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An interview with Scott Sunderland, November 10, 2005
Part I: The transition, director vs. rider, and highlights
During the course of 2005, Scott Sunderland has transformed himself from an experienced professional cyclist to a hard working directeur sportif with one of the top teams in the world: Team CSC. The always approachable Australian discussed his first season with Cyclingnews' Chief Online Editor Jeff Jones in this two part interview. [Part II is here]
A fast transition
After retiring as a professional cyclist at the end of 2004, Scott Sunderland did not wait long before taking up his next challenge. An offer to join Team CSC as a sports director was too good to pass up, and Scott found himself exchanging his bike for a position behind the wheel of a team car. It's a natural choice for a number of ex-riders, and nearly all the best directors and team managers have been professionals themselves. The difference is that instead of being looked after by the team staff, you are the person doing the looking after. The number of daily tasks is multiplied, along with the responsibility. And there's only one way to learn it: do it.
Cyclingnews spoke to Scott Sunderland over a few beers in a smoky cafe in Gent, after another long day near the end of the 2005 season. The Belgian-based Aussie reflected on his first year in the driver's seat of one of Team CSC's black and red Škodas. It was, as he expected, quite a learning experience.
"I think I had a bit of an idea of what had to be done," he said of his expectations. "I had an idea of what I was going to be capable of doing, but what sticks in my mind is that last year in December, Bjarne [Riis, CSC team manager] said 'Look, in your first year in as a team director, you just take it easy.' So I thought, 'OK, this is great'. At the first training camp, the vibe was good. The second training camp, I already had to do more than the first one. Went in the first race; we won that [GP Marseillaise]. We had a good race in Bessèges. At the end of Bessèges, I already had to leave to do my first race, drive across to Italy. That was it. Hey, you're off!
"It just went from one thing to another. I was doing the organising of the races with the race organisers, Tour of Georgia, Philadelphia and everything else. I was going full gas. I ended up with a lot more on my plate than I had expected at first, but I think on the other hand, I was a bit surprised by how much responsibility I was given. I was comfortable with that and I was capable of doing it; in that way, I felt really good that there was trust in me to have the abilities for it, and I could handle it. So it was a very steep learning curve, put it that way. Much steeper than I thought it was going to be. But I also handled it - without being immodest - much better than I thought I was going to."
It took Sunderland until mid-May, in the Volta a Catalunya, to feel more comfortable in his role as director. "By the time I got there, I was into the swing of things." Before that, he took a team over to the Tour of Georgia, where Bobby Julich finished fourth overall, and worked with the team in the Tour of Flanders. "I hadn't done a stage race in America before and it became quite a hectic experience. You don't have everything that you're so used to having, take for granted maybe. There was a lot of compromising here and there, because I didn't drive the usual race car, we didn't have the normal race radio so we had to take all portable stuff; and the mechanics were working out of a minivan for a week.
"The classics were in my own backyard so obviously I had no problems with any of that. I had Bjarne as a passenger with me during the Tour of Flanders. I think he was surprised at how well I went, how thoroughly I knew the parcours. He was impressed with the race research I had done beforehand. It was good, it was fast and hard, I worked hard. I didn't just turn up to the race and say 'OK I'm the race director, I'm driving the car'."
But Scott wasn't flying solo in his first year. His former team director at Team fakta, who is now with CSC, Kim Andersen, gave him a guidance. "I learned a lot through him. Kim's such a precise director and doesn't leave anything to chance. Bjarne is also like that, especially when it comes down to the big tours. But Bjarne watches from the wings. He's a manager and has so much to take care of. He's always busy with the riders, their training and stuff like that. When it comes to big races like the Tour and the Giro, they're his babies."
Director versus rider
Although the two roles are inextricably linked, a team director and a rider have different demands. Having now done both, Sunderland can compare the two in terms of how much time and energy they take up. As a director, "In one way you're busy more, but then you aren't. When you go away to a race, you've got to be on call all day. You never really 'relax relax'. You have a beer or two in the evening but there's always little things that come up...a rider or a person comes up and asks you something. Or personnel or somebody in the office gives you a call or sends an email to do with the next race."
"When I come home from a race, I have a certain amount of things to do. I have to be reachable, but while I was home this season I wasn't obliged to go out and spend five or six hours on the bike. I could spend more time with the kids and my wife, or just hang out at home. On those points, when I was home, I was at home. I arranged that once the kids were tucked into bed, I'd do a few hours office work in the evening. It was more efficient. I'd get the paper work out of the way and keep more of my days free for other things.
