The Scott Sunderland Diary 2000

The following account of Scott Sunderland's ride at the World Championships is by Neil Storey, a friend of Scott's who also penned the Amstel Gold race report earlier this year. Although long, there's certainly plenty of anecdotes to keep you entertained right up to the end.

Scott Sunderland/The World Championships

Plouay, France October 14/15, 2000.

Das Boot

Relaxed before
Photo: © cyclingnews

Starts October 13 and closes October 14

Its seven o'clock in the evening and I've ten tons of bags but left 'em at home...that's pretty much how the song goes but isn't it odd how, with all the best intentions in the world, that one always but always leaves late...well, I always seem to anyway...and probably more bags than there should be thrown into the boot of the car, briefcase, laptop, some crucial CDs, don't forget the 'phone, passport, tickets and some dosh and the journey to Portsmouth, the overnight ferry to St Malo and overland to Plouay, the venue for the Millennium Championnats Du Monde De Cyclisme Sur Route begins.

Why? Oh, just 'cos I have this strange feeling that this year Scotty is gonna be there, in at the kill. Yes, but why? Just a gut instinct - no more, no less...well, maybe its the quiet determination I've been hearing in his voice, maybe it's...yeah, gut instinct and I'm not about to mess with that.

Roll off the ferry and out through St Malo which, in the pre-dawn gloom looks lovely and into the countryside, itself gradually waking in the greyness, skies bright in the mirror behind but gloomy ahead, winding across country via the coastal road, looping back and forth upon oneself - and a pretty dawn-landscape it is too through to the outskirts of St Brieuc.

Carhaix's a bit of a one street town, it pretends to be more but reality street and that's about it. And, of course, I pick the wrong end of this particular street to begin my search for the hotel. Ultimately it dawns - after drawing innumerable blanks - that it has to be the other end of town and bingo, there it is...Le Gradlon, two stars and proud of 'em. Pretty much on time and with luck I'll see Scotty before he heads out training.

There's a variety of team cars parked there, Stevo (Neil Stephens) is wandering around still sporting his improbable 'mullet' cut - two hair-do's in one - while mechanics are doing what mechanics do as in washing bikes and so forth. Bags in hand, I stride into reception and encounter Le Patron in the lobby just at the very moment Scott appears all togged up and ready to go out for a couple hours leg-loosener with O'Grady, Jay Sweet etc.

Now, the one - thus far - endearing quality that Le Gradlon possesses is its check in policy. There isn't one. See, I'm a bit of an old hand re the hotel check in scenario and let me recommend the way that Le Gradlon deals with it. They simply hand you your key and point to the lift. Room 201, a modicum of banter twixt Le Patron and guest, which is fine and dandy, a bit of the old merci beaucoup and bingo. No credit card swipe, no forms to fill in, no one remotely interested in taking your luggage, no uniformed lackeys standing by all black-suited and wearing ridiculous heads sets to communicate with security as if Madonna's just entered the building...nope, none of that malarkey. Just hand over the key and bugger off.

Already it's shaping up to be my kind of hotel. There's an Aussie flag flying inside reception and a suit of armour has been dressed in an Australian team jersey.

After hellos, Scott looking slimmer than ever and seeming oddly taller than he actually is - strange that when he's kitted up, heads off with my new edition of Q Magazine prior to departing on his bike into the rain with O'Grady, Tom Leaper and Sweet for company before I head direction Plouay. My rendezvous this afternoon is with the ladies (it's the elite ladies road race and a good opportunity to have a squint at the circuit). It's a bit of a hoik down there; about 40k's as the crow flies but the road is good and, as ever in France, zip traffic.

A slight deviation as Plouay looms ever closer and there it is, the circuit where battles will be fought out on the morrow. Slide the man the obligatory fifty franc note and I'm in, past the hot dog cum frites cum beer cum coffee (thanks) cum crepes stands, the Belgians in silly hats, the Danes and the Swiss with their cow-bells and onto the final hill - the climb up the cote Ty Marrec. On TV it doesn't look that much but, when stood about half way up with the knowledge that the pros will be up it eighteen times...well, its certainly steep enough.

The girls come through on lap one and already there's a split in the peloton with about a third chasing back on - it seems there's been a 'chute' on the back of the circuit but, by laps two and three order has pretty much restored itself. After eight laps, the Belarus girl is giving it maximum stick up the climb, shoulders rocking, tongue lolling out as Jennie Longo - for whom the crowd are going ballistic - is making a brave effort to stay with her but, ultimately its to no avail as a Dutch girl goes clear of the depleted main group on the last lap to clinch second while what remains of the peloton sprint it out for the bronze medal. The plucky Brits get a sixth place as the remnants of the race drift on - many of them up to half a lap down.

