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At ATOC, Sutherland roars into GC contention on Sierra Road

Rory Sutherland’s third place on the mountaintop stage-four finish may have surprised many fans, but flying form in California has been the plan for 2011 for the 29-year old since his seventh overall finish last year. His third place behind Chris Horner and Andy Schleck on the very selective stage also serves as a return to the top level of the sport for the pragmatic Australian.

Rory Sutherland’s third place on the mountaintop stage-four finish may have surprised many fans, but flying form in California has been the plan for 2011 for the 29-year old since his seventh overall finish last year. His third place behind Chris Horner and Andy Schleck on the very selective stage also serves as a return to the top level of the sport for the pragmatic Australian.

Sutherland and his UnitedHealthcare team took the leap to Pro Continental status in 2011. UHC bolstered its roster with recruits like Christian Meier, Boy Van Poppel, Robert Forster and Charley Wegelius and spent a great deal of time and money going to Europe in the early part of the season to get quality racing into their riders’ legs with California as the primary goal.

After an inauspicious beginning at the Volta ao Algarve where the team’s bus couldn’t deliver the team to the start thanks to a dodgy transmission, UHC found its way to the front of the European peloton. Results in the Settimana di Coppi e Bartali and the Vuelta a Asturias showed that UHC’s investment was paying off.

If Sutherland can fight his way to a podium finish at ATOC, his team will be thrilled.

While he may be on top of the world right now, it hasn’t been an easy road for Sutherland.

After a promising junior career, he went to Europe where he joined the Rabobank amateur team in 2001. By 2005 he had been called up to the Rabobank ProTour team.

Then, on September 17th, 2005 it all came crashing down with a positive for Clomiphene during that year’s Deutschland Tour. When the B-sample confirmed the positive on October 6th, Sutherland was dismissed by Rabobank. It was a harsh blow to the Australian whose professional career had only just begun.

Clomiphene is not considered a performance enhancer but it is on WADA’s banned substance list. Sutherland maintains that he did not knowingly ingest the 5-10 billionths of a gram that was detected in his system. Later an independent investigation committee stated that it did not find “any indication that Sutherland was directly or indirectly implicated in expressing interest in or in using substances classified as doping agents.”

So while he was technically vindicated, his 15-month suspension was tough to handle. He returned to Canberra, Australia and spent time working as a bartender.

When his suspension came to an end, Sutherland packed his bags for the United States. Jeff Corbett had signed him to the HealthNet-Maxxis cycling team and Sutherland was eager to get back to work. But there were some adjustments to make.

ProTour teams carry your luggage and cover all your meals. Training camps are held in sunny Mediterranean locales. Sutherland’s first camp with HealthNet was in a motel in Temecula, California, next to the freeway. Meals came from the Mexican taco stand across the street and the motel’s continental breakfast.

But none of this could wipe the smile off Sutherland’s face. He was a man being paid, once again, to race his bicycle. Quickly he established himself as a leader within the Momentum Sports Group (owners of HealthNet, OUCH and now UHC cycling teams).

Now a two-time NRC winner and top-ten finisher in the Tour de Georgia (9th in 2008), Tour of Missouri (9th in 2009) and the Amgen Tour of California (7th in 2010), Corbett’s gamble on Sutherland has paid off. And Sutherland has remained loyal to the organization that brought him back into the professional ranks.

After some time living in California, Sutherland has made a life for himself in Colorado. He married an American, Cheynna Treto, and together they have a 19-month-old son, Eston. While Sutherland may spend time in Europe for races, home is most definitely in the U.S.

Tonight Sutherland will call his wife and tell her about the day. He’ll talk too to his “little man” Eston. He’ll sit down with his directors Mike Tamayo and Eric Greene and discuss the tactic for the rest of the week. And he’ll do it all with a smile on his lean, stubbled face, knowing that life at the top can change at any minute, so it’s best to enjoy it while you’re there.