In 1996 Australian rider Pat Jonker completed the Tour de France in twelfth place, eighteen minutes and 58 seconds behind winner, Denmark’s Bjarne Riis. A little over four minutes to the good of Jonker in eleventh spot was his biggest idol, Spain legend Miguel Indurain. Two other Australian finished the race that year, current Orica GreenEDGE sports director Neil Stephens, who was a teammate of Jonkers with ONCE, finished in 49th place and Scott Sunderland was back in position 101, more than two-and-a-half hours down on Riis. It was his greatest result in a career that spanned eleven years and included domestique roles on teams such as the aforementioned ONCE, US Postal and Rabobank. He represented Australia at two summer Olympics, completed the Tour de France on four occasions, finally retiring from the sport after winning the 2006 Tour Down Under on home soil.
Jonker, now forty-three, fondly recalls the ’96 edition of the world’s greatest bike race, a result he labels his best. “My role was to make the race hard early, so together with Stevo (teammate Neil Stephens) we often attacked on the early parts of the mountain stages”, explained Jonker. “We had some horrid weather conditions, rain every day, snow and high winds in the mountains, we couldn’t climb the Galibier due to snow so what happened though was that the breaks I got into ended up staying away in these tough conditions”, he added. “Some times to the finish. So as a domestique I was suddenly hovering around top 20 GC (General classification)”.
With teammates Alex Zulle down on form and Laurent Jalabert ill, Director Sportif at the time, Manolo Sainz, challenged Jonker to keep attacking and to wait for no-one. “I was not good enough to follow the first group so I attacked early, got ahead and managed to stay away several times”, he said. “It was definitely the highlight of my career, especially as I spent many hours during the last few stages, together with Miguel Indurian in the mountains, battling it out for 11th -12th overall”.
Jonker’s team at the time was one of Europe’s most respected and formidable cycling outfits. “ONCE was clearly the best team on the planet for many years” he explains. “By far the best organised and having race winners like Jalabert and Zulle made it all the more sweeter”. For Jonker the team was ahead of its time. “We had three team busses when most were struggling for one”, he said. “ONCE made the month of May a TDF recon month. Now that seems to be the norm". ONCE had a structured season plan with rest periods and peak periods”, added Jonker.
He also spent time with US Postal alongside Lance Armstrong. “Postal was basically a copy of what ONCE was”, he explained. “JB (Johan Bruyneel) learnt and based his team on ONCE’s dynamics, organization and treatment of riders; First-class travel and accommodation, Postals race planning was similar to ONCE”, recalled Jonker. “Postal was great because of the Lance factor but for me being injured it also meant another nail in my coffin, almost the last”, he said. “Rabobank was good also, but still in its infancy, they are now a better organized team”.
Cycling has come a long way since those days. “It’s amazing where Australian cycling is today”, he says. “For us during the early 90s a top ten finish was something to celebrate! A top 15 GC was amazing. Fifth by Phil Anderson seemed almost impossible to match and look where we are today!” added Jonker. The win by Evans in the 2011 Tour confirmed the South Australian based Jonker’s belief in this country’s ability to develop riders at the highest level. “Cadel is a freak of nature”, he says. “Nobody can suffer like Cadel. He is our greatest cyclist of all time and one of greatest athletes of all time, a true credit to sport”. Jonker rates other greats from his time such as Indurain, Lance Armstrong, Sean Kelly and Laurent Fignon as his toughest competitors.
Cycling has had its fair share of troubles over the years and drug sagas have plagued the sport. Jonker believes however that Evans win in the great race has changed it forever. “Cadel winning the Tour meant far more than just winning the Tour de France”, he said. “It meant a new era in TDF, a clean era, there are no doubts any more. Brad Wiggins is continuing on from Cadel; win clean or don’t win at all “.
Can we expect to see another rider similar to Evans in the near future on the slopes of Europe? Jonker, who is now the Director Sportif of domestic outfit Jayco Honey-Shotz, believes there needs to be some changes to our racing here before that can happen. “Some longer more mountainous road races and start making local club races more challenging”, he explained.
Challenges are something Jonker has always put his hand up for. Since retiring from racing he has found life off the bike can be just as rewarding as finishing in the top twenty on grand tours, or winning stages of the old Commonwealth Bank Classic. Jonker finds watching and nurturing young riders develop before him as a bigger thrill. “Being a DS and winning a World Title with Taylor Phinney and coming second at Tour de L Avenir with Andrew Talansky with (Johan) Bruyneel in the team car was far more amazing for me than racing was”, he said. “You are too focused when you’re a pro. You live in this bubble, it’s when you leave this bubble that you then truly appreciate what you have done”. Since Jonker many have tried and many more will attempt to scale the heights of professional cycling. For this Aussie of Dutch and German ancestry, the views are as impressive from the team-car as the slopes of Europe once were, in that famous pink and black jersey of ONCE.