By Charlie Melk
Life can be full of ironic balance, depending on how you look at it.
Sometimes the confluence of two separate events can seem cosmically intertwined
for the sake of easy comparison and contrast.
Two members of professional cyclingís class of '94, which includes such
notable big-hitters as Servais Knaven, George Hincapie, Daniele Nardello,
Gilberto Simoni, and Axel Merckx, to name a few, were making headlines last
week. And as is often the case, one can certainly find important parallels in
their respective careers. Yet as one of these riders deliberately chose the
appointed time, place, and manner of his swansong, the otherís (imminent) demise
is certainly predicated by perpendicular actions that were set into motion long
ago, when he decided that dopage sportif was a necessary immorality.
While our first riderís career ended in what can best be described as a
well-earned dream, his contemporaryís fate remains to be determined, though his
professional future certainly appears nightmarish. The riders I speak of are
Patrick Jonker and Philippe Gaumont.
Jonker started out as a stagiaire for the Varta (1992) and Wordperfect (1993)
teams before securing his first professional contract in 1994, with Novemail,
Peter Postís tough as nails classics squad. Hardly a slow starter, Jonker, who
had always been considered a potential grand tour G.C. threat, didnít disappoint
in his first season, with overall top five finishes in the Dutch Road
Championships and the Route du Sud, as well as overall top ten finishes in such
prestigious races as the Dauphine Libere and the Midi Libre.
The years 1995 and 1996 saw Patrick riding for the mighty ONCE team, where he
scored 12th overall in the Tour de France, stage wins in the Abom Mt. Buller
Tour and the Volta a Catalunya, a third place finish in the
Veenendaal-Veenendaal Semi-Classic, and top ten placings in the Midi Libre, the
Classique des Alpes, and the Olympic Time Trial.
After two successful seasons in Spain, Patrick returned to Holland and the
powerhouse Rabobank team of Jan Raas, where during the seasons of 1997, 1998,
and 1999 he amassed such significant victories as the Route du Sud (1997), the
Dutch Time Trial Championship (1998), and the G.P. Wallonie (1999), as well as
top ten placings in the Bicicleta Vasca and the Dauphine Libere, and top five
placings in the Tour du Haute Var, the Regio Tour, the Tour Mediterraneen, the
Route du Sud, and the Dutch Road Championships.
Going on the strength of his previous palmares, Jonker was recruited by U.S.
Postal for the 2000 season. Unfortunately, he developed a chronic tendonitis
problem in his ankle during this time and was relatively unsuccessful due to
this malady, with a 13th place in the Amstel Gold Race being his only notable
result that year. Significantly, this was also Patrickís final season on a
Division I team.
Patrick Jonker at Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2000.
USPS Pro Cycling.
Riding for the French Big Mat team in 2001 and 2002, Jonker proved that he
wasnít just hanging around as pack-fill, with a top ten finish in the Tour Down
Under (2001), top five placings in the Tour Mediterraneen, the G.P. Isbergues,
the Australian Open Road Championship, as well as podium finishes in the G.P.
Quest France Classic, the Tour du Limousin, and the Tour Down Under (2002).
The 2003 season saw Patrick riding for the small Dutch team Van Hemert Groep
CT, his only notable result occurring in Australia, and not Europe, at the Tour
Down Under, where he placed seventh in 2003. The lack of UCI results, however,
was probably more due to the fact that his team couldnít gain entry into the
more prominent events, and not that he wasnít up to it, based on his previous
steady line of achievements.
And that brings us to 2004, where, as we now know, Mr. Jonker lit it up on
the first stage of the Jacobís Creek Tour Down Under in what appeared to be, and
he later called, a "suicide break," on stage one. The pressure was on. He had
delivered on every occasion he had entered this, Australiaís most prestigious,
stage race, and he had always been mere seconds out of the win.
Even more so, this was his "hometown" race, and he wanted to go out on top,
announcing his pending retirement upon completion of the Tour. As he showed us,
it was full-gas from moment one this year, and he had the grit to stay with the
leaders on every successive stage, as his stage one breakaway cohorts fell away
one by one, despite the fact that he was riding on a young composite team and a
composite team had never been able to challenge the big European Division I
teams in the Tour Down Under. Only Lotto-Domoís hard charging Robbie McEwen was
cause for concern on the final stage circuit race in Adelaide, but Jonker knew
he had it sewn up on the last lap, and had a few precious moments of race time
to relish his most significant career victory.
After working his way up the ladder and then not giving up on himself on the
almost irresistible slide down from the top, Patrick Jonker showed us all what
it means to be a person of quality, and how such a person rises to a
career-defining occasion in heroic style. He exits the sport a champion, and few
cyclists, even many with a palmares far more glamorous on paper than he, can say
that. To that, I say, "Good on ya, mate!"
Philippe Gaumont started out fairly anonymously in the pro peloton. Riding
for the French Castorama team his first two seasons, a team directed by the
legendary Cyril Guimard, he had no results to speak of, which is fairly common
for a young professional. Despite this lack of results, however, he must have
left a good impression, because he moved to Roger Legeayís powerful Gan squad in
1996, riding alongside Chris Boardman.
