• Taj Jones (Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) celebrates his maiden UCI win, beating home Max Walscheid (NTT Pro Cycling) (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Taj Jones will take a big step in his young career, moving to Israel Start-Up Nation on a three-year deal with a WorldTour start set for the backend of the 2021 season.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

28 Dec 2020 - 12:25 PM 

The tall Queensland sprinter is set to unleash his raw sprinting power on the WorldTour peloton next season, inking a deal with Israel Start-Up Nation after impressing at the Tour of Langkawi earlier in the year.

The 1.88 metre-tall Jones is very much a man built for the fast finishes, proving that in top company at the Tour of Langkawi, winning a stage against WorldTour competition and pushing German powerhouse Max Wahlscheid (NTT Pro Cycling) all the way in the fight for the sprint jersey. Jones spoke to SBS Cycling Central about the race that propelled him to the forefront of WorldTour team directors' minds. 

“They do a kermesse the day before the race, separate from the race, Max did win that," said Jones of his main competition for the race. "And from that, everyone thought he was coming in with good form, which he was. The first day, I ran seventh there and thought ‘shit, I’ve done my best numbers there’. A three-minute, a two-minute and a peak power coming into the finish and I ran seventh.

"I thought ‘Max is really on another level and I was a mile off where I needed to be’. Coming into the second stage, I got a lot of confidence from Ben (Kersten, team manager) for the team to deliver me for a win.

"Everything went right and that boosted my confidence for the entire tour. I was lucky enough to do two thirds at the end of the tour as well, which was pretty good."

Jones' stage win pushed him from a rider who had shown promise in limited outings in the National Road Series and a few UCI races dotted around the world to a stage winner in a Pro level UCI race, the step just behind WorldTour level. It was a outstanding performance for Jones and the ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast team, a result that few would have predicted this early in the 20-year-old's career.

“I think it was a big achievement for our team to go close to the NTT World Tour team," said Jones. "We were two points off in the points classification going into the final stage. We were hoping to keep it together for a bunch sprint for the first intermediate. If I’d won that, I’d have moved into the jersey.

"We kinda ran out of guys and NTT were a bit too strong. I decided to challenge Max off the front of the peloton, go with moves and try and call him out from the pack. He was smart enough to get in the break and not do any work, while I was trying to get him one-on-one without his teammates. That was pretty exciting to do that against a WorldTour rider.”

Showing that he was good enough to compete in very good company, Jones was immediately thrust onto the radar of every team looking to secure the next big sprinter.

“As soon as I won that stage, when everyone logs onto ProCyclingStats, people see your name," said Jones. "I got up to seven thousand views on my page and that’s when Twitter came through and Instagram, agencies started getting in touch. I put all that nonsense to one side during the race, thinking that I’d deal with it later.

"I caught the eye of a few teams and I partnered up with Baden Cooke, former green jersey winner at the Tour de France, and we found the right team for me, which ended up being Israel Start-Up Nation.”

With Cooke as his agent and the ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast team in his corner, the task was to find a good fit for Jones on the WorldTour, something that's not a straight-up proposition for a young rider obtaining his first contract in the professional ranks. 

“Between me, Baden and ARA we had a plan," said Jones. "Being 20 years of age with no history of racing in Europe or anything like that we obviously weren’t demanding money or anything like that. We wanted a team that was going to develop me as a young rider and Israel offered that.

"There were a few other teams that would have dropped me into the WorldTour team, sink or swim, and Israel came with a progression into the WorldTour. I’ll do eight months with the Continental team, Israel Cycling Academy, and then join the WorldTour team. It felt like the right thing to do and what I need."

“I’ve only started 4 UCI races I believe and I’ll be doing three or four a month for the first few months. To be doing the races and learning the racecraft is how I’ll become a better sprinter. Hopefully, I can learn a lot of Andre (Greipel) as well.”

The lure of legendary sprinter Andre Greipel's presence in the squad was an attractive part of the deal with Israel Cycling Academy for Jones.

“I see it as a massive opportunity," said Jones. "It’s like what it would be like for a young climber joining Chris Froome’s team. You’ve got one of the world’s best sprinters, he’s still up there as one of the best and I think there’s a lot to learn off that guy.

"The biggest push for me to go onto the team was him not just as a rider but how he deals with the team and when that wraps up he’ll go into a directeur sportif role. I think that’s when I’ll learn the most off him, just going to be a sponge around him I reckon.”

With Greipel set to ride until the end of the 2022 season, Jones might have to wait his turn for leadership opportunities, but that's in line with young WorldTour sprinters in general, who have to earn their stripes in competition to get significant chances and team support at the top level.

Jones sees himself as a man for the pure sprints and brought a number of those traditional flat course when speaking about which races he was looking forward to in the upcoming years.

“Maybe like an Abu Dhabi Tour, Tour of Dubai, something pan flat," said Jones. "Racing round an F1 track looks pretty fun, but being in the WorldTour peloton and all the little things that come along with that looks great. The media side of things to representing the Israel Start-Up Nation colours in Australia to representing Australia in the WorldTour, pretty stoked to do that.”

The successful approach that has lifted Jones to this elevated level of competition is one of collaboration and teamwork, as he described the most important aspects in his cycling career to date. 

“I definitely say a healthy support network, from family to friends, a good relationship with team directors and stuff like that," said Jones. "You can ride a bike all you want and put the work in there, but if you don’t have a good off-the-bike relationship with people it makes a massive impact on your performance.

"You have to be happy with what you do, if you love your work, you never work a day in your life. That’s a massive thing I thrive on.”

“I’d like to thank the team at ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast at helping get where I am at the moment. Ben Kersten, Matt Wilson and Stu Shaw have all been big keys in bringing things together. A big thanks to Duncan MacKellar from MacKellar mining, he gave me a shot on one of the smaller teams in the Queensland Teams Series and has been a massive supporter ever since.”

With the preparation for 2021 and the step-up to the WorldTour in the future on his mind, Jones is concentrating on what he'll need to improve to be consistently competitive on the WorldTour. 

“It’s easy enough to just go around in training and hit good numbers and another thing to put it together in a race. I decided to go the Conti route, partly because I can also doing some races below WorldTour level with the WorldTour squad and sort of float between them a bit, double the racing I might have got otherwise."

Jones' development will be one to watch closely in 2021, those early months as part of the Continental team may be just as important to the career of the young Queenslander as any in the WorldTour, with important work to be done to get him road-ready for the rough and tumble of WorldTour competition.