Chris Sutton (Sky) could hardly have dreamt of a better season when he looks back over his 2011. An injury at the Tour Down Under which forced Sutton to abandon the race early was quickly forgotten when a month later he was standing on the top step of the podium at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. A Vuelta stage win, and a World Championship call-up made the year that much sweeter, and are fruits of the bit-by-bit improvements in the 27-year-old’s ability over the last six seasons.
"It’s like any apprenticeship," Sutton explained to Cyclingnews. "You start off at the bottom just learning and picking up the little details, and over time you start getting the opportunities to show yourself in the bigger races.
From his early years with Cofidis, Sutton has grown from a rider who picked up the odd result in smaller French races, to a genuine cobbled classics contender. Coming into Kuurne in February, a physically, but also mentally stronger Sutton had a distinctive feeling that he would win, and so did his team.
"The team and all the senior management had confidence in me, they had confidence that I could win. That was one of the reasons I didn’t do Het Volk the day before [so that I’d be at my best for Kuurne].
"Going into the race, the night before we were having a dinner with the team and I just had this feeling that I was going to win. A lot of the other guys were going good, but at that time of year us "ANZACs", with the Australian summer behind us are generally a little ahead.
"It was a bit funny going into the final kilometres, Matt Hayman came up to me and said ‘are you sure you can do it, are you really up for it?’ and I assured him that I could, ‘I can win’ I said to him. Hayman had that look in his eyes that he was going to kill me if I didn’t win. Luckily it all worked out."
"It’s a race I’d always dreamed of winning as a kid. To finally win and breakthrough -it was like ‘wow’. To win any cobbled classic is an amazing thing. Winning on the first weekend of classic’s season was a dream."
Though a Tour call-up may have been beckoning for Sutton after his Kuurne triumph, the bounty of riches at Sky and the focus on the general classification bid with Bradley Wiggins meant he had to go another July watching the race on television. Missing the Tour may have been a blessing in disguise however for the Australian, with the time off the bike in July crucial to reinvigorating him ahead of his August, September and October performances.
The Vuelta, and debuting with the "Cyclones"
Rated by many as a pre-requisite to a good ride in the world championships, the Vuelta proved perfect for Sutton. He put some "good sensations" to full use, when he anticipated the sprint brilliantly to take a classy win on stage two to Playas de Orihuela.
Though Sutton was of course elated with the win he remained focused on keeping himself in good condition for a possible national team debut in Copenhagen. That focus was vindicated on September 12 when selectors released the final list of nine to compete in the road race with the Australian's name on it.
"To make an Australian team in anything is hard. We’re such a competitive nation - and to be selected as part of the final nine man team, when you look at who was in the mix, was such a big honour."
"When we got to Copenhagen, Heinrich and I were rooming together. We used to race juniors together, and to pull the jersey out of the packet. The smile on both of our faces was just priceless."
"Some may criticize the selectors, but to be part of a team that wins a silver medal is nothing to be ashamed of. We did really well, and Mark [Cavendish] was just better on the day."
Speaking of Cavendish, the Manxman will be a teammate of Sutton’s next season at Sky. The team already boasts plenty of sprinters, with Appollonio, Swift and Boasson Hagen but to name a few all vying for a few opportunities. Sutton however played down any tension arising from the team’s significant sprinting depth.
"Well I mean it’s great that Mark has decided to come over to the team and lead me out," joked Sutton. "But in honesty I don’t think there will be any problems. He’s so professional; I think the vibe and the morale he brings to the team will only further help us.
"We’re all a close bunch of guys, if we do well we’re all happy and get on well, if we don’t we still all get on really well, it’s a great team to be a part of and I don’t see that changing."
"I’m just looking forward to stepping it up another level next year."