A local hero’s unlikely charge to the top of the TDU podium
The Tour Down Under suits opportunists less and less these days. The inclusion of the race in the UCI WorldTour in 2008 meant that – aside from Cameron Meyer’s brilliant overall victory in 2011 – it has been the UCI points that have done the talking when it came to deciding how the race was run, with few teams prepared to take a chance on letting a break get much traction.
In the early days of the race however, things were very different. Unheralded riders such as Gilles Maignan, Mikel Astarloza and Martin Elmiger took overall wins in the race thanks to long-range breaks. But, perhaps the finest win by a baroudeur was local hero Pat Jonker’s fairy-tale victory in the 2004 edition.
In what was his last professional race, Jonker took the start at the head of the composite UniSA team as the proverbial underdog. The wily four-time Tour de France finisher wasted no time in making his first move however. Noticing a strong tailwind out of Adelaide, the lanky local attacked as soon as the flag was dropped on the first road stage to Kapunda.
Initially aiming to build up enough of an advantage to make it over the main climb of the day in the front, Jonker and three companions eventually made it to the finish with a handy 1’ 40” cushion on a demoralised peloton, as fellow countryman Dave McPartland won the stage and took the ochre leader’s jersey.
After cannily claiming to the press to have “wasted a lot of energy” and to be “getting a bit old” and only to be on the hunt for a stage win, Jonker set out the next morning as a man on a mission.
Stage Two began in typically fast and furious style with a number of riders pushing hard to escape the bunch, sensing weakness in the team of McPartland, with moves constantly forming and reforming for the first 55km until sixteen riders managed to escape including Jonker and two of his most valuable teammates Gene Bates and Luke Roberts.
A young Philippe Gilbert triumphed on the day, but it was Jonker who was the big winner, inheriting the yellow jersey from the dropped McPartland and with it a near two-minute lead on his closest rivals.
It was an immense moment for the tiny UniSA team and their leader. Jonker knew that he would have to rally his hastily assembled team of locals to fend off the might of multi-million dollar professional teams and world-class opposition through the toughest stage of the race to Willunga, where he would face one of the most important tests of his distinguished career.
As predicted the attacks came all day on the road to Willunga. Jonker’s charges rode out of their skin to reel in a dangerous ten-man move at the foot of the final climb, only for Giuliano Figueras and Paolo Tiralongo of the Panaria team to put in a bold two-up move, forcing the veteran Australian onto the ropes.
But the experienced Australian held firm, and thanks to his teammate Luke Roberts paced his effort to perfection to bring back the two flying Italians, sagely pointing out at the finish that, “It’s not about pedalling hard, it’s about pedalling hard at the right moment.”
For Jonker, it was the crowning moment of his career, taken against the odds in a never to be repeated moment of Tour Down Under history. “For me this is the greatest thing that could have happened. My aggressiveness on the second day was crucial. It was a gamble I know, but it was my last race and you lay it on the line. It was all or nothing, a blaze of glory or a blaze of disappointment.”
This article appeared in a printed edition of the Doppio – Rapha’s double-shot of road racing reportage –produced for the Tour Down Under. You can download the newspaper as a pdf here.