Scott Sunderland's 2017 road season was his most successful to date with the former track world champion taking five UCI wins. However, the year ended on a low when the 30-year-old suffered a serve concussion in a crash at Tour of China II.
The concussion proved worse than originally diagnosed and ended Sunderland's season prematurely. Now back to health, he is at the Tour de Langkawi and pinning on a race number for the first time since September, returning to the Malaysian race where won the opening stage and pulled on the yellow leader's jersey last year.
"Every tour I raced I got a stage win in. In my final tour last year, China, I was leading the sprint jersey with a stage win before that when I crashed out, having been put into the fence in the sprint at 70 km/h and getting a severe concussion," Sunderland told Cyclingnews and Eurosport ahead of the race in Alor Setar.
"That is part of racing and not what you want to happen to anyone, so to be here is refreshing and I have hunger and excitement at being back here."
Sunderland was hoping to use the 2017 season with Bennelong SwissWellness as a launching pad toward the Pro Continental or WorldTour ranks. The Tour of China II crash punctured those ambitions. Although he is more than content to have remained with Bennelong SwissWellness for 2018, and expressed gratitude for how the team ensured his health was the priority during the concussion, his aim to reach the top tier of the sport is as strong as ever.
"That is the goal and I would definitely love that," he said.
For now, Sunderland's focus is on the Tour de Langkawi and returning to what he knows and loves: Sprinting and winning. The enforced break due to the concussion was the longest time he'd spent off the bike since the age of 11 and the most difficult injury to date he's had to deal with.
"One of the hardest things for me was getting asked questions like 'why aren't you riding' because I looked physically fine and I still looked fit," he said. "The weird one was mentally I would get up and be really tired and lethargic and that was from the concussion. I had a lot of tests and made sure I was ready to go. It was great with the team, there was no pressure to come back. They kept checking to see how I was and when I did come back, that I would be ready to go. It was a long process but it is nice to be at the back end of it."
Despite a lack of racing in his legs ahead of the race, Sunderland will start the Tour de Langkawi with added fire in the belly, aiming to resume his winning run from 2017.
"I think there is a bit of unfinished business," he added. "I know this is a good tour and it suits me very well and we have a great team here. It was a very successful tour last year with Cam Bayly second on GC and winning the team classification. It is good and bad because last year was so good that it makes it hard to top it this year. We have a good team here that can do it so we'll give it our best shot."
With potentially seven sprint stages on offer in Langkawi, Sunderland is embracing the sprint battle ahead and backing himself for repeat success.
"Being a sprinter, you know your rivals are great riders but you always want to back yourself," he said. "It is a bit like a boxer, you don't want to go in defeated before you start. There will be a couple of great battles out there and we'll see who has the form."