Its been good this race, a chance to see some of the circuit as well as scout out viewing spots for tomorrow. On all of the maps - for example - it looks as if it's a sort of figure of eight course, but what they don't show is actually how close the join in the middle nearly is...a mere hundred metres or so...thus, its possible with a bit of judicious positioning and walking from a to b to see them come through twice a lap. However, with the rain the parcours may be damp but let me tell you, the sides of the road are impossible and, if anyone attempts to sell you a pair of Timberland boots on the premise that they're waterproof...they're lying, I have the wet feet to disprove the sales talk.

So, rush back to Le Gradlon for a hot bath and a Pastis but not necessarily in that order. Complete the soaking and Scott's hammering on the door. He's had a sleep, is ready for dinner. The Aussie Federation could not give him a jersey for the morrow which fits (it's too big - or is he that skinny?) plus the rain jacket is similar, thus he's spent the last hour pinning it so that at least both fit and won't flap in the wind. His Aussie team issue shorts might or might not be with Dave Bruylandts soigneur and he's not the happiest of bunnies. Still, after the grrrrr moments chatted through while I shave and he does stretches on my bedroom floor its time for dinner for him.

When I, eventually, appear for dinner, Scott's still there, hunched around a frighteningly large desert. He drinks tea with me as Shane (overall team manager), his Italian girlfriend and Neil Stephens (new Linda MacCartney team boss) and his brother all demolish steak, a table away. I presume the McCartney team policy of vegetables-only, doesn't apply when one is on national-team duty.

Conversation with Scotty ranges from catch-up news from both of us to his plans for Australia - he has it in mind to take Sabine and Saën to a Crocodile farm near Darwin amongst other things while he winters in the warm, brief chats about contracts for the next seasons - no, he's not bothered, he has the offers and can't be arsed thinking about them right now and quite rightly - before we chat about the morrow and the fact that he's forgotten to bring Sabine's digital camera...No worries he reasons, if he makes the podium there's going to plenty of pictures anyway.

Podium...hmmm, who knows...for sure the circuit suits him - hells teeth, it's made for the likes of him, Tafi (who's not - inexplicably - selected by the Italians), Tchmil, Bartoli and maybe a handful of others and Scott, of course, has the ability and the experience to...podium, that's a tall order...for the last six months or so, I've had this hunch that he's going to really do something here but... well, let's see.

After he leaves for the obligatory early night I sit over a final glass of wine and coffee and muse...Podium, well, why not?

Down In The Valley - A race of three halves

October 15 - dawn to 6 pm

Dawn, it's a grey-darkness with a few faint streaks of light, the obligatory coffee and croissant and then back towards Plouay. The roads surprisingly quiet, the music in the car very loud - dunno what it is that makes me love you so...ah yes, a spot of dear old Dusty never fails to lift the spirit - park le voiture in the same spot as yesterday and then onto the circuit, as the road turns sharp left and the climb of Ty Marrec starts. Turn to my left with thoughts of walking the entire circuit, after all its only fourteen k's and there's eighteen laps, shouldn't be a problem.

Wander along the Vallee du Scorf, smoke rising from the few picture postcard houses, a watery sun slowly breaking through the mist as the first helicopter chatters overhead and the tannoy - placed at reasonable intervals - barks into life. We're a few moments away from the start and already the crowds gathered (and, here we're on one of the non-sexy parts of the circuit) are significant. The official UCI stand is already busy as well, doing a roaring trade in the last few remaining t-shirts

Walk past some Italians in their motor home, TV already tuned in and espresso a go-go, the secondary pit area is already busy with the French exchanging lively banter among themselves as the first cork is popped - vin rouge at 10.20. Oh well, ok then. Then, a cheer from all round the circuit, the race is on:

Lap One

Scotty sitting comfortably about two thirds of the way back, chattering animatedly to one of the Dutch guys. As the riders swoosh past the heavy scent of embrocation mixes with the leaf mould and the woodsmoke - with the river gurgling on my right, it's a heady early morning cocktail. At this early stage nothing much is going to happen and its gruppo compatto bar a couple of the guys chasing back through the cars, natural breaks having been attended to.

