The former track sprint World and Commonwealth Games champion has been making the transition towards the road since the end of 2013. His stage win ahead of Dimension Data neo-pro Ryan Gibbons and Nicolas Marini (Nippo-Vini Fantini) in Kuala Terengganu was arguably his best since his decision to leave the velodrome behind.
"Being at a HC [hors catégorie] tour it's phenomenal for me and being a sprint tour I think it's great to know that I can do it against some of the biggest teams in the world," Sunderland told Cyclingnews and Eurosport.
While Sunderland enjoyed his personal success, it was also a day of note for IsoWhey Sports SwissWellness, who are making their debut at the race.
"Getting that start was what we needed and then showing we have the strength to back it up, it's great for us," Sunderland said of Australia's premier Continental squad.
Sunderland's first full season on the road came in 2015 with the now-defunct Budget Forklifts team. Sunderland won several stages across the National Road Series (NRS) calendar that year, but it was his victory at Australia's longest one-day race, the Melbourne to Warrnambool, which hinted at his full road potential.
A disappointing year of sorts littered with both DNS and DNF results followed in 2016 with Team Illuminate. The move to IsoWhey Sports SwissWellness appears to have rejuvenated Sunderland, who also credits new coach Jeremy Hunt for helping him become a more rounded and versatile rider.
"Getting a bit of extra endurance in my legs and getting a new coach and everything else like that has made me more of that packaged rider," he said. "Hopefully I can show that a bit more in some of these harder stages in getting to the finish a bit fresher and being able to back up the next day when I do get the chance to sprint."
Stage 2 of the Tour de Langkawi is another opportunity for the sprinters but at 208km, it will be much more of a test for Sunderland at almost double the length of the first stage. While Sunderland emerged from the opening day as the man to beat in the sprints, a young challenger in Gibbons is eager to press his claims as the fastest man in the race.
"I went with 200 metres to go and caught all the guys except for one but I am definitely quicker than him so it gives me a lot of confidence going forward," said Gibbons.
Sunderland is sure to be a marked man for the remainder of the race but with his confidence high and a yellow jersey on his back, he could well remain the rider to beat in the six expected sprint stages to come.
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