An interview with Rory Sutherland, June 19, 2004
For someone who doesn't even consider himself to be a professional per se, 22 year-old Rory Sutherland has the look, demeanour, and attitude of a seasoned pro. In his fourth year with Rabobank's Division III feeder team, the 186cm (6'1") tall rider from Australia's capital city of Canberra is enjoying his best year ever, and if all goes well, he should be accompanying his home-town buddy Matt Hayman in the major leagues by the start of next year.
Before Sutherland's attention turns towards a final crack at the Under 23 World Road Championships in Verona and joining the big time in 2005, the fast talking, fast-riding boy from Barton snuck back home for a short break - and a few of Mum's home-cooked meals - after five months' non-stop racing.
In Part I of this interview, Anthony Tan speaks with yet another Australian high-flyer about his life as a teenager back home, having the right friends in the right places, and a serious case of culture (and speed) shock in his first year with the Rabobank Espoirs.
"I found out what it was like to fight for a cobbled climb - and to be stuck at the back, in the wind, and behind crashes... But I think you learn a lot from that as well - that's if you can actually come out the other side!" - Rory Sutherland remembers life as a first-year with Rabobank Espoirs
CN: I guess it's a little unusual for an Aussie rider based in Europe to travel all the way back home midway through the season. In your three years with Rabobank, have you always come back to Canberra for a short break?
RS: This is the first year I've actually done it... I guess there's a few reasons for it. Every year I wouldn't have minded doing it before the Tour starts, because all the national championships are on and my racing program is pretty diminished. Also, when you've been racing since February, you've got to have a break some time, and I guess the team now has enough confidence in me to let me make these decisions myself.
CN: So apart from being a little knackered, how do you feel after five months of racing?
RS: Yeah, pretty good, actually... surprisingly. I've gone through the [period of good] form, and when you come out the other side of your major peak at the start of the season, you take a bit of a dip down the other side. And I guess that's the point when your head decides to say you're mentally tired; I don't think it's so much to do with the body as it is with the mind... if your head goes, your whole body's gone.
CN: Canberra's been the home to numerous Aussie pros, including Neil Stephens, Stephen Hodge and most recently, Matt Hayman and yourself. Did any of these guys help or encourage you to first get into cycling?
RS: I've never really known Neil Stephens because he's always been overseas, but when I first started cycling - that was in '97 - Mick [Rogers] was still a second-year junior. Matt [Hayman] was already overseas, but Stephen [Hodge] was around, and he kind of helped out with all the young guys in terms of what was going on.
It was only in [the Australian] summer when all the Aussie pros started coming home that you got to know people - but it took a few years to break through the 'barrier' to be able to talk to them! [laughs]
CN: I guess you started cycling through the Canberra Cycling Club then?
RS: Yeah, sort of... I actually came through the talent identification program that goes through the schools all around Australia. I always wanted to ride a bike, but because I don't come from a cycling oriented family, sometimes you need someone to push you into a sport to get started.
In fact, at my school, that didn't actually allow [the program], because they were afraid the talent identification guys would take away a lot of the rugby players. My Mum's a P.E. [physical education] teacher, so I actually did the testing at her school and got in that way.
CN: So did you have your mind set on leading the life of a pro some way before joining the Australian National Team (AIS), or did that happen during your time with the AIS?
RS: Well, at the start of the program, it was just a lot of fun and a really good group of people. Then when you get a bit more into the sport and start watching the Tour [de France], you think it could be a dream one day, but thinking it could also be a reality was a much bigger step.
To tell you the truth, I've never really been in the Institute [of Sport]. I basically went from being a junior to the ACT Academy of Sport with Warren McDonald [now the Australian national team women's manager-Ed.], and that's where I really got started - he's been one of the biggest guys behind me the whole way. I think the first time when I realised it [turning professional] was going to be possible was the first time with the Under 19 National Team with Kevin Tabotta, and there you open your mind up to the possibilities of what may happen.
CN: Going from a state Institute of Sport to Rabobank is quite a big jump, albeit their development team. What clinched the deal with the Dutch squad - was it your fourth place in the Junior World's TT in Plouay?
RS: Yeah, I think it was. Apparently, they [Rabobank] were interested before then because I had some good results in Italy as well with the National Team. If you had a good time with the [Under 19] National Team overseas, there was always the option of going back the next year with the Under 23 National Team, but the preference for myself was to go to up north, where it's probably a little flatter and a different kind of racing...
So I talked to Matt Hayman about that - Warren McDonald helped us out a lot as well - and he spoke to his director who's now my director, basically dropping a name and saying, 'This kid's interested in coming across - why don't you have a look?'. Then at the Junior World's - being the only junior race that is televised as well - I had a pretty eventful road race and the time trial must have been that last little bit.
I was still really lucky to get in though - one of the Dutch guys turned professional in November for a different team, and when he left, a position opened up for me in there.
CN: When you first arrived at the Rabo Div III team in 2001, how much of a shock to the system was it for you, or did your time in Italy with the National Team prepare you for the culture shock and the shock of racing at a new - and higher - level?
RS: It actually went pretty bad from the beginning. Not because of the team - it was more because of me and how big a culture shock it really is.
I don't think anyone can really prepare you for how big a difference it's going to be, to live in a different country with people you don't know, not knowing anyone... You start a race knowing where the climbs are, but not what they're like or what's around the next corner. One of my first races was one of the first times I ever rode across cobbles - it's these kind of small things where experience really helps you. So my first year was pretty terrible I guess [laughs]... I'd say I was pretty lucky to go back the next year!
CN: What are some of your worst memories in that first year?
RS: Probably the first race I ever did! It was two-day tour in Belgium; I crashed three times in two days, and it had every kind of crappy, early season Belgian weather you could imagine...
It was five degrees and raining; I found out what it was like to fight for a cobbled climb - and what it was like to ride up one in the first place - and to be stuck at the back, in the wind, and behind crashes... uh, that was definitely an experience. But I think you learn a lot from that as well - that's if you can actually come out the other side! [laughs]
CN: You ride for a Dutch team, but live in Belgium? Is that through choice or circumstance?
RS: I actually moved this year. My first year, I was put with one of the rider's families from the team who lived near Antwerp and one of the soigneurs also lived close by, so in terms of me not having a car, it was probably easier for me to get to the races. Belgium was really the best place for me to live too, because we spent most of the year racing in Belgium - even though they're a whole lot of races in Holland, we didn't end up doing that many. A lot of Dutch guys now live here, too.
This year, I've got an apartment with one of my teammates [Bas Giling] and now we're down near Maastrict, on the Dutch-Belgian border. After three years of living in Belgium, all my paperwork, my car registration and my bank account is all here, so there's no real point in changing that.
CN: How would you describe the Belgian people - do you find them quite different from the Dutch?
RS: I think there's actually quite a big difference for a country so close together and basically speaking the same language. It's weird when you think that the difference between Sydney and Perth is not all that great, but the mentality [between the Belgians and Dutch] is totally different.
If you could take a bit of both [countries]...
CN: ... and maybe a bit of Canberra too?
RS: [laughs] Yeah, if there was a bit of Canberra on the other side of the world, I'd probably fit in a lot better!
Click here to go to Part II of this interview.