A back injury forced Chris 'CJ' Sutton into premature retirement at the end of the 2015 season, calling time on a career that included stints with Cofidis, Garmin and Team Sky. Although he didn't know it at the time, Sutton's final race day of his career was an innocuous 121st on stage 5 of the 2015 Eneco Tour.
In retirement, Sutton and his wife Jill have moved back to Sydney, Australia and after a tough first few months of readjustment, extensive osteopath work on his back, Sutton is in a good place and enjoying working with Continental team State of Matter/MAAP as its director sportif and is aiming to continue the role in 2017.
"I am really close with Ben Kersten and he heard that they needed a new DS and put my name forward," Sutton told Cyclingnews of how the deal came about with State of Matter/MAAP. "He got back to me and said 'do you want to be a DS' and I said 'yep' so that was all she wrote really. I was looking to get back in and help out the young guys, the younger generation, because I went through a bit of a rough patch there for a while with depression."
Sutton credits his osteopath, who he was initially seeing once a week for three-to-four months, for improving his back, and his wife for helping him through and avoid becoming another 'statistic'.
"I went through depression, obviously with my back they way it was, I was forced into early retirement," Sutton explained. "I was nearly going to get the surgery, as at the point in time I wasn't in a very good headspace or place either.
"I think at the end of the day, when you retire on your terms, I still would have ridden my bike. But I still can't do that which probably made it worse. I am a lot better now. I have been seeing an osteopath and she has really fixed me up and the only thing she said she couldn't fix was bulged discs. I was like 'if you could fix them you would be god'. She said she could fix everything that is the problem in your body and if I can't fix this, I will pay for your surgery, which was the reason why I stuck by her. I am glad I did stick with her because she has improved me so much.
"My wife Jill, who breathes fresh air into my lungs everyday, has stuck by me through thick and thin. There were a few times where I look back and obviously, she could have walked away from me if she wanted the state I was in. Going through depression is a not a nice thing."
While riding is still off the agenda, Sutton could be doing short road rides next month, the opportunity with State of Matter/MAAP has been a refreshing and reenergising one, allowing him to get back into the sport.
"It's a foot in the door and I am really happy to be doing something. At the end of the day, it's something I know as well but I tell you what, I have a whole new outlook on what a director does," he said. "I always had respect for directors throughout my whole career but it's next level stuff that you have to do, but I am happy. I always said when I stopped cycling that I wanted to be involved and help out the younger generation and help them become professionals if that's what they wanted to do."
It's not just the role that's been an eye-opener for Sutton, but the quality and level of racing on offer in the National Road Series (NRS). For a rider who spent six seasons with Team Sky, rode four Grand Tours and 10 monuments, Sutton is well aware of what it takes at the top level of the sport and explained he was pleasantly surprised what he's seen at the NRS thus far.
"I think the way it is now, I know they have lost a few races over the last two years, the NRS is a stepping stone for these guys and it is really strong and solid racing for these guys," he said. "We never had a structure like this when I came through and I think these guys should think themselves lucky that they have a good structure.
"They have races that they can do here and if they want to go to Europe or America, they have a bit of a platform to get there. I think it's a prefect stepping stone and the racing they have now is unbelievable throughout the season.
"When you're sitting in your base in Europe and checking out some of these NRS race and you see the results, until you're in it and see the level of racing, it took me back a little bit. The level of competition is actually really strong in Australia, it's unbelievable."
Sutton recently oversaw the team at the Tour of Tasmania, the toughest NRS stage race on the calendar, where he enjoyed his first victory from the team car with Jesse Kerrison winning the final stage. While the U23 Australian criterium champion was the one bringing home the goods, Sutton believes every rider on the team is a valuable asset and could be riding in America or Europe.
"They all have goods. At the end of the day, I said to them that if you have a dream and a goal you can achieve anything you want. If it's something you want to do, it is possible," he said. "I never thought it was possible for me to turn pro as a kid but I had a childhood dream. Anything is possible and these guys have a lot of talent and are strong so it is possible. They all could do it. I would never just pick one rider or single anyone out because they all have different talents and can bring them to any team they choose."
Just as his young charges are looking forward to the possibilities of the future, Sutton isn't nostalgic and looking back over his career that included a victory at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, and the team time trial at the 2008 Giro d'Italia. However, there is one victory that is particularly special to Sutton as he told Cyclingnews.
"I don't really look back, when I won the stage in the Vuelta I got a green jersey and my wife Jill got that framed for me, which we obviously have in our house now," he said of the stage 2 win from 2011. "I look back at that and it was a great memory but I don't really look back too much, I look forward and look forward to the future and what that holds.
"At the end of the day, there is more to life than just riding a bike, I tell people that I was fortunate enough to live a childhood dream as a professional for ten years and I was something I loved to do. When you retire, on your terms or not, there is more to life and it's pretty exciting to see what the future holds."