The Aussie local racing for Malta: Dan Bonello’s ‘incredible’ home Worlds

WOLLONGONG, Australia (CT) – When the elite men’s time trial began at Wollongong Worlds last Sunday, it was Dan Bonello who was first down the starting ramp. Decked out in a red and white skinsuit, Bonello was representing the small Mediterranean island nation of Malta.

Born in nearby Bowral – roughly 45 km inland from Wollongong as the crow flies – Bonello had the opportunity to race a home Worlds so he took it with both hands.

“The circumstances for me are just incredible,” Bonello told CyclingTips’s 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 home.

“I used to come down here and play rugby all the time and I was in the Illawarra Cycling Academy when I was in my teenage years. So it’s pretty cool. And yeah, just seeing this many people out there… for me, I’m here for the experience.”

Bonello was delighted to be the first rider down the ramp.

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

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

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

As you might expect, Bonello is able to ride for Malta courtesy of a family connection.

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

“We’re definitely one of the smaller nations and neither of my dad’s parents are still alive, but I mean, yeah, it’s family. It’s cool. It’s super special.”

Photo: Dave Rome

Bonello isn’t really a time-trialist. He started out as a road racer locally, then turned to mountain biking and spent six seasons riding the legendary trails at the Whistler Mountain Bike Park in Canada. While he’s ridden more on the road in recent years, time trialling certainly hasn’t been his focus. In fact, he wasn’t even planning on doing the time trial at Worlds.

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

“But then I didn’t do the Comm Games and another Australian-Maltese guy did, his name’s Aiden Buttigieg and he currently rides for Nero the Conti[nental] team. So I hit up Etienne Bonello, who looks after a lot of the Maltese cycling… and I said, ‘Can you look into if we have a spot for the [Worlds] road race?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll look into it.’

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

Bonello scrambled and found a bike with enough time to get some decent training in it.

“Another young Australian teammate of mine, Harrison Bailey, had a Specialized Shiv that I used for two or three weeks in Girona, where I live with Brodie,” Bonello said. “And so I just trained the house down on that. I went out with some super helpful people like [marathon and short track MTB world champion] Sam Gaze, Nathan Haas – they were just, like, super helpful with their professional experience and making me feel like it was a super good opportunity and I was worthy of being here among, you know, your Gannas and Plapps and truly incredible riders.

“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’s of Maltese descent – ​​he had this bike, the Giant, lined up for me. And I just played around with the wheels and went and saw Mick Cupitt [of MC Bodyworx] for the bike fit. And then that was it.”

Bonello spent four hours training on the bike he’d eventually use for Worlds. And when it came time to roll down that start ramp, he just gave his all.

“I needed to do the best that I could do, and I think that I did that,” he said. “Whether I could have done much more, I really don’t know because I’m just not enough of a time trialist. I was pretty undisciplined with my head and my position, I think. But yeah, I had good people around me and tried to stay as calm as I could.”

Around the time that Bonello was riding to 34th place out of 48 finishers, the Maltese cycling federation found out that he will have one place for the road race after all. And so, a week after his Worlds time trial, Bonello will again line up for Malta at the Road World Championships; this time in the elite men’s road race.

“I just found out today that I’m going to be able to do the road race next week,” Bonello said. “It’s another awesome opportunity.”

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

“For me the best option is absolutely to try and get it in the early break,” he said. “I’m not fully banking on the fact that it will go quite easy, but obviously a sole Maltese rider that not many of these top guys have raced against before – it should be a pretty simple formula to get into it. But I’m not so naive to think that there couldn’t be a fight to get into it but the less energy it takes to get into it the better.

“There is a reality that I won’t make it there and I’ll just be stuck in the peloton. Then I think the clock will be ticking as to how long it can hang on.”

More than any racing goals though, Bonello will set out on Sunday with the goal of taking the opportunity that’s been presented to him – racing a home World Championships and honoring an important family connection in the process.

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