Home Cyclingnews TV   News  Tech   Features   Road   MTB   BMX   Cyclo-cross   Track    Photos    Fitness    Letters   Search   Forum  

Recently on Cyclingnews.com

Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: Sirotti

Tales from the peloton

Note: This story recently won Rob Arnold and RIDE Cycling Review the gong for 'Best Print Story' at the Cycling Australia Awards.

Sanders vs Sutton

Pep talk
Photo: © Rob Arnold
Click for larger image

For all that is written about coaches, it's not often that we get to appreciate just why they do what they do. But at the Australian national track titles Rob Arnold stumbled across the perfect example of two rival coaches with a passion.

"I'll tell you what this is all about," said Dave Sanders in a hushed tone from his place on the northern side of the Dunc Gray velodrome warm-up area. "Ten years I've been waiting for this day, and in a few hours time Victoria is going to beat New South Wales in the junior men's team pursuit. We're gonna go out there and rip their legs off!"

There may be an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence, but Dave wasn't screaming. He was simply adding extra emphasis to his explanation of what has become a quest for him. You could almost hear the sound of his back teeth grinding in the lead-up to the race he'd waited a decade to win. "Every year I come to the nationals with the best bloody bike riders I can find, and every year that prick over there finds something extra," said Dave as he stepped back from my ear, dropped his head and looked over the top of his glasses towards Gary Sutton who was standing with his troops on the southern side.

These two coaches are the best of friends, but the sort of friends who call each other a "prick" or "bastard". After the racing, when one of their teams has won, they'll share a beer and then swap tactics. They are both concerned with The Bigger Picture - Australian cycling. It's their passion. But their respective state institutes receive more of their time than their families in the preparation for a race like the national championships. They're both fiercely competitive, but once the nationals are over, their focus shifts from their state teams to their riders on the national team. During my conversation with Sanders, however, the nationals were the only thing which mattered.

Our exchange took place early on the Saturday evening of the titles. The senior team pursuit had been raced and won. Sutton's NSW team caught Sanders' Victorian mob after just 10 laps of the 250 metre track. But that result was like water off a duck's back to Dave. It was almost expected, but what mattered most was the junior team pursuit. He talked and I listened. But I also looked at the faces of his crew: Jonno Clarke, Sean Finning, Brad Norton and Nick Sanderson.

Jonno and Nick were huddled in conversation. Jonno was talking with his hands. With his thumbs to the sky and fingers outstretched, he was demonstrating what line he'd taken in an earlier race. They were probably reliving the points race. Three nights earlier the pair had smashed Sutto's NSW boys. Jonno was Nick's lead-out man and Sanderson didn't let him down, he took the win ahead of "CJ" Sutton, Gary's son, 33 points to 21.

Sean was on the rollers, shirt unzipped and his right hand on the rails. He wasn't going hard, just thinking. And pedaling. And pretending he wasn't getting flustered by Dave's antics. Brad was stretched out on the floor in some bizarre position which seemed to put enormous strain on his quads. He had his walkman on and his head was nodding. Despite his youth, it didn't seem as though he was bopping to the beat, rather it was more as though he was still nodding to the sentiment Dave had just blasted into them moments before I walked over to ask what all the commotion was about.

When I idled over, Dave lifted a finger to signal one minute; give him another minute with the boys, and then we could chat. He never looked at me as he did this - he just kept staring at the four faces staring back at him. They were sponges and he was filling their minds with how the race would happen. When the minute passed, I heard the tactics myself.

"We're gonna blast out of the blocks," explained Dave about his ploy to beat Sutto after 10 years of getting oh-so-close. "The boys are gonna bury themselves and do the first lap in under 19 seconds; the first kilo in one minute, eight seconds; and they're gonna win in four minutes, 19!" said Dave with conviction. Jonno was on the edge of the conversation and he chimed in, "Yeah!" Dave grinned at the little fella's enthusiasm, but held a finger to his lips. All was still spoken in hushed tones at this stage. The yelling and screaming would only start in the second of the four kilometre race.

"I've taken stars to the nationals before to win this f---in' race," said Sanders with his back teeth clenched and his lips barely opening. "They can arrive in the form of their life and lead the race until the last lap, but that bastard always manages to pull somethin' out of his arse." He looks to Sutto and so do I. The combination of our glances catches Gary's attention and he waves. Dave smirks back and lifts his hand to say hello. "He's as cunning as they come - but this year, I've got him covered.

