Cyclingnews talks with Scott Sunderland

The Day After

By Jeff Jones
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Post race interview
Photo: © Sabine Sunderland

The Amstel Gold Race will always hold a great deal of significance for Australian professional, Scott Sunderland. The story of his crash in the 1998 race, when he was hit from behind by a car driven by TVM director Cees Priem, has been reported many times on these pages, and the saga is not yet finished. A court case involving the two parties (Sunderland is suing Priem) is still going on, although earlier last week there were signs that it may finally end up in Scott's favour.

Scott rode Amstel for the first time after the accident last year (2000), where he not only faced the physical problems of having to come back to top form after his body was shattered by the accident, but also the mental problems of having to compete in the very same event that nearly cost him his life, in front of thousands of amazed journalists, followers, and sports directors who didn't give him the slightest chance of succeeding. He managed 110 kilometres, although there was never any intention of finishing.

The Lead Up - Coming Back from '98
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Winning Pino Cerami
Photo: © Jeff Jones

This year the situation was different, as we recall on Sunday afternoon after Saturday's 254.5 kilometres of hilly, windy, cold, wet brutal punishment that is World Cup racing. In the last month, Scott's lead up to the race has been superb, placing highly in many one day classics, including Brabantse Pijl (2nd), GP Rennes (3rd), Pino Cerami (1st), Paris-Camembert (3rd) and as a bonus, 14th in the Scheldeprijs-Schoten, which he was using purely for kilometres.

Unlike some other pro's, Scott Sunderland is not just about riding a bike. He has a family that he would like to spend more time with, and a court case that has dominated his life for two years. Did the decision involving Priem (on the Tuesday before Saturday's Amstel) help?

"No it was more a hindrance. Probably that weighed a little on getting sick the week before and coming up to Amstel. When you examine the mental aspect of it a) I had the court case coming up, I had journalists talking to me about that and b) doing the race again. Amstel for me last year was a really bad experience being there...some things started to come back to me and it was all a bit scary."

Of course, the accident has had far greater ramifications than just one race. "The last two and a half years have been such a struggle. I have good days for a couple of weeks, but then another month of problems. Every time I'd get some base condition I'd have to stop again. Now I've been able to string enough months together to resemble a pro bike rider's routine."

Given your good form now, do you think that that will weigh against you in a workers compensation claim?

"On the contrary," he states firmly. "I've still got problems. Through the people I'm working with (physio's, osteopaths, psychologists) you still have a lot of fear, anger etc. Once you can accept it and discard those things you can go on to the next step. You also learn to live with these problems."

"I get a lot of neck and shoulder stiffness that comes from the cold. My lower back tends to spasm and I can feel the power being blocked...there's no feeling sometimes. That's one of the consequences of it. If it's a bad weather day then I cut my losses and do what I can. I've still got the headaches."

"At that time (February-April 1998), I was riding in the top 10 in the World Cup and HC races. Two and a half years out of it until my World Championships (7th) last year. That alone proves that I am back up, and now with this year's April..."

"People say 'He's good now, he was good then'. What about the two and a half years in between, the suffering and loss of income because of that. So our lawyer feels that that is very positive."

The judge has asked Cees Priem to pay a provisional BEF750,000 to Sunderland's insurance company, and a similar amount to Royale AXA/Belge, Palmans' insurance company. Sunderland has not asked for anything yet, but "The judges decision to us is quite positive."

"I just want what I've lost. I would have much rather continued the way I was, even if you gave me double what I'm asking."

He has an answer to people who say that it will be quite a lot of money: "If I gave you a million dollars on the condition that I could smash your head with a baseball bat, what option would you take?"

But now, "I think it's more of a weight off the shoulders...One of the little hills we had to get over in this court case, but it's one of the most important points. It's got the ball rolling and hopefully we can get this over and done with out of my life. Then for the last couple of years of my career I won't have to worry about it."

For Scott, this wasn't the only thing weighing on his shoulders in Maastricht yesterday. "It was a very big race for the team. We had VIP's coming down to look at the race, potential sponsors and so on. Indirectly, Peter (the Fakta directeur sportif) didn't put any pressure on me but I knew of all this and you take it upon yourself as the team captain. A good result here could mean a big sponsor for next season."

The Race - Amstel 2001
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Sunderland rides through the disinfectant at the start
Photo: © AFP

Scott finished 18th in the 36th Amstel Gold Race, a respectable position but he certainly wasn't completely happy with. A combination of not having a super day together with some bad luck at inopportune times meant that he came away frustrated, "but that's bike racing" as he quickly and accurately points out.

The team plan was simple: "At the team meeting, everything was ideally set out. Two riders were to be there for me for the first 100-120 km; then I had two riders on reserve for the end of the race, who just did their own race do get through to the end; then I had two riders between 120 km and the last two."

"It started raining just after the start," he recounts, and the rain is definitely not his favoured cycling weather. "I would have preferred to get at least an hour in the warmth in to get the legs going."