"It's just a new experience and I had to learn. Going from being a bike rider where you just go training, have a massage, and lay around resting for the rest of the day, it's a big change. When I think of all those times laying around in the hotel room reading a book or watching TV or sleeping - now time in the hotels is being constructive and I'm active. Before, I was always looking for something to do with my time to stop the boredom. I don't really have that any more [laughs]. There's always something!
"It's time management. That's probably the biggest thing....I learned so much from racing, but it doesn't really prepare you for the fact that you actually need that time management now. Getting everything done on time, meeting schedules and deadlines, it's been a good experience in all different areas. But I got through fine."
During the course of the season, Sunderland worked in 28 races (with 9 of those being stage races) as a team director and did three training camps. He worked with all the team's stars (such as Ivan Basso, Bobby Julich, Carlos Sastre and Jens Voigt) but his main job was to look after the less experienced CSC recruits. "I've had the best opportunity this year to work with the younger riders. I think that also showed in the results I was able to get from these guys. Their ability and the talent was there, it was just a matter of being able to directing them into the right direction. The Tour de l'Avenir, that was a lot of fun. The way they worked together, it was just great."
In the Tour de l'Avenir, Sunderland commanded a young six member team that finished on top of the overall classification, courtesy of Lars Bak. The Dane won the first stage and kept the yellow jersey for almost the entire race, relinquishing it to another rider for just one day.
Was that the best moment for Sunderland this year? "I think so," he said, before going on to explain a prior highlight. "The Eneco Tour was fantastic. I was there working with Bobby. He was so good at that moment coming out of the Tour, and we more or less knew that if it came to the time trial he was going to win. And he was sure of it too. Although at one point there...the day when it all went to buggery because the race got sent the wrong way, I think that Bobby could have taken the jersey or really confirmed then already that he was going to win. After that he had to wait and rely on a super time trial day, which he did do.
"That was a fantastic moment, but taking the yellow jersey on the first day of the Tour de l'Avenir and keeping it all bar one day - which was actually better for us, to give the riders a rest day, because they'd had it already for four days at that time - and then to win the time trial and take back the yellow jersey in the same breath...they never looked like they were going to falter from then on. It was awesome.
"It was mainly because of the action of a team of young guys just growing. During that ten-day stage race, they grew so much, it was unbelievable. Their confidence and experience, they could take on defending a yellow jersey and they did it."
It wasn't easy, even for a strong team such as CSC. German rider Christian Müller won the stage 5 time trial but abandoned with stomach problems and diarrhoea on stage 7, although he had done his fair share of work before then. Later on in the race, the pressure to defend the jersey became more intense, and every day, CSC would be riding tempo on the front to control the breaks. "There were a few times there when the boys didn't really know anymore...I think it came down to the moment when they stopped believing in themselves. We talked about it afterwards; they did trust me with what I told them to do at the very moment. I think I gave them their confidence back.
"The momentary lapse of confidence had been caused because they found themselves in a situation where they had the yellow jersey; they'd been riding for six days at this time - on the front – then a break went away and took time really quickly. It took them by surprise. Most of the riders in the front were already 10 minutes behind before the day's stage, so it didn't present any danger. But there was one rider who was with them and he was only one minute behind on GC. My boys were worried about that.
“I was telling them to relax and let them go, and the break went out to nine minutes. I said 'No, no, it's alright, he's working hard out there. You guys just keep doing your tempo, he's got to work harder than you are to get this deficit. There was headwind and everything else. They were more worried about themselves not being able to contain it. I said 'Look, have confidence and it'll be OK'. And the guy they were so worried about came back by himself. Before the last climb, he was already caught by the group. They got a lot of strength from that and they were riding really strong. At the end of the day, they only finished a minute and a half behind. Everything came out well. That's part of the growing process, believing in what they could do and achieving it themselves.
"Those youngsters raised the bar. Each and every one of them raised the bar on their own. Expectations on how good they could perform, how deep they could go, and for how long. They reached new heights, new levels. This is what they experienced in this race and it's really going to help them next time they're in this situation.
"The best thing is that they really worked well as a team, they communicated well on the race radio. I was talking a lot, they were talking a lot. It was great. There was such fluent communication. Everybody was putting forward good ideas, watching and working as they should."In part II, Scott Sunderland talks about stressful moments, juggling his riders, new signings, and the ProTour.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Tim de Waele
Images by Lars Rønbøg/picturesport.com
Images by Sabine Sunderland
Images by Régis Garnier/www.velofotopro.fr.st
Images by Florian & Susanne Schaaf/cyclingpictures.de
Images by Sabine Sunderland