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Q&A: Flanders director Sunderland on building a year-round cycling business in Belgium

Tour of Flanders race director Scott Sunderland discusses the ambitious plans that Flanders Classics has for 2019 and beyond.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — This Sunday may be the longest workday of Scott Sunderland’s professional life.

Sunderland, 52, was recently named the general race director for Flanders Classics, putting him atop the operations org chart for Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Binck Bank Classic, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and yes, this weekend’s Tour of Flanders. On Sunday Sunderland will oversee everything from the television production, to the safety officials, to the race caravan, as it makes its way over 266 kilometers from Antwerp to Oudenaarde.

Sunderland retired from his own pro racing career in 2004 and directed CSC in the mid-2000s before joining Sky in 2010. Sunderland also directs the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. At Flanders Classics, Sunderland steps into an organization that is making waves in pro cycling. Flanders Classics is spearheading the push to create a UCI-backed series of one-day classics. Last year the company launched the Great War Remembrance Race in August, with the ambitious plan of boosting Belgium’s racing profile after the Tour de France. Flanders Classics also has built a four-race block of women’s racing around its successful spring events.

We caught up with Sunderland near his home in Gent.

VeloNews: How were you approached to come on board with Flanders Classics, and why did you take the job?

Scott Sunderland: I’ve known [Flanders Classic owner] Wouter Vanderhaute from my time as a sport director with Fabian [Cancellara], Matti [Breschel] and others. He wanted to get my feedback on what the riders and the teams want. I’ve always been focused on the teams and riders, and giving them a product that they want to be a part of, that they have 100 percent buy-in around.

Wouter told me the approach he was thinking about in the early days, and he talked to these other race organizers and got them to buy in. Flanders Classics started going, and [director] Wim [Van Herrewege] came on board and [CEO] Tomas van der Spiegel came on board, and they wanted to bring someone on board who had worked around the world and had a different perspective than the Flemish perspective, and also bring an English speaker, one who was reasonably well-known in different parts of the world. They reached out to me. Wouter has vision. He’s very entrepreneurial and has great ideas and makes them work. So I came on board as the general race director, and they started me out with the [2018] Great War Remembrance Race.

VN: The Great War race is in August. What is Flanders Classics’s goal with this event?

SS: We’ve never had a big one-day race in the autumn at the end of the year. We want to bring in the history of the Great War and to create a very fast race with cobblestones and hills to bring something special to it. It goes through Flanders fields and starts in Newport, where there is a monument made from clay from the trenches and bunkers in the war. There’s still shrapnel in there, and it’s very humbling to be there. We pass the cemeteries for Australians, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, and others, and we finish in Ypres under the Menin Gate. And now, with the [September 1] Brussels Classic, there is the potential to grow, so we can bookend the season with the spring and autumn around the grand tours. I think people would love to see that. Two different times of the season, and you get to see Belgium.

VN: I assume riders are also quite fatigued at this time of the season. How do you balance the needs of the riders with the needs of the race organizers?

SS: As an ex-rider and sport director, part of what I’ve been hired to do is to understand what the teams need for high performance, and what the riders like. The type of race, distance of the race, and whether it’s a prep race all go into it. You ask, get that feedback, and then you know how an event should feel. As organizers, we’re all tempted to make the races as hard as we can. But that doesn’t always make a great event or great entertainment, and sometimes the riders go, ‘Woah, yeah, that’s not where I want to be.’ That’s the tricky thing about August. You have riders who have done the Tour who choose to continue with the form, or their tank is empty. You have riders who are peaking for one-day races and the world championships. We can fit in for these riders too.

Sunderland at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. Photo by Con Chronis/Getty Images

VN: Do you have plans to make this a WorldTour event?

SS: It’s definitely not off the radar screen. We have to see how it fits together with the schedule. If the opportunity comes our way, we would [make it WorldTour], definitely.

VN: What is the current situation of the proposed plan for a UCI Classics series? 

SS: It’s still something we’re working on for 2020, and I think Wouter is having discussions with the UCI about how it’s going to be managed and how that impacts Flanders Classics. It was his idea to start talking to the other one-day classics and organizing this. I think it’s a great concept. I think a series of one-day classics gives casual fans more understanding.

VN: How do you get other races to buy in to the concept? I understand if organizers balk, the series won’t happen. 

SS: It’s all being done by Wouter and Tomas at this point. But you’re right, it’s a challenge. You have an Italian organizer in RCS, French in ASO, and Flanders Classics with Belgian. You have Amstel Gold Race which is Dutch, and others. Trying to bring that all into one, to capture it into a series, is not going to be an easy one. It’s about finding a model that best suits everyone.

VN: Does this model require companies to sacrifice revenue for the greater good of the series?

SS: I don’t think anybody wants to sacrifice anything. It’s more about breaking down walls to create partnerships in order to make the pie bigger for everyone, including the participants. That’s where we need to get to. It has to be a business model, and that’s where the negotiations of who gets what, and what it looks like, and TV rights across multiple countries, come in. How does it all get divided? We don’t know yet.

VN: Flanders Classics’s strategy with women’s racing has been to hold the races in close proximity to the men’s races to generate more attention and TV coverage, and to get them exposure with the larger crowds that show up for the men’s races. This year we’ve seen two incidents where the races have been neutralized. How does Flanders Classics view the situation?

SS: I believe in women’s cycling and the potential for growth in it. Women’s racing is on an uphill growth trend. We all see that the potential there is very big. It’s on a steeper growth curve than the men’s has been on for many years. [Tour of] Flanders has had a women’s race for 16 years, and it’s tough because holding the race the day before the men’s race means the women just don’t get the same crowds. So, we needed to build on that. Women’s racing is a product that needs exposure. By running it the same day as the men’s we have TV, we have road closures, fans, mobility systems in place, etc. More people see the women’s race, it’s that simple.

But there are challenges that come with matching the races up on race day. It’s not easy. In general, I’d say that 99 percent of the riders get what we’re trying to do. I think we need more of a sense of direction from some people instead of having people coming in hard on what is being done, and why it’s being done. Rather than making negative comments about it, we need to move forward. It’s noted. It happened. Let’s learn from it, OK? Let’s put our shoulders behind this effort and keep it moving forward. We’re prepared to do those hard yards. After every event, we make an analysis of it and make changes to ensure that we can keep moving forward to make sure the races we do are the best.