We caught up recently with Chris Sutton to reflect on what was a hugely successful 2011 season for the Australian - and look at how he's hoping to inspire the next generation of riders.
"Nothing in life is easy and you've got to work hard. But you can make it. Work hard enough and you are going to succeed."
Sutton’s season was bookended by big wins at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne in February and a superb first Grand Tour victory at the Vuelta a Espana in August.
The timing of both achievements couldn't have been better from a team perspective; the first kick-starting the Classics campaign while the Vuelta victory gave the squad a key boost after a disappointing first stage.
With a strong 2011 in the bank the 27-year-old is already looking to hit the ground running as he enters his third season in Team Sky colours.
As training begins to ramp up ahead of the new season Sutton is already settling back into winning ways; taking a win and a second place in successive races to again secure the NSW Criterium GP Series victory back in his homeland.
Rewinding to almost one year ago, a successful campaign materialised despite him starting the season on the back foot after a hard crash at the season-opening Tour Down Under. Undeterred, Sutton wasted little time and got back into training ahead of the Spring Classics.
The Australian remembers: “After Oman I went back to my base in Girona and took it easy for a couple of days. I felt okay going into Kuurne. I knew I had good form and knew it was there but it’s a matter of getting it together on the day. Edvald [Boasson Hagen] said to me ‘I want to lead you out after everything you did leading me out last year’, so it was incredible.
“The guys just gave me an amazing lead-out, [Ian] Stannard and [Juan Antonio] Flecha, Edvald, [Mat] Hayman, Jeremy Hunt. It was just phenomenal.
“For sure I’ve always dreamt of winning that race. It’s a mini classic and the team put its confidence in me. That’s why I didn’t race Het Nieuwsblad the day before, because they believed I could win Kuurne. Them believing gave me and my confidence a boost. I got a chance, took the bull by the horns and did the best I could. I won and it was incredible.”
Despite being a sprinter by trade, ‘CJ’ has proven on a regular basis he is willing to play the team role and did so to great effect at Bayern-Rundfahrt in May.
In a race largely recognised as the launch pad for the team’s season, Sutton got stuck in to help Geraint Thomas claim overall victory during a week that also brought stage victories for Boasson Hagen and Bradley Wiggins.
Sutton admits the race also had an impact on him personally, explaining: “We lost Serge Pauwels and Mick Rogers early on. So we had five men, three of them were on GC. That was a bit of a turning point for me. I started feeling really strong and just doing everything I could.
“We defended as best we could, we got the podium every day. Edvald on the first stage, Brad in the TT and G overall. We also won the team and the sprint jersey, it was incredible. To finish with just five guys was pretty difficult.”
Grand Tour stage-winner
Despite missing out on selection for the Tour de France, Sutton focussed on his late-season goal of the Vuelta. The first stage team time trial proved to be a disappointment by the team’s high standards, yet despite the setback, the riders came out fighting the next day.
“After the TTT we were pretty disappointed but it’s not as if we didn’t give 100%. Dave [Brailsford] came into our room and said ‘CJ make sure you keep the morale high like you do all year. Play your music loud. Whether it’s good music or bad music doesn’t matter. Play it loud and dance round like an idiot!’ I had that chat with Dave, then he left. And then the next day it all worked out perfectly.
“Everything was happening so fast but to me it seemed like it was in slow motion. I can just remember everything. All this stuff was going on around me but I was just in the zone I guess. The whole team were incredible that day and just looked after Brad and myself. Everyone chipped in and I have to thank all the boys for that day.”
Despite being in a good position it was still a tough ask to take victory. Sutton continues: “An uphill finish like that it really suits me because I’m a punchy rider. I followed Wiggo coming into a roundabout and popped on Thomas Löfkvist’s wheel. I came into these chicanes; I went to the left, then the right and it sort of just opened up for me. The Lotto rider [Vicente Reynes] went, I jumped on his wheel and got to the top and thought ‘whoa, that hurt the legs a little bit’ and I looked back and there was no one there and I thought ‘I’m going to win this’. So with 150 metres to go I was just sat there – it worked out perfect.
“The best thing was that when I crossed the line my Mum Debbie and my girlfriend Jill were there. My Mum had never been to a Grand Tour before and my girlfriend understands what I do for a living but didn’t realise it was to that extent. It was pretty amazing. To win when they were there was just the icing on the cake.
“I’ve always dreamed of winning a stage in a Grand Tour. With my training and diet I felt better in myself. I had confidence and I knew I could win a stage.”
Unwilling to rest on his laurels Sutton slipped back into a helper role, yet with the red leader's jersey to defend later in the race for first Chris Froome and then Wiggins he admits he was thrown in at the deep end: “I did a bit of riding on the front – day in day out trying to help Brad and Froomey. It was a three-day cycle and I did a lot with Yogi Bear (Stannard). One day I was flying, going over climbs on the front; the next day I’d get dropped after 10k and sit at the back, fighting all day in a big grupetto to the finish. The day after that I’d be a little bit better, a bit more comfortable. Then round again just trying to cover moves.
“I really felt it at the end of three weeks. I was on auto pilot for the first three days when I got back to Girona. I was glad my girlfriend and Mum were there. They were flat out every day and I was just sitting there on the couch watching TV. I’d have probably forgotten to eat!”
Another victory at Circuit Franco-Belge took Sutton’s tally up to three for 2011 as the Australian returned home for winter training after a long season in the saddle.
With the rider already back into the swing of training from mid-November onwards, one aspect Sutton relishes is the opportunity to interact with his fellow Aussie riders during the famed early-morning group rides.
He added: “I’m looking forward to doing the bunch rides and the social aspect of it – up at 5am, catch up and have coffee. Whether it’s friends or people in the bunch I’ve never met before who have taken up cycling. Just because I’m wearing a pro bike kit doesn’t mean I can’t talk to them. I feel privileged and honoured to be riding Sky kit in the peloton. I really enjoy talking to people and helping them out.
“I think Cadel [Evans] winning the Tour de France has been a great boost for cycling in Australia. And this year more than ever you see so many more cyclists out on the road. It's just incredible. At Team Sky we try to put out a motto about how fun it is to ride - it's a fantastic way to exercise and keeps you healthy. We're really trying to reinforce that.
“I want to help out the young kids and show them that your dreams can come true. It’s happened to me. Nothing in life is easy and you’ve got to work hard. But you can make it. Work hard enough and you are going to succeed. But you’ve got to be willing to put the bike shoes on at 5am and go training. Two hours in the bunch in the morning and then I’ll go off and do the rest of my training after that. It’s a totally different lifestyle in Australia."