The belief that Spain's Alejandro Valverde will be disadvantaged in his bid to win the Giro d'Italia because he has never raced it before now is "a big load of crap," according to Australian teammate Rory Sutherland.
Valverde's inexperience in the Giro has been touted as a factor that could play against him, despite his vast grand tour experience in the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana.
However, Valverde (Movistar), 35, has finished top 10 overall in the Tour five times from eight starts with a third last year, fourth in 2014, eighth in 2013, ninth in 2008 and fifth in 2007.
In the Vuelta, Valverde has placed in the top 10 overall in nine of his 10 starts, including his victory in 2009. He was also seventh in the Vuelta last year, third in 2003, 2012 and 2013, second in 2006 and 2012, fifth in 2008 and fourth in 2004.
Hence, when asked about Valverde’s inexperience in the Giro by Cyclingnews after stage five on Wednesday, Sutherland replied: "I keep hearing this from a lot of people: 'He has never done the Giro, so he doesn't know how to race in Italy.'
"It's a bike race. There are bike races in Australia. You race them the same as what you race over here and that's on the other side of the road. I think that's a big load of crap.You still do the same things as what you do in other races.
"Down in the south [of Italy] it's a little bit more slippery - the roads - than what they are in the north. The weather is a bit hotter … but it doesn't really change the way you race."
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Working for Valverde: What it entails
Sutherland, 34, and in his fourth grand tour (he has raced in one Vuelta and is in his third Giro), is relishing his role on Movistar which is to protect Valverde with his teammates.
That means ensuring Valverde survives the stages without incident or mishap, and not just during the stage or in the mountains but also in the bunch sprints where jostling for position by the overall contenders' teams in the last and fast kilometres almost matches that between the sprinters teams.
Sutherland laughs and agrees when it is suggested that his and his teammate's task is a bit like protecting the crown jewels.
"That's what cycling has changed to," he said. "It started a few years ago. It is like Sky, Astana, us and other teams are always together to keep their 'GC' rider out of trouble.
"When you get into the last 30 or 40km it turns into switch backs, turns – left, right - and up or down. You don't know how slippery the road is …. Everything goes in the Giro."
In the mountain stages, Sutherland and his team must also be ready to set tempo - if needed – in the lead up to the climbs, and cover any dangerous attacks (pending their early stage work and climbing ability) to position Valverde as well and fresh as possible to capitalise on the opportunities that unfold.
He said riding for Valverde: "changes the race dramatically for the whole team. You have obligation to keep him out of trouble, and keep him up the front. When he has good form, like he definitely does now, he wants to be up there. You don't want to lose the race or end up out of the race when you have really good condition because of some stupid little thing.
"It's a bike race. It hurts every day."
Sutherland's race program so far has included the Tour Down Under, Ruta Del Sol, Tirreno-Adriatico, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Ardennes classics, with a number of those races being alongside Valverde. After Wednesday's sixth stage of the Giro, his season amounted to 36 race days for 5,581km. But Sutherland is not concerned about the toll of his service for Valverde on his reserves and chances of finishing the Giro.
"I can still do my job perfectly with Alejandro. We tend to work really well together," Sutherland said. I am not overly concerned [about not] making it because I run out of energy," he said.
"Would it be easier to sit back a little bit and not ride so hard sometimes in the wind? Yeah, that will make me better for later on in the race, but that is not what Alejandro wants. It doesn’t matter to me how tired I am going to be. So long as you do your job properly on that day every day, that is what matters in the end.
"If I am last and Alejandro is first that's a fantastic result for everyone. Of course, I don’t come to a grand tour to finish. I just do my job every day and go all the way through.
"I'm not a pessimist who goes, 'Oh ...The mountains are going to hurt.' Of course they're going to hurt. It's a bike race. It hurts every day."
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Rupert Guinness first wrote on cycling at the 1984 Victorian road titles in Australia from the finish line on a blustery and cold hilltop with a few dozen supporters. But since 1987, he has covered 26 Tours de France, as well as numerous editions of the Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana, classics, world track and road titles and other races around the world, plus four Olympic Games (1992, 2000, 2008, 2012). He lived in Belgium and France from 1987 to 1995 writing for Winning Magazine and VeloNews, but now lives in Sydney as a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media) and contributor to Cyclingnews and select publications.
An author of 13 books, most of them on cycling, he can be seen in a Hawaiian shirt enjoying a drop of French rosé between competing in Ironman triathlons.
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