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59th Vuelta a España - September 4-26, 2004
An interview with Scott Sunderland, September 2, 2004
The Spanish test
By Martin Hardie
Scott Sunderland seems to have been around forever. He is in a way a link between the old school of Aussie pros of the eighties - for some reason Alan Peiper comes to mind; and the current crop of predominantly AIS schooled pros stretching from O'Grady and Vogels to the multitude of Aussie riders in Europe. His experience and career bridge both ages, and he engenders respect for this.
After last speaking with Scott face to face in Zottegem in 1999, I recently got the chance to catch up with him at the Classica San Sebastian, where I found out that he would be riding the Vuelta. And in the lead up to the start of the race in León this Saturday, I had another opportunity to talk to Cyclingnews' longest serving diarist and correspondent.
Cyclingnews: I tend to think that in recent years the Vuelta has been a much more exciting and open race than any other of the grand tours. Both the participants and the course seem to contribute to this. So if you have to compare the Vuelta with the Tour, which you did this year, and the Giro, which you did last year, how do you rate this year's Vuelta route in terms of turning on a cycling spectacle? The idea of a cycling spectacle seems to me to have been lost a bit in the Tour in recent times perhaps.
Scott Sunderland: Indeed the Vuelta stands for excitement and surprises. One of the main factors contributing to this is that Spain has a lot of very professional cycling teams. Because of the number of tours they ride on Spanish soil, the standard of the riders is very high. It makes for closer racing and therefore also more exciting racing.
The organization of the Vuelta has planned the stages for maximum excitement by keeping the days reasonably short; on average four hours (instead of the five hours we ride in the other three week tours). With a heap of hill top finishes scheduled, three individual time trials and a team time trial there are bound to be loads of fireworks.
The Tour de France is different again though. The depth strength and focus of the major teams make all the difference there. I don't think it's fair to say that the TdF is less of a spectacle; it's just a different format. But for sure the Giro and the Vuelta are just as hard as the Tour de France; they're just managed differently.
Because of the uniqueness of the shorter stages in the Vuelta, the stages get to be hard and fast - this also stands for fantastic television. Most of the stages are broadcasted in full. Those first couple of hours into a stage can be very interesting and it's great to actually see the team's tactics unfold early on in the race.
CN: Have you done the Vuelta before?
SS: I've raced it three times before. But even so, this edition is very new to me because when I last raced it, the Vuelta was scheduled at the start of the season, just on the heels of the Amstel Gold World Cup race. I used to finish the classics and jump on a plane to ride the three gruelling weeks in Spain.
In those first years, I was racing 125 to 135 days per year. It used to be very demanding, certainly because then the first week of the Vuelta we had to race 220 km per day on average.
Since the mid-nineties, the restriction on the amount of kilometres per week in major stage races has been set by the UCI. That's been a good thing. Now most riders are competing 80 to 100 days a year, with some big riders doing even less. That way there's more targeted preparation for specific races possible.
Also, You can rule out a number of factors which can cause unforeseen problems, e.g. crashes. You just have to have enough willpower to train at home!
People often ask me to explain how it is possible that the average speeds are still high now that the doping factor has been reduced. Well, that's why: the racing is still fast and hard, but especially that high number of crippling long days on the bike has been brought back to a healthy figure. For example, only World Cup races are allowed to be run over more than 200 km.
CN: Does this route seem a particularly tough one? Does it favour any sort of rider over another? Any tips for riders to watch?
SS: There are days that suit the sprinters, other days that suit breakaways, there's something for time trialists and the climbers. All types of riders get to show themselves on the Vuelta route.
Finishing with a TT always favours the time-triallist who is able to cut his losses in the other stages and come out with a great ride on the day of the TT. But it definitely suits the climbers more than any other type of rider.
A time trialist who can climb well and who has got a strong team around him... A name? Hard to pick; but certainly all the Spanish top favourites and Vinokourov (T-Mobile).
CN: Who is the leader of Alessio and what are the team's objectives?
SS: None of our riders are going to be committing themselves totally for the GC, but certainly Moreni and Caucchioli will hold it in mind. They are also there to prepare themselves thoroughly for the World Championships. As those are held in Italy in a few weeks, it's high on their list of priorities.
We will all be going for the stage wins though. I think Angelo Furlan can do really well there. He has won two bunch sprints in the Vuelta before.
CN: Life after Alessio - What can we expect from a bloke with more grey hairs than me?
SS: Mate, it's not hard to have more grey hairs than you, as I still have a full head of hair!
In the Vuelta, I'll be giving it a good nudge in the first ten days. I'll be trying to go into every break possible; the way I rode the Tour de France really.
If there's enough gas left in the tank, I'll be pulling through 'till Madrid. If all goes well, I'll be in good shape for the World Championships. In all, it would be nice to finish the season with a win and I'm working hard on it.
Life after Alessio? Well, I'm actually standing in the middle of the crossroads there. I'll be able tell you more about that in a few weeks!