Things weren't looking good after 15 kilometres either, "I punctured on the first climb when they attacked...I spent the next 15 kilometres with my teammates chasing in between the cars trying to get back on. Then when we did get back on, I was just in my rain jacket because it was cold and raining. I wanted it on to keep warm but I had to get rid of it because I couldn't breathe. I ended up throwing it away to get some air because I was just struggling in the crosswinds."

"The race was breaking up when we got on the back - it was already in a long line. When it finally did calm down (50 km) it was wet and cold, the rain was coming down in sheets."
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Rabobank chases
Photo: © Sabine Sunderland

The rain did eventually stop, but by this stage a 13 man break driven by Lotto's Andrei Tchmil was gaining a huge amount of time. "Alessio took the initiative to try and pull back the break. They rode about 50 kilometres on the front and pulled it back substantially. Then coming up to the second time up the Cauberg, Rabobank took over. It was more or less an elimination race after that because it seemed like after every climb, there'd be a few less."

It wasn't just the hills, it was also the vicious crosswinds that cut the peloton to ribbons on the roads in between. "You had to be either riding in the wind or riding in the gutter. It was splitting a lot on the flats as well. It was most vulnerable from the wind on the tops of the hills, which made the job even more difficult on some occasions."

The remnants of the Tchmil break were finally caught after Bemelerberg, with 50 kilometres to go, much to the relief of Rabobank, Alessio and the 30 or so riders left in the peloton.
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On the Cauberg
Photo: © Sabine Sunderland

"The last 50 kilometres is always the crunch end. If you are going to try and do any solos, you always wait till that end of the race. Rabobank definitely had the numbers, along with US Postal. It gives them a better chance because when you are by yourself, you know you've only got one chance. Even though you are good, you don't want to risk yourself out in the wind."

"I had no teammates by that stage. I had them up to 180-200 km. It was the same with some of the other guys who were quite isolated. Apart from Rabobank and US Postal, there were only a few teams that had more than one rider. So on that side of it, my team did a very good job, even if it was just to give a wheel when I punctured."

Then at 40 kilometres to go, Lance Armstrong launched a powerful attack after the descent of the Wolfsburg that would nearly win him the race. As fate would have it, Scott punctured at the beginning of the descent of the Wolfsburg just before the Loorberg. "I was just coming back just after puncturing on the Wolfsburg. When I got on, I could see the group with Museeuw and Van Petegem go away."

"I chased a good 8 kilometres across the top. There were riders dropped on the Loorberg, but then the commissaire made a barrage to stop these riders getting back on from the cars. That also meant that I didn't get a benefit. Normally they don't make a barrage if you have a puncture, it's only if you get dropped. Unfortunately I suffered as well and I had to do 4-5 kilometres in the wind chasing."

Then comes the inevitable: "That's racing though. By the same token I could have had that puncture and nobody could have been dropped, especially if it happened on the big road leading up to the Keutenberg."

The situation on the Keutenberg was that Armstrong and Erik Dekker had dropped their erstwhile companion, Eddy Mazzoleni, and there was a 5 man group (Boogerd, Lotz, Bartoli, Museeuw, and Van Petegem) chasing them at 1 minute. Just behind these was a group with Rebellin, Peers, Zberg, and Baguet, who would eventually bridge up to the five in front. And Scott?

"During the actual climb I was only 25-30 metres off the back of the Rebellin group. It wasn't much at all. I went across to bridge myself but I couldn't get to them. We came to the top in the wind and I tried to keep it going myself but I couldn't pull any distance back. As soon as they started to swap turns..."

"Then I saw Tchmil and Peeters behind so I thought I'd have a better chance at getting across with these guys but unfortunately we weren't able to get it together. After that it was the realisation that 'there goes the bike race'."

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Post race clean-up
Photo: © Sabine Sunderland

From then on, it was a case of "Let's get this over and done with," with the end result that Scott placed 5th in the group led home by L-B-L winner, Oscar Camenzind. 18th overall wasn't too bad.

"The team was really, really happy, publicity wise. The possibility of doing a World Cup race. I achieved something for them," says Sunderland. "It was just my competitive spirit, and I had really good legs in prior races, but it really wasn't my day. Two punctures at inopportune times - there's never really good time to puncture but there's better times than others. Then with the cold, wet weather which I'm not the best in. That's how it is - everybody has to deal with the odds on that day and it's often like that."

"In all it's probably lightened the load a bit now. Maybe next weekend in Denmark it'll be well and in the Peace Race, we'll see how it goes. If I'm feeling OK I'll give it a nudge."

"I have to thank [race organiser] Leo van Vliet for giving me the possibility of doing this again. He said "We're doing this because We believe that Scott Sunderland was robbed of some great bike riding. We want to give him the chance for redemption. I think I've repaid that trust, and done justice to his selection of Fakta. Especially with all the other teams that did stop, we did well to be up there."

