Citizen Staff Writer
Pacing along, caught in a breeze of promise, 15-year-old Thomas Jondall realized twice in the last year what “team” means in the punishing sport of bicycle racing.
It was the first phase of the 109-mile main event at last year’s El Tour de Tucson. Summit Velo veteran Denny Vaughan damaged his wheel and required assistance from Jondall, who displayed a take-my-wheel-take-my bike attitude.
“He proved himself that he will sacrifice for a teammate,” says Vaughan of the then 14-year-old. “He knew the rule and willingly offered the wheel. He might not be finishing the race, but he is rewarded with the respect of his teammates.”
It was repeated this spring when Jondall offered a wheel to teammate David Swanson in the Tucson Bicycle Classic and took himself out of the Category 3 race. He was as much a contender as Swanson after a seventh-place finish in the previous day’s time trial.
That Jondall, a sophomore at Edge Charter School, is even a teammate of these guys – some are old enough to be his granddaddy – is a marvel.
His coach, Neil Stewart, insists Jondall is a natural talent but also a worker and “was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
Stewart tutored another natural, Andy Bishop, in the mid-1980s. Bishop, a Catalina High graduate, went on to race in the Tour de France four times for the 7-Eleven and Motorola teams.
Jondall is young for the junior class, yet he upgraded his racing class this year to Category 3 and will soon be pushing for Category 1-2 status. That will come when the time is right, he insists.
“I’ve always compared myself to older riders; I liked to keep up with them,” he says. “It motivates me, helps me train harder.
“I just like to hang out with the older guys, not with the kids.”
To demonstrate his promise and his right to compete with the older guys, he was co-winner with Rob Alvarez of the annual Tour of the Tucson Mountains, also this spring.
“Watch this guy,” Alvarez remarked afterward.
Most of the Tucson bicycle community is watching this kid, who is mature beyond his years, Stewart said.
The lean Jondall – “climbing is my forte,” he said – definitely is learning to take the bounces with the bounds in the sport he chose at age 9, inspired first by older brother, Ryan.
Thomas had his heart set on qualifying for the U.S. National Junior Team this summer. But he crashed and broke a collarbone at a camp in Flagstaff in the early summer.
“I was looking down, not paying attention,” he says. “Totally spaced out. I didn’t know what hit me.”
He is doing fine in his rehab, having dealt with the disappointment. Things might have literally been going too fast.
“You know, it might be good for us,” he says. “Maybe I needed a little break from racing now.”
“Us” means Stewart, a former top-level amateur who has coached internationally and who recently accepted Jondall as a student. Vaughan also mentors Jondall.
“He has a lot of character,” Vaughan says, striking off requirement No. 1. “He has lots of confidence and the mind-set to be successful.”
Jondall, who has eschewed junior racing, first raced at age 9, finishing 58th of 87 riders in the 2003 Tour of the Tucson Mountains’ 29-mile event.
“I just went out and rode . . . pretty bad, I guess,” he recalls. “But I guess pretty good for a 9-year-old.”
This year he admitted he had some doubt he could contend for the big prize in the TTM – “I downplayed myself.
“I didn’t know how to execute so I thought I’d follow Rob and bridge everything he did. He ended up attacking me.”
The two ended up coming in together in a mutual respect gesture in a ride that is as much tour as race. Still, no joy riders have ever come close to winning it.
In Arizona Bicycle Racing Association events, Jondall caught statewide attention when he won in Category 5 at the Snowbowl Hillclimb and Wupatki Road Race. This spring, he was second in Cat 4 in the Tumacacori Road Race before upgrading to 3. Things have been a little more difficult in Category 3 this year, but his presence is known.
His road presence is that of somebody who wants to do it right. The kid is aware that flash in the pan can mean burnout.
Stewart is not a touchy-feely coach. He’s straight-forward and Jondall is no token youngster. The student knows the meaning of pain, a big help in this business.
“He’s tough-minded but he doesn’t want to make things harder than they are,” Stewart says. “There is a lot of dynamics to being a great rider. At what point is somebody a great rider? We don’t know now.”
In other words, he isn’t going to predict Jondall can follow in Bishop’s footsteps and be the second Tucsonan to reach the Tour de France.
“I want Thomas to prepare for a full life, especially beyond cycling,” Stewart said. “I want him to develop as he can but not at the expense of his education.”
THOMAS JONDALL FILE
School: Edge Charter
Team: Summit Velo
Category 3 highlights: 7th, Tucson Bicycle Classic Time Trial
Category 4 highlights: 2nd, Tumacacori Road Race
Category 5 highlights: 1st, 2006 Snowbowl Hillclimb; 1st, 2006 Wupatki Road Race; 2nd, 2006 Superior Road Race