By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor in Missouri
After winning the team NRC championship for three years in a row, the Health Net-Maxxis juggernaut decided to add the individual title along with a fourth team title in 2007. Rory Sutherland's placing at the US 10K Classic in Atlanta over Labour Day weekend clinched the individual title and added space between them and Toyota-United for the team NRC win.
"Being the number one team in the US is always a goal," said directeur sportif Jeff Corbett. "We were maybe a little mistaken at the beginning of the year that the USA Cycling 'professional tour' was really going to be the yardstick that teams were measured. As the season started progressing and events on that started getting cancelled, we realized that it wasn't going to be the true measure."
"So we decided to go back to what we've been doing the last three years which is to focus on the NRC. I think we realised when Utah and Austin were gone; we were counting on Utah to be of big importance for us. We thought it was a race that suited us and that we could do well at."
The team's performance at the Tour de 'Toona was a turning point, as the team time trial win, overall win by Karl Menzies and other placing by Rory Sutherland combined to vault them over the then leading Toyota-United team.
Sutherland said that the NRC team title, as well as his individual title, are a product of the team doing one simple thing: winning races. "That's what we've been doing all year," he said. "The main emphasis of the entire NRC idea was we don't race for it, we just race to win races."
After 'Toona, the team only needed to keep its first place protected at the final races in August, culminating with the 10K Classic. At this race it seemed that the team classification had all but been decided with Health Net-Maxxis enjoying a 237 point lead over Toyota-United, with Navigators Insurance a distant third. This was when the possibility of going for the individual win became a thought, let alone a reality.
"We never go for the individual!" stressed Corbett. "The only thing we did this entire year towards the individual was at Atlanta last week, having Rory sit on Karl to follow him in the sprint instead of having Rory lead Karl out. So, basically the last 500 metres of the last NRC race we let Rory focus on the individual... a little!"
"Karl led me out - I hadn't had that all year!" joked Sutherland about the finish of the 10K Classic. "But seriously, the guy sacrificed his chances to win the race and it's a pretty nice thing to have. The whole idea of having to lead Karl out and then keep sprinting an extra 300 meters after sprinting for 300 meters isn't that realistic. But if we managed to win the NRC individual it would be an extra bonus at the end, and pretty lucky too - it's just a bonus we are happy to have."
Sutherland's first year racing in America has definitely turned out well, especially with the chance Health Net-Maxxis took in signing him. Given his recent history when he was suspended for 15 months for a positive drug test under questionable circumstances, he felt the need to contribute even more, and the individual title, which comes with no trophy, prize money or physical notoriety, is his way of showing his gratitude. "The chance I was given to race by these guys - I have paid that back this year with my results."
"It's definitely different racing over here, and to be honest I didn't think about the [individual NRC] all year. There is no prize money or leader's jersey - nobody really talks about it at all. But at the end of it, it does create more promotion for the team and the sponsors are all happy. With this day and age in cycling, with all that has happened, the more we can give the sponsors the better."
And so is Sutherland looking to re-negotiate his contract with the team next year? "Not a chance," he said, thankful to even have a spot when so many other teams are disappearing. "It's already signed in ink, early enough before everything fell to shit everywhere! This is where I want to be at the moment and I love the guys that are supporting me, and that I support."