Lap Three

Turn to my right over the Bridge and time for a coffee refuel. Helpfully, there's a coffee/beer/crepes stand just by the turn so amble over and join a handful of gendarmes who are passing the time of day with a knot of spectators - they're pretty relaxed so I guess there can be few of the criminal fraternity out on the circuit. A smattering of English voices discusses the aspirations of the Italian/Anglo Max Sciandri - he's another for whom this parcours is tailor-made.

Loiter on the bridge with a view behind to die idyllic cottage on the banks of Le Scorf, trees with their leaves all turning a greeny russet brown, the scent of woodsmoke again as the m'sieur opens his bedroom window and unconcernedly stretches in the morning air. The peloton cruise through, pretty much intact with Scotty off the back snorting some muck out of his lungs as he crosses the bridge, working his way through the following cars just behind Jalabert (its always the same with Scott...natural break after about 30k's...).

Lap Five

Top of the hill (start of the descent) and how wrong can one be, the peloton are content to let them go and the group are travelling quickly now with the main bunch seventy seconds or so down. Scott's cruising, eating contentedly as the announcer says the last lap was the fastest so far. In amongst the mobile homes, entire families of Italians, Dutch, Belgians, the delicate scent of bacon being barbecued hanging in the air. There's another announcement about a chute (crash) on the descent...Jay Sweet's name is mentioned but no more. Wonder what happened?

Lap Six

The leaders pass and the gap's grown to about five minutes. The main bunch are disinterested. John Herety (British Team Manager) waves a greeting as he pilots the team car past two vast container bins brimful with pumpkins all glowing bulbous orange in the strengthening sunshine, ready for Halloween in two weeks time. Wander through the mud along to the top of the next climb - this is the short sharp three hundred metres or so of about one on eight, not much and it'll be ridden flat out on the big ring but doubtless later it'll be where attacks are launched.

Lap Seven

Over the top of this little climb and Scotty looking relaxed and attentive to all about him in the top twenty. He's moving up gradually as the race is starting to unfold. The gap has grown from the break the main field which more or less are ambling along, content in the knowledge that the real race has yet to begin.

Lap Eight

Its five fifty six from the break to the bunch so the gap is now reasonably steady. Don't see Scott this time through, but a flash of a rider wearing Palmans' shorts whizzes by in the cars giving it maximum stick chasing back on. Him? Grrr...a pee stop or a puncture? O'Grady at the back of the bunch, puffing and blowing. Call Sabine while walking down the hill and we discuss how things are so far. She reckons Scott is looking very strong indeed...sounds very bubbly and happy. Is all the faith she has in her man about to be rewarded?

Lap Nine

Short cut across the field of (more) camper-vans to the top of the next climb (the first on the course itself) and Scotty looking very very relaxed as they crest the brow of the hill - this is actually where the normal GP Plouay finishes. Recognise the Palmans' shorts wearer - its Gordon MacCauley, the New Zealander stagiare for Palmans this season and it was him who was chasing on the last lap. The crowds here are simply vast, the area is a natural amphitheatre and, with the sun having finally broken through, there's a lot of (shall we say) relaxing in the being drunk, the Belgians in silly hats chanting conducted by what looks suspiciously like an Italian.

Lap Ten

About halfway up by the barriers. The sound of cowbells punctuates the commentary on the tannoy. Noise, noise. The helicopters overhead, impossibly low, the gap is coming down and the bunch come through line astern. The real racing is just starting. The Polish team are on the front and driving hard as riders are dropping of the back, never to see the front of the group again. The war of attrition has started.

Lap Eleven

Start the tortuously slow walk down the remainder of the hill, past the Irish pub - yes, there's an Irish bar in Plouay - and, predictably its rammed to the rafters. Just below there's The Devil himself. Of course we've all seen him on TV during The Tour and The Giro but in the flesh he looks...he looks quite normal, just a bit mad...with his enormous trident, a motor home parked right on the side of the road - perhaps because he's the Devil he has special dispensation? Opposite is his gigantic oversized bike.

I suppose that big races nowadays wouldn't be the same without this level of lunacy. He seems to have his own fan club around him too. The group come through and they're really racing now. More dropped as the climb bites into tired legs. Again, Scott near the front looking calm and relaxed. Strong? Oh yes, he is. Maybe that top twenty finish isn't out of the question.

Lap Twelve

Six to go as I cross over towards the start/finish area. While most of the walking parts around the course are slippery and muddy, here it is more like Woodstock or this year's British Formula One Grand Prix - a scarcely believable sea, and I mean sea...of mud. Churned up into a sticky, gooey, morass by the countless thousands of spectators. Squelch through past the back of the grandstands; see David Duffield commentating in the distance for Eurosport and Graham Jones (one of the British Team's managers) sitting in their pit.

