An interview with Chris Sutton, January 5, 2006
Equalling their youngest signing from last season, Nicolas Roche, there's no doubt that Cofidis neo-pro Chris Sutton has youth on his side at 21 years-old. And as Anthony Tan writes, the team who don the colours of the French national flag are also convinced of his talent, it seems.
Chris Sutton is feeling particularly grateful he's starting off his rookie year as a professional in 2006. After riding series of races as a stagiaire with Cofidis including a two-month stint with their feeder team, AVC-Haribo-Aix-en-Provence, the French ProTour team were convinced of his worth. But instead, he was convinced into joining his Aussie mates Stuart O'Grady and Matt White at Sony Ericsson.
"I spoke with them [Cofidis] at world's and said: 'I'm going to go with Stuey and Matt to join Mr. Ferretti's team, Sony Ericsson, and they said: 'Yeah, we thought that was going to happen.'
However, unbeknown to Sutton - in fact, unbeknown to Ferretti, O'Grady, White and a host of others - the bosses at Sony Ericsson had no intention of investing their money in a professional cycling team. Not a cent. Ferretti was out of a job, star riders went scrambling for whatever positions were left, most snapped up at bargain basement prices, and the rest were considering retirement or alternative employment.
Sutton was one rider thought to be hardest-pressed to find another team, but as soon as it happened, he received two phone calls in quick succession. One was Cofidis directeur-sportif Lionel [Marie]: "We want you on the team." The other was from the team manager of Cofidis himself, Eric Boyer, who said: "We still want you on the team."
"So they sent me a contract... and I signed it."
While the newly-turned 21 year-old didn't need any convincing, he'll no doubt miss having O'Grady and White on the team in 2006, who first got him a look into Cofidis at this year's Tour Down Under. But with his future secure for the next two years - and two years earlier than expected - he says there's some others to thank for that.
"I also owe a lot to Brad and Rod McGee for NSWIS-FdJ," Sutton says about the Française des Jeux partnership with the New South Wales Institute of Sport, an academy where his father Gary is the head cycling coach, himself a former world champion on the track.
"It all started off with the A.I.S. [Australian Institute of Sport] as well; Brian Stephens and Shayne Bannan did a great job with us in Italy this year. Without it, it would have been just that little bit harder to get where I am now.
When Sutton began racing with the Italian-based A.I.S. U23 team in early 2004, coach Brian Stephens says he knew he was witnessing something special. "Oh yeah, for a guy fresh to European racing, he was definitely performing above what I expected of him," he says. "He didn't win anything, but he was up there in a couple of races and showed a lot of character. Originally, Rod McGee organised for him to come over for about six weeks and he ended up staying ten or twelve.
"He was just performing well, he was progressing, he wasn't being overwhelmed by the racing, he looked like he was getting something out of it, so we kept him on for a while. He's a really dedicated guy and very professional in the way he acts; for us he's a good team leader, even though he'd only been there [at the AIS] a short of time - he sort of took that role on, as team captain on the road."
"You always dream of turning pro as a kid," says CJ, as he's known to his friends. "When I sat down with Rod and Brad to write out my goals, one of them was to turn pro at around 23 - so it was a couple of years before I really wanted to sign. But with the ProTour being the way it is, it's just going to get harder and harder to force your way in, so I'm actually glad I did sign this year."
If he signed in 2007 or 2008, Sutton adds he wouldn't have been assured of a two year contract, a mandatory stipulation when signing an under-23 rider to a ProTour team. "If I was out of under 23s and I was going to get a contract, I'd still be a neo-pro as you're a first year professional, but they could say: 'We'll only going to sign you for one year and see how you go' - that's what I mean when I say it's just going to get harder and harder [as you grow older]."
Being the baby on the team, Cofidis are very keen to ease their youngest signing into the highest level of professional road cycling. Before the most recent implosion that has seen the three Grand Tour organisers made their public though inevitable split from next year's ProTour calendar, Sutton had recently returned from team HQ in Marcq-en-Baroeul, and his provisional race program was very light on the ProTour scale.
"I'll only be doing about three ProTour races. My first race is Tour of Qatar, which is at the end of January/couple of days in February. Basically, we'll see how that goes and sit down and work out how I'm going, how I've come out of the tour and if I've got good legs, maybe do a couple more ProTour races."
However, when talk turns to the racing he did as a stagiaire with Cofidis that included Paris-Brussels, GP Fourmies and GP Wallonie, the first two won by Robbie McEwen, it's very clear Sutton revels racing with the best. "It's such a good feeling, riding with the older guys," he says, a longing gaze indicating his future aspirations are sizeable indeed.
"The longest race I did in Italy this year was about 170k, and the night [before Paris-Brussels] where we our team meeting just after dinner, I've had a look at the profile and saw it was 220k and thought: 'How am I going to get through this?' It's an extra 50, 60k to what I'm usually racing, but it was all good. Matt White was there, he did those three races with me and he helped me out a lot, so it's a good feeling racing with the pro's."
The last two and a half years have been spent juggling road and track commitments, so it was important Sutton enjoyed a complete four-week rest away from the bike before his eyes stay glued to the road and only the road from here on in. And while he may be the only Australian on the team, he'll enjoy the company of plenty of English-speaking riders living in Nice.
"We're going to have a good training bunch," he grins. "They want me to move to Nice because there are a lot of Aussies there, but also because Lionel will be monitoring what I do and all my training, so that's the main reason why I'm moving there. For me, it's all about progression, they're just going to monitor [me]; I want to have a long pro career and that's what they want as well."
Although it's too early to say where he'll end up, A.I.S. coach Brian Stephens is certain dedication and opportunism will lead CJ Sutton to greater things. "He's got a fantastic work ethic; that's what I like about him - more than his talent, really," he says.
"He's an opportunist and makes the most of those opportunities, which I think he gets from his father, and he's good enough at everything else; he's a good enough climber, he's a good enough sprinter, and he makes the most of his abilities."