Australia’s local race for Malta: Dan Bonello’s ‘incredible’ home Worlds

WOLLONGONG, Australia (CT) — When the elite men’s time trial kicked off last Sunday at Worlds in Wollongong, it was Dan Bonello who was first down the starting ramp. Dressed in a red and white jumpsuit, Bonello represented the small Mediterranean island nation of Malta.

Born in the nearby town of Bowral – around 45km inland from Wollongong as the crow flies – Bonello had the opportunity to race a World Cup on home soil, so he took it with both hands.

“The circumstances for me are just unbelievable,” Bonello told CyclingTips’ Dave Rome. “It’s less than an hour from where I grew up. It’s as close to home Worlds as a lot of Aussies are going to get. And then for me in particular, it’s my home.

“I used to come here and play rugby all the time and was at Illawarra Cycling Academy when I was a teenager. So that’s pretty cool. And yeah, just seeing so many people there -low… for me, I’m here for the experience.

Bonello was thrilled to be the first down the ramp.

“When I clinched first place…I was just over the moon because it meant I was going to hopefully set the fastest time for a little while and jump in the hot seat,” Bonello said.

He did just that, his time of 44:57 earning him a brief stint on stage before Luke Plapp came through with a time three and a half minutes quicker. But for Bonello, racing the Worlds TT was never about challenging the best riders; it was just about making the most of the opportunity.

“Having my girlfriend Brodie Chapman here racing too [for the Australian team], it’s just cool,” Bonello said. “I will remember it forever. I came to cycling a bit later than maybe I should have, but just the opportunities that come up representing Malta and having another rider here from Malta, Alex Smyth, that’s cool. I hope one day it’s like Maltese guys and gals running.

As you would expect, Bonello is able to ride for Malta thanks to a family connection.

“My father’s family are post-war immigrants,” he said. “So they moved to what was western Sydney just after WWII. My dad is actually the only one of his siblings who was born in Australia. Sometimes I feel like the connection [to Malta] is perhaps even stronger for me than for him. I’ve been there six times now and really like it. It really is a niche. You meet a lot of Irish, a lot of Brits, a lot of Kiwis, but Malta – a lot of people don’t know where it is.

“We are definitely one of the smaller nations and none of my dad’s relatives are still alive, but I mean, yeah, it’s family. It’s cool. It’s super special.

Photo: Dave Rome

Bonello is not really a timekeeper. He started out as a local road racer, then turned to mountain biking and spent six seasons riding the legendary trails of Canada’s Whistler Mountain Bike Park. Although he has been riding more on the road in recent years, time trials have certainly not been his focus. In fact, he hadn’t even planned to do the time trial at the Worlds.

“The long story is that this year I was kind of trying to get on track to go to the Comm[onwealth] Games,” he said. “I ended up representing Malta in another event called the Mediterranean Games, meaning all the nations that surround the Mediterranean. So that was in Algeria in June. I raced on road there [but I] I probably should have thought about it a bit more and did the time trial as well.

“But then I didn’t do the Comm Games and another Australian-Maltese guy did, his name is Aiden Buttigieg and he’s currently riding for Nero the Conti.[nental] crew. So I contacted Etienne Bonello, who does a lot of Maltese cycling… and I said: ‘Can you look if we have a place for the [Worlds] road race?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I’ll find out.’

“He came back and said ‘no, but we have two places for the TT.’ My other option was actually to go to Denmark and race the World Marathon Championships yesterday and that was sort of in my plan all along and then maybe rush home and race on road. Anyway, he said, we’ve got the TT spots. And I was like, ‘I just gotta do it. I gotta figure out how to put a bike together.”

Bonello rushed over and found a bike with enough time to train properly.

“Another one of my young Australian teammates, Harrison Bailey, had a specialist Shiv which I used for two or three weeks in Girona, where I live with Brodie,” Bonello said. “And so I just formed the house on that. I’ve dated super helpful people like [marathon and short track MTB world champion] Sam Gaze, Nathan Haas – they were just, like, super helpful with their work experience and made me feel like this was a really good opportunity and I was worthy to be here among, you know, your Gannas and Plapps and truly amazing runners.

“I just put my head down and trained as best I could and got on the plane. And then another kid from Sutherland [Shire Cycling Club], Alex Galea – who again, he is of Maltese descent – ​​he had this bike, the Giant, lined up for me. And I just played with the wheels and went to see Mick Cupitt [of MC Bodyworx] for bike fit. And then that was it.

Bonello spent four hours practicing on the bike he would eventually use for Worlds. And when it came time to roll down that starting ramp, he gave it his all.

“I had to do my best, and I think I did,” he said. “Whether I could have done a lot more, I really don’t know because I’m just not enough of a time trial specialist. I was quite unruly with my head and my position, I think. But yeah, I had good people around me and I tried to stay as calm as possible.

Around the time Bonello reached 34th out of 48 finalists, the Maltese Cycling Federation discovered that they would have a place in the road race after all. And so, a week after his world time trial, Bonello will line up again for Malta at the Road World Championships; this time in the elite men’s road race.

“I just learned today that I will be able to participate in the road race next week,” said Bonello. “It’s another great opportunity.”

Bonello will not win the road race. Maybe he won’t even finish. But that’s not really the point. He will leave on Sunday morning trying to find a breakaway and see what happens from there.

“For me the best option is absolutely to try to get it at the start of the break,” he said. “I’m not entirely betting that it’ll be easy enough, but obviously just one Maltese rider that not many of these top guys have raced against before – that should be a pretty simple formula to get into. But I’m not that naive to think there couldn’t be a fight to get in, but the less energy it takes to get in, the better.

“There’s a reality that I won’t make it and I’ll just be stuck in the peloton. Then I think the clock will tick on how long can hang on.

More than any racing goal, Bonello will leave on Sunday aiming to seize the opportunity presented to him – competing in world championships on home soil and honoring an important family bond in the process.

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