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Rory Sutherland: Instant legend on Flagstaff

Boulder-based Aussie cements his legend with a bold stage win on Flagstaff Mountain

BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Rory Sutherland wrote his name into the annals of American cycling here on Saturday, winning the biggest stage of the biggest race in the country, in front of his adopted hometown crowd. Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) became an instant Boulder legend on the penultimate day of the USA Pro Challenge.

Sutherland, who has palmarès packed with big-time national-level wins and series titles — and a Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah stage win earned earlier this month — attacked low down on the approach to Flagstaff Mountain, springing free from a long breakaway group on the climb he’d dreamt about overnight.

“This morning he was up at 5:15 and said that all night he was dreaming about this,” said Sutherland’s roommate Chris Jones. “For him to be able to pull it off in his hometown with this many people here, it’s amazing. That guy’s going to be famous in this town. People had better be buying him beer for a year, maybe a couple of years.”

Early in the day, Jones and Sutherland jumped into the 14-rider breakaway that carried itself up Boulder Canyon and onto the Peak to Peak Highway high above Boulder. It was the Boulder-based Aussie’s job to sit in the move and save himself for the finale, but he was game for riding fully committed on the front.

“I was worried a couple of times because he kept working and I kept saying, ‘Stop working, man, let me drive it,’” said Jones. “He kept saying, ‘I’m good, I’m good,’ and I guess he was.”

Good is right. Sutherland’s fierce attack out of the breakaway to counter and then drop Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan) sent the crowd at the Flagstaff Amphitheater into a frenzy. Tim Johnson, Sutherland’s friend and former teammate, yelled at a monitor in a hospitality tent as fans narrowly avoided toppling the Aussie. Sutherland’s physiologist Iñigo San Millan was glued to a television 40 feet away, nervously watching Sutherland lean over his handlebars and push out a consistent pace over the climb’s switchbacks.

Sutherland has ridden the climb in training dozens of times and said his knowledge of where to push and where to back off the pace gave him an advantage over Voigt and company.

“Knowing the climb was key,” Sutherland told VeloNews. “I knew I had to go from the bottom to separate it; otherwise, it gets too fast and guys can sit on after that.”

Ben Day, Sutherland’s Boulder-based Aussie teammate, was back in the peloton after trying to make the breakaway earlier.

“I think everyone who lives in Boulder wanted to win today’s stage, so everyone was targeting this stage,” he told VeloNews.

At the finish, Johnson yelled through the television at fans in the middle of the road, “Get out of the way!”

Still, Sutherland climbed, unaware that Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) had attacked behind him. He rose up past roadside signs shouting his name and road chalk urging him on to the finish — chalk he couldn’t see through the sea of spectators filling the road.

Finally, after rising up his hometown climb with more importance and emotion than ever before, Sutherland crossed the finish line and collapsed to the ground 100 feet beyond the line. Johnson, San Millan and other UHC staff crowded around him and Sutherland’s wife Cheynna hugged him from behind.

“It’s pretty big. That’s the one. That’s the one,” Sutherland told VeloNews, his voice cracking. “My wife, my little boy’s here, all my friends. I’m not from here, officially, obviously, but this is home to me.”

Johnson yelled, “Rory!”

“I have goosebumps. It was something he had talked about, something he wanted, and to be able to light it up, hold it, hold it, hold it, it’s amazing,” said Johnson. “Something like this, to be able to do it on the biggest stage, it’s something he’s dreamt of. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for an athlete to be able to do something you’ve dreamt of, truly dreamt of.”

Voigt called it a happy ending.

“Of course I would have preferred to win, or George Bennett to win, but Rory is a worthy winner,” said Voigt. “And it’s almost like a happy ending. It’s his hometown. He just lives down the street. So if it’s not one of us, then he would be the best winner.”

Sutherland’s ride up Flagstaff Mountain was the thing dreams are made of. He moved to Boulder in 2007 on what he called a whim, when he joined the Health Net squad for whom he has ridden since. He rode into Boulder with goosebumps Saturday morning and rode into the amphitheater hours later with the biggest win of his career. It was a career-defining moment and one that will cement his name in the annals of Boulder cycling history — and American cycling history.

USA Cycling COO Sean Petty said he’d never seen crowds at a U.S. race the size he saw on Saturday and they all were there, cheering Sutherland up the most iconic climb of his hometown.

“I can’t believe he won here today,” said Day. “He’s going to be a legend in Boulder now.”