Over to the big screen, the vast TV under which hundreds - no thousands - are standing and watching the live relay. The main group are on Ty Marrec and Scott's there just a teeny way back from the front. The leading group are now down to four and slowly being reeled in. Moreau still looking good as is Di Luca but the Swiss guy is struggling. There's a deafening noise as the crowd go nuts as the helicopters clatter overhead as they shadow the main group through past the grandstands.

As they disappear into the distance to start the next lap, I call Sabine and yes, she and I are starting to feel more confident...She's been watching the TV too (of course) and saw Scotty at the head of affairs on the last climb up Ty Marrec...looking so strong don't you think? She says. I smile and agree, as a herd of Italians chanting nearly drown out her next remark, he's looks like he's got a lot in reserve.

I walk up the hill (their final descent) and then switch across on one of the lanes to the Café du Pins point, near to the Straw Man - a dead ringer for the Whicker Man from the film of the same name...who's going to be going up in flames later I wonder? The bunch scream past, one long line and the racing is really underway, the tension in amongst the spectators palpable.

Lap Fourteen

Past a house wired for sound with giant speakers in the windows relaying the radio commentary to all and sundry, there's sixty or so k's to go, while off the front of the bigger bunch a group of eleven or so have prised themselves off with Scotty looking threateningly dangerous last wheel of the few led by two of the Italians. Will this move make it across and shred the race? Two k's from the finish of this lap and the break is only two twenty-three in advance.

Lap Fifteen

As the lap starts the break are being caught fast, its 2:05 as the bunch hurtle across the line and by halfway through the lap its looking like it'll all be over within the next few k's, the collective fire having gone from their belly after five and a bit hours of racing. Thousands cross the field back to the false flat which follows the ascent of Ty Marrec and, as the break roll past, the bunch are in view, moving really rapidly. The bunch is pretty much split in half, Scotty in eighth place or so.

Lap Seventeen

Back up to the Café du Pins and Tchmil has attacked and got maybe fifty metres or so, the bunch are strung out with Bartoli going berserk chasing hard. Scott still sitting there, looking ominously comfortable. Sciandri shows too. Dash back across the field to see how much damage will be done on the main climb. Along the false flat and the bunch is noticeably slimmer now, Bartoli and Tchmil both very active on the front, Scotty still at the head of affairs too.

Thought: this IS the group that'll divvy up the medals. Wow. Thought: what must be going through Sabine's head now. Decide not to call her...although sorely tempted. I'm feeling like I'm about to wet myself, what must she be going through? The Jalabert comes past. Whew, dropped on the climb. He looks pretty terrible and is obviously not going to make it back into the main group. Don't bother waiting for the stragglers to roll past; the real race is ahead now. Run back across the time for ambling, and I'm by no means the only one running either.

Lap Eighteen

The bell lap. Another attack by Tchmil is brought back, the bunch races past absolutely flat out, snaking from side to side before they're off down the twisting descent for the last time. There's maybe twenty-five left now from the original hundred and fifty or so starters. Rush back across the field and drop down right onto the barriers. Flashing blue lights in the distance announce the arrival of the main group. Will it have split? Then Casagrande whizzes past, so close to the barrier on my side of the road I can see his teeth gleaming. The bunch in two halves roar through, Scott last wheel in seventh or eighth in the first split. Is this going to be the final split?

Jump the barriers and over to a parked car with its radio on. There's maybe a hundred people gathered round - silence except for the commentary. Cassagrande is caught and Tchmil attacks - knowing nods and gasps from the spectators. The next is lost in a mist of French spoken at unbelievable speed...the French equivalent of David Coleman who's shovelled a heap of amphetamines down his gullet. Vainsteins gets the win, sounds like Bartoli in there too, Spruch and Freire but the rest is lost as the crowd start talking over the commentary. Damn...what happened? Call Sabine and she's going nuts, yelling down the 'phone, Scott got seventh...Scott got seventh... and then it dawns on me...seventh best in the World on the day. Wow...maybe the cigars should make an appearance tonight.

Walk back up the long false flat and pause at the top of Ty Marrec to look down the climb and into and across the valley below as a veritable tidal wave of humanity pass me walking the other way...direction Plouay. Pause to reflect on one hell of a race, one hell of a day actually hell of a result for Scotty.

