A day after Yevgeniy Fedorov rode off with the stage victory — and yellow leader’s jersey— at the start of the 25th Le Tour de Langkawi, fellow 19-year-old Taj Jones surprised not only the fans in attendance but also himself with a bunch sprint victory over a UCI 2.Pro field, which included WorldTour standout Max Walscheid (NTT Pro Cycling), who finished second on the day.
“I was pretty shocked when I crossed the line as you can probably tell by the footage,” Jones told Eurosport after just watching a replay of finish following the Stage 2 win. “To come around Max was pretty amazing for me. Had to leave it late, and lucky enough to come over the top of him.”
With ARA Pro Cycling Sunshine Coast teammate and fellow sprinter Matthew Rice, also 19, not in top form at the start of the race, Jones had the team’s full support and ARA began to organise with about 10km to go in the 175.5km stage from Kuala Terengganu to Kerteh.
“We got the horsepower to deliver whether it’s me or Matt in the final, we were pretty confident we could come away with a win here this week and it just goes to show we can — so we are up for some more hopefully.”
The former footballer-turned-triathlete-turned-cyclist from Queensland, who only recently picked up the bike, becomes one of 16 Australians to win a stage at the UCI Asia Tour cornerstone event now celebrating a quarter-century of international competition.
Aussies Stuart O’Grady, Graeme Brown, Michael Matthews and Caleb Ewan have all experienced LTDL success. Last year’s Genting Highlands stage winner and overall race victor Benjamin Dyball, parlayed his success at Langkawi into a WorldTour contract with NTT Pro Cycling this season.
“I didn’t expect to win,” he stated. “I’m just a Sunshine Coast kid who enjoys riding my bike. I didn’t know I was following in the footsteps of guys of such high caliber. I only started riding a bike about three years ago, so just getting going pretty much.”
ARA Pro Cycling Sunshine Coast is the brainchild of Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt Wilson and ACA co-founding partner Ben Kersten, with an emphasis on athlete development and continuing education as part of the University of the Sunshine Coast.
The Australian UCI Continental team launched in December 2017 and has been making headlines for its success both on the bike and in the classroom ever since.
“Obviously, coming here with a young squad we got good guidance from Stu Shaw, who has raced a lot [in Asia] and has won a stage here in Langkawi (2010),” said Jones. “We definitely have the experience with Ben Kersten running the show, so we know how to get the job done from just those two guys.”
Kersten complimented his team’s effort on the day and told Eurosport he unashamedly expected stage success given the squad’s exceptional talent depth and commitment to preparation in the lead-up to the season.
“They are all really young,” he said. “Taj is only 19 years old, same as Matt, and it was either gonna be one or two of them on the back this whole trip. It was just going to depend on the stage and how they felt every morning. Matt has been a bit off, but Taj has put in an unbelievable amount of work over the last year and the last few months for this race, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise.
“We knew we would win a stage and that sounds cocky, but we have Matt, who won a UCI race (Tour of Quanzhou Bay) end of last year, Taj and then Stu Shaw leading them out. We’ve also got Zack Gilmore, who has a lot of horsepower, so we came here for a 1km sprint race."
Aside from serving as a devo pathway for cycling and higher academics, the team also presented a perfect platform for aspiring and returning Olympians such as Leigh Howard, Sam Welsford and Cameron Scott currently en route to the Tokyo 2020 velodrome.
“We are really happy,” admitted Kersten. “We always had the young development guys and uni students, and then we had results from the track guys. Now it’s an Olympic year and it’s time to put some real emphasis on the development guys and now it’s their turn to step up and they really have.
“This is the highest level we can race and they are our team leaders now and last year they were just learning the ropes domestically and watching the Olympic track guys win the big races, so for the understudies to start winning is something we are really proud of at the moment.”
Jones moved up to joints second in the points classification level on 19 points with Walscheid while Federov still leads the classification with 21 points.
Fedorov also retained the yellow jersey as the leader in the general classification with six stages remaining, while Thailand’s Thurakit Boonratanathanakorn remains in second. Jones’ victory moved him up to third with a one-minute and 23 seconds deficit to the Kazakh.
Asia.eurosport.com, 8 Februari 2020