You can officially remove the tag underdog from Rory Sutherland’s name.
The 131k run from the flats of Livermore up the brutal climb of Mount Hamilton and the final torture of Sierra Road promised to reveal who planned to be on the final podium.
It was time for Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner of Radio Shack to hurt people. Time for the crazy card-playing Garmin-Cervelo squad to throw Dan Martin, Tom Danielson, Ryder Hesjedal or even team leader Dave Zabriskie up the mountain. Big guns from big ProTeams and not even bitter Kelly Benefit sprinter Mike Friedman would be saying “lame.”
It was also time for the dark-horses and underdogs to show themselves. UnitedHealthCare’s Rory Sutherland was seventh overall last year. Since the week after that Tour of California, he and DS Mike Tamayo have been planning and training for this one. Until now it’s been a quiet obsession and the goal isn’t another seventh place.
There was time spent in a San Diego wind tunnel with one of the greatest time trialers in recent cycling history, Chris Boardman of England. A training program put together by former Garmin sports physiologist Dr Iñigo San Millán. And plenty of work from Tamayo to make the squad stronger, tougher and more cohesive.
All that work and preparation paid off big time today on Sierra Road. Sutherland took third, battling with Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck as they chased eventual winner Chris Horner of Radio Shack. And when Levi Leipheimer tried to nip him for that third place, Sutherland kicked even harder.
“I nearly threw up at the finish,” said Sutherland. “That’s how I knew I’d gone hard enough.” He’s now 5th on GC and feeling pretty confident and no barf bag is needed just yet.
“It’s good, it’s a result. This is my job, this is my profession — I don’t like coming in 3rd,” he said. That’s a rider aiming for the top of the podium. His nickname is the sheriff and while he doesn’t look like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter, he is doing the high plains climber thing.
If you spend time with Tamayo, assistant DS Eric Green or Dr. Millan, the story is the same. Sutherland had an athletic epiphany last year and decided he could and would go to the next level. After the wind tunnel work and refining his position with Boardman, his time trial results are better.
Strict adherence and total belief with San Millan’s training program has also paid dividends. San Millan, who is familiar with test results for Spanish legend Miguel Indurain and new legend Alberto Contador will tell you Sutherland’s numbers are as good as anyone who hopes to win the Tour of California. Physically, he’s there, and the number equal confidence.
It’s not just Sutherland who’s raised his game. UnitedHeathCare opened the wallet, the team stepped up to Pro Continental status, changed their race program to the harder races in Europe and brought in proven, hard core and experienced talents like Charley Wegelius to make sure Sutherland had everything he needed.
The Tour of California is the Tour de France for this team. All the eggs in the basket, all the money on the table, all the suffering and sacrifice for this one race.
It’s one of the enduring mysteries of cycling that nobody really knows, despite all the science and the training and the quantifiable results, whether the form is there. Whether the dreams have legs to back up the fantasy.
Today on the climb up the daunting Sierra road, with all the pressure and money and expectations on Rory Sutherland, he delivered the goods. He’s damn happy and that kind of confidence will feed a team all the way to the finish in Thousand Oaks.
Race favorite Dave Zabriskie of Garmin Cervelo lost almost five minutes today. Rory Sutherland is here to win and perhaps his time has come.