THE UNDERDOG: PETER MCDONALD, THE 2009 AUSSIE CHAMPION
Our guest blogger, Ruben Vandeputte, shines a light on one of the biggest upsets for the top-flight riders at the Australian Road National Championships. In 2009, underdog Peter McDonald of the Continental team Drapac-Porsche Cycling beat two of the best riders from Team Columbia-HTC, at the top of their game in the World Tour, to grab the title of Australian Champion. This is Peter's story.
It is usually a thought that only creeps up near the end of the season, rather than in January when everything still smells fresh, but cycling can have a certain rhythm to it that tends towards a cadence - or even a drill. Riders trek around the world, from one competition to the next, hasting on and chasing the next result. It gives something particular to the National Championship, almost an anachronism in a sport which transitioned into a team event during its existence. There is the odd starting line-up but also the jersey, that gives it more longevity than any other race.
These elements get topped off with a certain spark, a vision of opportunities soaked in a Disney storyline. Usually, the pecking order is clear but for the National Championships, everyone can dream.
If all the circumstances go my way, I could win the jersey today.
It leads to scrolls of honour revealing, next to your usual suspects, some inconspicuous names. The Australian Nationals Road Race is no stranger to that principle as, at first sight, it was evidenced by the 2009 edition. The name of Peter McDonald - above none other than Michael Rogers and Adam Hansen - seems an odd one, someone who rolled the dice and happened to hit the aces. But McDonald did not just gamble on the right day and win.
There was a time when Peter McDonald was a 24-year old primary school teacher without any racing experience at all. At that age, he chose to spend a year as a bike courier in Sydney, a sabbatical year before diving fully in the ‘real world’. It did inspire him to race but starting in the lower echelons of the local scene, his ambitions remained fairly limited.
I hoped to do well in the A-grades (National events), but never dreamed of much more
Moreover, how he actually got into the national circuit already reads like a fairytale. Still green as could be, he received a last-minute invite to ride Grafton-Invernell, one of the non-UCI races that form the cornerstone of the domestic Australian calendar. He attacked early, stayed away, won the three-man sprint and sent his career on a rapid rise. The unheralded bike courier became a rider who could pick up the glove against any compatriot, especially as the road went uphill.
Nonetheless, his name and results remained far away from the gravitational pull of the almighty European scene. Teams such as FRF Couriers and especially Drapac combined a domestic agenda with tours in the Pacific and to the outskirts of European cycling: the FDB Insurance Ras in Ireland or the Kermesse circuit in Belgium. It is cycling out of the limelight and on the verges of professionalism, possibly with more adventure and joy than your regular pro.
“We wouldn’t always turn up for training when in Belgium,”
“Sometimes we would go to a museum instead, just as part of the experience.”
In between races, there was more to it than training and racing, nonetheless. McDonald made ends meet as a bike mechanic:
“I usually worked out of a van, driving around to people and solving their problems.”
It’s easy to put him away as just another of the many riders on the edge of professional cycling, not breaking into the World Tour. McDonald even became a veteran before he even got the chance to dream big but it doesn’t sound like there are any regrets:
“You could say that I missed my window of opportunity, at my age, but for me it was always more about the experience of being a professional and travelling.”
One would almost put it aside as a lack of ambition but one phone call with Peter will prove you wrong. There is more to ambition than continuously striving for the next step.
The Australian National Championships have the interesting quirk that they always take place along the same course and after two top ten placings in ‘06 and ‘08, McDonald knew these roads quite well. Knowing that he could podium there, he decided to focus his season on it - even if he chose for an unconventional preparation.
McDonald still chuckles on it ten years after.
“When I got home, at the end of October, I didn’t ride. Just left my bike in the bag and did other stuff. Then, at the end of November, I had a race in Japan and the mechanic opened up the travel bag. My old numbers were still on it, I had not touched it at all. But having the freedom to schedule this as I wanted, played to my advantage.”
A training camp later, he won the Tour of Bright, a local stage race that always had suited him and told him all he needed to know about his form.
On the day, McDonald played his cards perfectly. On the lumpy course, he could sit in the back for the first three-quarters of the race. But when the going got tough, he was the only one who could bridge across to Michael Rogers, not a feat to quickly overlook - one might recall Rogers primarily as a triple ITT world champion but he earned his stripes uphill as well, as evidenced by a sixth spot in the Giro four months later. In short, the kind of guy you want along in a break across the hills. It says a lot about McDonald how he downplays his own performance.
“Rogers had put in a lot of effort already - more than I did. He probably discounted me a bit, I must have been an unknown quantity to him. Besides, as all these World Tour riders, he had other targets as well - this was my key moment of the year.”
Things shook up quite a bit when out of the blue, Adam Hansen made it across. At the time, both he and Rogers were part of Team Columbia-HTC, arguably the best team in the world at that point. In theory, the kind of two-against-one situation you cannot lose - especially against an unknown quantity.
“Rogers had a really good choice to win but Hansen went straight by and that made it actually harder for him. When I caught Hansen, Rogers had to go early and after doing the majority of the work, he didn’t have the kick anymore. So I could go around and win it.”
Two seasoned World Tour riders, bested by someone from a Continental team.
“They must have been embarrassed a bit, but they each rode on their instincts - Hansen only came to the front in the last kilometre, there was no time to discuss a battle plan.”
What happened in the aftermath tells you a thing or two about Peter McDonald’s view on cycling. As a national champion, he was invited to the national marquee event, the Tour Down Under. But due to disagreements between his team manager at Drapac and the organisers, he had to decline the ticket. Instead, he joined his teammates at the Tour of Wellington - and won it.
“Drapac was a really nice team for me and I respected what the team manager had done for me. At the time it felt like the right decision back then and, well, it still does.”
He modestly adds,
“It would have been intimidating riding there and I rode the race a year later anyway.”
The joy with which McDonald discusses his Drapac days holds a philosophy that inspires, and is encapsulated in a line which holds an interesting nuance in its simplicity:
“We rode to win, of course, but we didn’t need to race for the result there.”
He looks back at it with a smile, despite the sharp edge of his career end.
“I could have done a couple more years. I was signed by Fly V but the team lost their sponsor and fell apart in December. By that time, it was too late to find another seat for most of the guys, including me.”
Still, it will be tough to squeeze a hard feeling out of McDonald. For someone whose initial ambition didn’t exceed riding A-grades, winning the National Championship was more than he could wish for.
These days, Peter McDonald is back in South-West Australia and teaching sciences in the local high school. He rarely rides on the road anymore but goes mountain biking every once and a while.
“My brain still says I can ride the pace, but my body doesn’t always follow.”
Something tells me he still rips apart the group ride on a steep hill but never feels like bragging about it. It suits a guy who didn’t race for the result but did race to win. Because of that, he not only got the national jersey but a lot more, it seems.
Quite some time ago already, I accepted that my cycling ambitions would stretch no further than hanging on the back of the group ride – but that did not stop me from trying. Nonetheless, I’m far better at watching other people ride, with a special love affair for the lazy hours, with the early attack minutes clear and the suiting voice of the commentator. I combat my melancholic soft spot for sepia-tinged, moustachioed heroes with a penchant for quirky statistics and endless lists.