Going from absolutely no results at all in í94 and í95, Gaumont exploded onto
the scene in 1996, winning the prestigious Four Days of Dunkerque, the Tour De
LíOise, and the Tour de la Cote Picardie, as well as taking second in the Vendee
One could certainly look at these results and rationalize that Phillipe had
finally hit his stride; that he finally "got it," or understood what it takes to
become a top level professional. Extending that thought with a cynical twist,
however, one could have conceivably connected his testing positive for
Nandralone, an anabolic steroid, in this very same year to his recent successes,
and given credit to the drugs and not him. However one chooses to view this
episode, Gaumontís reputation was tarnished, though it was not to be the last
One of two things probably happened after this episode. Either Legeay didnít
want to have anything to do with Gaumont after the positive Nandralone test and
didnít invite him back for the 1997 season, or Gaumontís stock had risen above
the realm of morality, and Alaine Bondue, of Cofidis, just had to have him.
We have to keep in mind that this decision was made before the 1998
Festina Affaire at the Tour de France, when doping was probably much easier
to get away with than it is now, or at least a lot more systematic within teams
in generalóI try not to be too cynical, but itís getting more difficult. In any
case, Gaumont moved to Cofidis in 1997, and promptly won a stage of the Four
Days of Dunkuerque and the Ghent-Wevelgem Classic, as well as podium appearances
on Stage 20 of the Tour de France (a time trial), the French National
Championship Time Trial, and Stage One of the Giro del Trentino.
It is interesting to note that between the years 1994 and 1997, Gaumont had
risen from total obscurity in the UCI rankings to entering the celebrated circle
of the top 100 best cyclists in the world, at 74th. Interestingly enough,
Patrick Jonker, who had enjoyed a much steadier rise toward the upper echelons
of the professional peloton, was ranked 73rd at this time! SPOOKY!
The 1998 season saw more than its fair share of misfortune for professional
cycling in general, and Philippe Gaumont would once again play a specific part.
After winning a road stage of the Midi Libre, securing podium spots in time
trial stages of the Midi Libre and Tour de Suisse and the overall of Etoille de
Beseges, and taking top five placings in Stage Five of the Tour de France and
the Trofeo Luis Puig, Gaumont quit the Vuelta a EspaŮa while in 4th place on G.C.
after finding out that he had tested positive for Nandralone AGAIN in
May, and coincidentally, during the Midi Libre, where he won a stage and
placed second in another.
While Gaumont protested his innocence, it appeared strange that he would
abandon the Vuelta while on such obviously good form. We now know this doping
scandal as the "Sainz-Lavelot" Affaire, and one of Gaumontís best
friends, Frank Vandenbroucke, was also implicated. But the investigation failed
to prove that Gaumont took doping products, inextricably, after a positive
in-competition test, and after receiving a brief suspension from Cofidis, he
was reinstated. The reason, according to a Cofidis official: "In this situation,
it would be illogical to maintain the suspension of the rider." It boggles the
Philippe Gaumont and Frederic Finot at the 2002 Cholet Pays de
Courtesy Cholet Pays de Loire.
Still with Cofidis during the seasons of 1999-2002, Gaumont had no results to
speak of, unless one counts as a result the express refusal of the organizers of
the Societe du Tour de France to allow him to compete at the Tour de
Franceómeaning a direct result of his actionsóand I would, though something
tells me that he might disagree.
The 2003 season saw a brief revival in Gaumontís form, with top ten placings
in the G.P. des Nations Time Trial, the Tour of Picardie, and the Hessen
Rundfahrt, a top five placing in the French National Time Trial Championship,
and a third place in the Prologue Time Trial of Paris-Nice.
On paper, one could argue that Gaumontís 2003 campaign looked fairly
respectable, until one takes into account that in just the last week he admitted
to taking the notorious (in a sporting sense) red blood cell booster EPO, along
with other, as of yet unspecified, doping agents in competition. Itís important
to note how "streaky" Gaumontís career results have been, too. When one connects
the fact that all of his best seasons were immediately preceding doping busts,
itís difficult to take them seriously. Likewise, every season after such a bust,
and sometimes whole seasons in a row afterward, bore little if any fruit.
Somehow, I am doubtful that Gaumont is rejoicing over his career at this moment.
In the end, it isnít the results page that tells the full story, though; it
is the feeling that a rider conveys for himself, his team, and his sport that
expresses the true value of his career. It is a willingness to deal with both
physical and emotional obstacles in an ethical sense. It is a willingness to
stick it out in general, even when everything isnít going right, without having
to resort to devious means in order to achieve suspect, or undeserved ends. This
is not only true for cyclists, though; it is true for all of us, whatever
life-path we choose for ourselves.
And so, at the end of this page, Iím left with a feeling of elation
for Patrick Jonker, who fought the good fight during the last ten years in
arguably the worldís toughest sport and ended up going out on top; and a feeling
of pity, if not outright contempt, for Philippe Gaumont, who proved several
times throughout his career that he is not to be trusted.
Even now, after admitting the use of EPO, Gaumont doesnít accept
responsibility for his own actions. Rather, he maintains that 90% of the pro
peloton is using one type of performance enhancing drug or another, a lame
effort to deflect the blame away from his own admitted and deplorable actions.
He blames the "system" for his faults. Letís hope that the UCI and the
Fťdťration FranÁaise de Cyclisme put a final end to Gaumontís troubled career
this time, rather than give him another chance to hurt both himself and the
sport we fellow cyclists love so much.