Allan Peiper got an unexpected but well deserved tenth in Ronse (the last World's I was at - the one where Criquelion and Bauer collided in the last few metres and Fondriest snatched a dramatic uphill win) but this was, I think, the best Australian result for...goodness, ever...And me, I'm not even an Aussie!

Head to the car, boots caked in mud, thoughts all a jumble. Just silence on the return journey, just thoughts and reflection on how two years ago, this kind of result for Scott was an impossibility; a realisation of just how much determination, doggedness and sheer guts had brought him back from the brink of death on the cold asphalt twenty ks from the finish of The Amstel Gold to...within a few feet of a World Championship medal in Brittany.

Le Gradlon, The Irish Bar, Lorient and The Naked Man

October 15, evening

Back at Le Gradlon knock on the door to Scott's room and he's on the 'phone to Sabine, brimful of smiles. I go up to mine to sit and soak in the bath and he wanders in a few minutes later...brief discussion of the race and how he reckons he started his sprint just a few meters too early and then demolished a chair in the pit area with a single kick, a combination of frustration and adrenaline. But, he's happy...very very happy! And, so he should be. We'll meet in the bar later. Fine by me!

Over a beer with O'Grady, Jay Sweet and one of the soigneurs, Jay's chute is described in fairly horrifying detail. He's got a broken finger and less skin on his body than he started the race with. Seems his carbon-fibre frame simply fell apart and disintegrated - not on one of the flatter parts of the parcours but on the descent. Had he not been on the outside of the group who were descending at well over 60ks an hour and crashed straight into a ditch, it could have been disastrous and possibly brought down half of the field. Battle zone eh?

We aim to eat a little later and then head off to a bar in Plouay, the Irish bar as we figure that'll be heaving. Eat with the Aussie juniors who are almost in awe of Scott as he chooses to join them at their table - an example the others could (in my view) do well to follow - as the inspiration that a simple act as that gives the young and up and coming riders is immeasurable.

Then its in the car and direction Plouay once more. But...the Irish bar isn't quite the jumping booze-fest we figured it would be so...the others have gone to Lorient (a further twenty Ks or so away) COs there's an Aussie bar there...we'll go too. We're talked in by Jay who's standing outside with his 'phone clamped to his ear, barking instructions to people from far and near as to how to get there.

Drinks are flowing freely and Scotty duly unleashes his cigar with a - well-deserved - scotch in hand. Magnus Backstedt is there, larger in real life than ever he seems on TV, O'Grady is slightly unsteady on his feet and yells from across the room, "Oi Meschersmidt" - and a bespectacled Jens Voigt (his Credit Agricole German team-mate) doesn't seem to care, liberally dousing himself from the bottle of vodka on the table. The British junior team arrive and act as if they haven't had an alcoholic drink in six months, pints poured down their throats and all attentive to the one blonde babe in the bar. Claire (I never caught her second name), it appears, is part of the British squad and seems up for a bit of a night out.

Nico Mattan arrives attached to two young ladies as we decide that discretion is probably the better part of valour and head out when the bar shuts, it's one in the morning, (and it'd be unfair to describe the scenes of mayhem and carnage...suffice to say drinks were drunk and the others were heading on to a club for much hip-swivelling and who knows what) and head home to Le Gradlon.

Magnificently mis-reading the map, Scott and I end up miles (its never kilometres when you're lost) away from the correct route back but ultimately get there and...the place is in total darkness and all the doors are shut. Merde. And bigger merde again. "Time," says Scott, "for the old stones against the window trick." It's obvious he's practised in this art as, on about the fifth throw, two heads - as in one male and one female - appear from one of the Aussie riders' rooms on the third floor when, in theory, there should have only been one appear.

"Can you let us in mate?" yells Scott. And, at this precise moment, a totally naked man appears on the balcony below the window from which the two heads are (by now) laughing at us. The naked man stands there, uttering not a word - is he bemused, is he wondering what we're doing yelling at people he can't see...will he let us in? Nope...he just stands there...looking...with the conversation degenerating over and below his head. Eventually the (unnamed but accompanied) - junior? - rider explains where the one open door is located and we're in, its time for bed and goodbyes as I'll be away early, direction St Malo and the all day boat ride back to Britain, long before Scotty has raised his eyelids.

And next year in Portugal...and the year after in Belgium...According to Scott, the parcours at both are a bit tougher (like as if it wasn't tough today). He shrugs, "Hey, I might do a bit better never know..!"