"These boys are ready! I've hand picked them all and I've nurtured them for two years for this moment. And the best bit is, they want it as badly as I do."

I've known Dave for years and have heard a lot about his coaching prowess. Those who have raced under his guidance only sing his praises. He'll ride the pacing bike and drive to all the races and pack their lunches and clean the dirt from their wounds. And he loves every minute of it. But he doesn't show a great deal of emotion. Never. When he was directing the AIS team and Michael Rogers claimed the lead of Tour Down Under with just one day to race, Dave sauntered over to where Dodger had collapsed from the heat. There was a scrum of journos and spectators fighting to get near the new race leader and Dave walked calmly through them all, put a hand on Michael's shoulder and said, "Well done". He then leaned in and said, "Don't tell 'em anything about the borrowed bike. Not yet. We're unsure if that was completely cool." And he walked away.

The point? Dave is passionate, but he's not exactly effusive. Or so I thought. But the day of the junior team pursuit was riveting stuff. I got caught up in the mood and bounced around the press area for a few minutes after my time with Dave. I'd vowed to say nothing of the tactics I'd just learned about, but couldn't resist asking Gary for his thoughts on the race.

When I arrived next to Sutto he was doing what he usually does at a track race, fuss. At the time, he was telling a rider to put on a track suit, asking a mechanic to change a gear, he had four water bottles and his stopwatch with him - and he still managed to extend his hand and greet me. I'm prepared for this action now, and with Sutto you need to be. He shakes hands with as much vigour as he used to race his bike.

We exchanged pleasantries and I cut to the chase: "This junior team, have they got what it takes to beat Davo's mob tonight?" He nodded confidently, pursed his lips a little and nodded again. "Oh yeah, we've got it covered," he said. No whispering, no secrets. No worries. "Oh yeah, they'll be fine."

Uh huh. And what time will win it? "Yeah, they'll be fine," he repeated. And again I asked for the time. "Oh, a 4:21 oughta do it. I reckon ol' Davo's getting a bit tense about it, but I'm really happy with the way my boys are going. Matty Farmer got knocked off by a car a few weeks back, but he's tough and he's goin' well. Yeah - 4:21, maybe 4:22..." He was busy and distracted, but confident. I said thanks and left him to do his job.

I couldn't wait for this race. The pursuit is an event where the coach, standing on the inside of the track, plays a big part in the result. Peter Keen, the man who coached Chris Boardman to gold in the individual pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics (and later the pursuit world record and world hour record) is a great example. He timed Yvonne McGregor's bronze medal ride at the Sydney Olympics so perfectly that she only led for the final 150 metres of the three kilometre women's race. It was as exciting as a pursuit can be - and, with Keen at least, it's all about where he stands on the track while the athlete rides past. He's their mid-way finishing line for each lap. Other coaches do things differently, but they all play a part with their call of a pursuit.

When the juniors finally got started, this story virtually finished: the Victorians did exactly as Sanders had explained they would. They bolted from the start, took the lead and hovered ahead by about half a second for most of the race. Sutton, however, was playing catch-up for the whole race on the other side of the track. He didn't quite show the emotions he had a day earlier when Natalie Bates raced for the bronze medal, but Gary later explained that it's never good to get too emotional with a team that includes relatives. And the NSW line-up boasted Chris 'CJ' Sutton, as well as Farmer, Tim Dawson and Chris Pascoe.

With half a lap to go, Gary glanced at Dave. Incredulous! How did this happen? As the gun fired to signal the Victorians' win, Sanders even jumped for joy. His feet rose from the ground and when he landed he was a different man. He could now think about having a beer with Gary - or anyone else who cared to listen to his tale of success. I was happy for Dave, but probably more relieved than anything. Before I could congratulate him, I bumped into Gary and raised my shoulders and tried for an expression that begged the question: what happened? He smiled and explained again, "Matty Farmer got knocked off by a car a few weeks back." But the summary was amended: "He's finding it tough."

When I got to Dave I shook his hand and didn't need to ask a question. "Ten f---ing years! And now it's happened!"

Related Links

RIDE Cycling Review
Cycling Australia Awards

Australian National track championships

More Cylingnews features