me to think of anything I haven’t already done. I actually feel guilty. So I think the one thing is for my daughter to have the safest, happiest life in the world. That’s job number one. It’s all been good so far. So many great rides from Sun Valley to Japan. It would be too greedy to have anything more than what I’ve already received.

Oh wait, I know. My goal would be to be the editor of Dirt Rag.

DR: You’d have to get through me first.

ZE: Oh wait, publisher. I want [expletive deleted] Moe’s job. Ah! What a [expletive deleted] goal. How come I can’t have a life like that?

DR: What are you listening to these days?

ZE: A little bit of everything these days. I just got a CD burner so I’m burning all sorts of stuff. It’s Ozzie right now, but the bottom line is that it all comes back to the Clash. How could it not? And whether it’s Aretha Franklin or the B52’s singing it, it’s all about Joe Strummer and the “Clampdown.” You gotta listen to the “Clampdown.” And at the worst of moments when you gotta buckle down, the “Clampdown” will come across the screen and I’m right back at it.

DR: What would you be doing if you weren’t in the bike industry?

ZE: I don’t know. Something that inspired me was back in 1984 standing outside the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in Sunset Strip and Stiff Little Fingers was playing there, but we were just hanging out, not to go inside or anything, and I was standing on the north side corner. You know how Sunset Strip is out on the corner of Westwood and beyond, all things decadent. And this [expletive deleted] convertible drives up on the corner and me and Big Ed, this smarmy [expletive deleted] white chick with her [expletive deleted] smarmy white friends, they’re looking at all the punk rock and they look at me with their attitudes and say “Well yeah, what are you going to be when you grow up?” And the way she said it, with her accusations by way of the way we looked by standing out there and not sitting in some restaurant with linen tablecloths, that somehow we had no chance of ever becoming anything.

That woman, wherever she is, has inspired me to be something and raise my daughter to be the greatest kid in the world, all to prove that [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] wrong. How they could just sit there and automatically assume that we’d never become anything. And to her point, if it weren’t for the bicycle, then she’d be right. She’d be able to say that we’d be a bunch of nothings. I got my degree in politics and sociology and still felt clueless, helpless and talentless, ya know, other than having a big hole in my ear, I couldn’t account for anything. The one thing I’d really like to have done is to be a teacher. This day and age, you have to pass tests to become a teacher. So I think I’m shot for that. And that’s why I think I work as hard as I do now, cause I’m like Richard Gere in “An Officer and A Gentleman” doing pushups in my office. Cause I got nowhere else to [expletive deleted] go! I can’t see myself doing anything other than this. I have no talent other than this.

DR: Why do people love to hate you?

ZE: Maybe because I do things based upon the fact that I don’t mind being hated and I don’t mind being made fun of. I don’t mind people saying mean things about me. I wouldn’t say I invite them to. I have an opinion and I’m not shy about sharing it. And it’s gotten me into trouble at the end of the day, but like the trials guys, I’ll get a letter from some dad, “My son practices trials three hours a day” blah, blah, blah… whatever.

So it’s true. We print the letters every month. Plenty of people hate me, and plenty of people love me. I never meant to be divisive, but it’s about getting the blood going. I think that’s good: to get people thinking rather than to make them like you. I’ve always tried to be honest. I suffer from that. I speak my mind too much when it comes to that.

I’m honest when I review a bike. You’d like to think that companies cherish that, but if you’re too honest, the next thing you know, they’re pulling ads. And it’s depressing, what’s the message they send? They don’t want us to be honest.

DR: How many times has that happened?

ZE: Through the ages, quite a bit. We started doing more comparison testing last year, and the bike industry thinks it’s so precious sometimes. Every other consumer magazine out there, whether it’s cars or microwaves, they do comparison testing. That’s what consumers do. These companies cry, “Ohh… we ended up losing… waaahh…” First of all, it’s not about the loser. But if people are looking at two thousand dollar suspension bikes, we should test them. These people in the industry, I’m sure that whenever they go to buy their [expletive deleted] Explorers or their Mr. Coffee coffee pots or DVD players, I’m sure they love it. If it comes back to haunt them in their own back yard, they don’t talk to us again. It’s just depressing.

Our job is to be critical. The same people who pull their ads, wouldn’t they be mad if they read a food review and then spent a thousand dollars on dinner and it sucked? That’s what we do! Yeah, we’re not always right, but it’s our opinion. We have experience, and although we’re still biased, we’re trying to give the consumer some sense… it’s like Specialized and their new Epic. They just went through the roof over that test. And we see one in Bike and they’re glossing over stuff that’s not being honest with the reader.

DR: What happened with that test?

ZE: We didn’t think it was the Holy Grail. The bike, as a race bike, it’s too heavy and too expensive compared to other good race bikes. The Epic test in Bike, they just bought into it. You know what? You could get this bike that weighs less and costs even less money. That’s valuable information to the consumer. Instead of saying it’s the best… these guys at Specialized are saying “those guys at Bike are great!” blah, blah, blah…

Just ‘cause they chose not to get into some specifics that might have painted a different picture of the review. I’m not pointing fingers. I’m sure they see the same thing with us.

Sometimes we don’t get it right, and I’ll always be the first to apologize. Sometimes it’s hard to try to be honest and accurate and get hammered for it.

DR: Does knowing the reaction you might get from certain people prohibit you from doing what you do?

ZE: At the end of the day, we just don’t deal with certain people anymore. If there’s a history to never being able to do anything right, why even bother? Some people can take it on the chin better than others. We’re more than happy to entertain the dialogue of whether we’ve done something right or wrong.

We try to be as responsible as we can. The idea is to be fair. The idea is also to be accurate. I think that’s what the consumer is looking for.

DR: So what’s your personal bike?

ZE: It’s the most politically correct answer I’ve had since day one. I don’t have a personal bike. It’s a waste if I’m riding a bike I already know. So there’s a stable of bikes and mountain bikes, but I’m always riding different bikes. The only one I call my own is John Tomac’s 1990 Yeti with drop bars. But right now, there’s a LeMond Ti bike that’s bitchin’ and we’re still big on the Blur. What else… I always make a point of riding test bikes.

DR: I’m out of questions. Anything else you want to tell the Dirt Rag readers?

ZE: Just keep riding your bikes. Make fun of each other, make fun of yourselves. Just keep riding your bike and have a good time. And give Moe a hard time.

DR: I try.

ZE: Big old Hall of Fame knucklehead that he is.

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We’ve published a lot of stuff in 25 years of Dirt Rag. Find all our Blast From the Past stories here.


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