By Justin Davis-Copyright AFP2004
Australian veteran Scott Sunderland couldn’t have asked for a better debut on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, the third round in the ten-race World Cup on Sunday.
Sunderland, at 37 made his debut on the world’s toughest one-day cycling race over 261 km – 51 of which were over 26 bike-rattling cobblestones. Afterwards, the Aussie positively gushed with delight as teammate Magnus Backstedt secured an historic victory for Sweden, and for their Italian team Alessio. Backstedt, a 29-year-old sprinter, signaled his intentions with a second place finish behind Tom Boonen in Wednesday’s Ghent-Wevelgem one-day classic.
On Sunday he used his sprinting prowess to hold off three other breakaway companions on the Roubaix velodrome to claim his and perhaps Sweden’s biggest ever win in the sport in living memory.
While an emotional Backstedt lapped up the plaudits from the race known ominously as the “Hell of the North”, Sunderland arrived ten minutes later and fell into the giant Swede’s arms.
Although retirement for the man originally from New South Wales is just around the corner, Sunderland’s future appeared a million miles away as he savoured every moment of his team’s surprise win.
“It’s not bad eh? Maybe they’ll invite me back next year,” Sunderland, who was invited on the race on the back of his recent good form, told AFP. “I’ll tell you what, Magie (Magnus Backstedt) was really, really strong, he’s just been so confident. I think his mental positiveness was just huge.
“He was so wound up for this. The whole week he’s been pumped up. He was a little bit short at (the Tour of) Flanders, but told me after that that he felt pumped up for (Ghent Wevelgem). And he was good there – he came second.
“I think that gave him the extra bit of confidence he needed, probably more than he thinks. And he’s lacked that a little bit, but he’s really found his feet.” Sunderland has had more than his fair share of ups and downs in the sport, including surviving serious head injuries from a crash in the 1998 Amstel Gold race, also a World Cup event.
And although the grey hairs are starting to show beneath his blue and green cycling helmet, on Sunday he had the energy of a first year pro. After finishing as Australia’s top rider in Flanders last week, Sunderland was top among his countrymen again as he pulled on years of experience to cut through the race’s tough sections which included the notorious, and muddy, Arenberg forest.
“I felt really good, and felt really good after the Arenberg but it’s a pity there’s so many crashes there. I had to put both feet on the ground and get off my bike and get through it all,” he added.
“I was expecting to feel really trashed at the end and I’m not. It was a great experience. I really enjoyed it. Well, we’ve got the winner in the team man, it’s bloody unbelievable.” Overall it was a forgettable day for Australians: National champion Matt Wilson failed to finish again for his Fdjeux.com team and team-mate Baden Cooke did not start because of a knee injury from his crash at Flanders last week.
Finally, Stuart O’Grady was deprived a start in the race – in which he could have battled for a top ten finish – following the decision of Cofidis to pull the team out of competition while an investigation into alleged doping comes to a head.
In the event, it was left to Sunderland to open the ‘tinnies’ for his absent, or otherwise engaged, compatriots.
“I think we will have a little celebration drink. I’m going home with Magi in the car so I still hope it’s big enough. The way Magi’s probably feeling there might not be enough room for me.”