Fakta moving up the ladder

Next year, Scott will still be riding with Fakta, which will still probably be a 'division II' team, albeit with more money and some more riders. However, the UCI will be changing its team system, whereby only the top 10 teams are given automatic entry into all the World Cups, followed by 20 more second tier teams.

"That'll make it easier for us for selection into races like the Tour of Flanders. That puts us on equal footing with other countries. The races aren't getting filled up with their own nationalities. (French World Cups get French teams, Milan-San Remo gets Italian teams)."

"Hopefully we'll be able to secure a bigger budget, and more points to help with selection into these races."

This season, Fakta have had to start from virtually zero, although Scott was well aware of this. "We had a lot of possibilities after Langkawi, but not many concrete starts. But as it's gone on and we've started riding better, the ones which were uncertain became sure. e.g. Paris-Camembert, Brabantse Pijl. That's normal when you're a small team and a new team. You've got to show your worth."

"People didn't expect us to get anywhere. They saw us in March, but didn't think we'd be anywhere in these races in April. But now I've been up there. I knew that when I was coming to the team"

"We've done very well in France where we've taken a lot of initiative. In Paris-Camembert, the race was finished after 20 kilometres if it wasn't for our team to get on the front with another team. The organisers see that and they appreciate that a team wants to do it. It's much nicer when a whole peloton comes through on the first lap. They want to see an aggressive team and we've tried to adopt an aggressive style."

In most of the races they have done, they've managed some good results. In addition to Sunderland's excellent spring, there have been notable performances from Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Marcus Ljungqvist, and Roberto Lochowski.

"For the end of the season, we knew we'd have starts in races such as Castilla Leon, Régions Wallonnes, Tour of Denmark, Tour of Luxembourg, Tour of Sweden, Tour of Holland, Zottegem, Overijse, Lueven, Paris-Brussels, Isbuerges, Fourmies, Fracno-Belge, tour of Ireland if it goes ahead, HEW Cyclcassics...We're going to try for the Championship of Zurich [World Cup in August], especially now....

Sponsorship and exposure

So how does the team get most of its exposure, given that there is little racing in Denmark? "The Danish are quite modernised, they pick up a lot. It's so isolated being in the northern part of Europe. Most of their athletes perform out of the country so they are used to it. It's not like here in Belgium where you can ride good races, good tours, with good points and get a lot of publicity for your sponsors. It's the same if you had an Australian pro team. You'd end up doing the Tour Down Under and the Sun Tour to get significant publicity. It's hard to keep Australian sponsors happy, because they've got no idea what's going on over here."

"In Denmark, at least they're getting Eurosport coverage. A lot of people also follow cyclingnews' live updates."

The team's main sponsor, Fakta, is actually a supermarket chain who are wanting to expand into Norway and Sweden. Secondary sponsors include computer companies such as Login and Jubii. CSC and World Online, who sponsor the "other" Danish UCI team, are also both computer companies. For a relatively small country like Denmark, global exposure helps enormously for their computer industry.

Speaking of CSC-World Online, how does Scott see having two Danish teams in the peloton?

"I see it as healthy. It's healthy for the sport and the journalists. They have something more to make comparisons with. It's all cycling. People see CSC and then they see Fakta. It creates more curiosity in the public eye. Let's work together rather than against each other."

"In Denmark you can be competitive. There's only 6-8 days of racing in Denmark and the rest doesn't matter. Even if it does grow, there's no need for it to take the same approach as Domo versus Lotto:: 'We're going to be the biggest Belgian team'.

But the team colours (predominantly black, red and white) are almost identical, something that wrankles Scott. "Well, Fakta has had these team colours since 1996 - four years with almost exactly the same strip. CSC changed from red/blue/white to red with a lot of black in it. Last year you could definitely see the difference between MemoryCard and Fakta. But, we had it first and it must be good because they want to copy it!"

But it's all friendly jibing, as Scott can see the benefit that Bjarne Riis' CSC-WorldOnline team will bring to Fakta, and Danish cycling. "He took the team at a bad moment last year. He salvaged the team, finding new sponsors, taking big riders and he had a lot of stress making sure they made the Tour. He had a big 6 months."
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JaJa in CSC colours
Photo: © AFP

"They've got a Jalabert who will hopefully be in form for them again. They'll have a successful Tour de France which will only benefit us as well. The more they do in the Tour de France, the more popular cycling becomes. So we'll get the run-off of those cycling fans of CSC, they'll see cycling as a whole is big and so Fakta will also get the benefits of it."

And there it ends, although we are still two days out from the official Tour de France wild card teams announcement. There is every reason to believe - and Jean Marie Leblanc has strongly hinted - that CSC will be one of the four teams selected to start in Dunkirk on July 7.

Until then, there is plenty more racing for Scott as the leader of Fakta, and you can bet he's looking forward to it!

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