Bjarne Riis, the creative force behind Saxo Bank-Tinkoff, has perhaps pulled another coup for UCI point-strapped squad.
In full rebuild mode since the infusion of Tinkoff bank euros, Riis has just signed UnitedHealthcare’s top stage racer, Australian Rory Sutherland. It’s one of those savvy moves that Riis used to be known for — and perhaps another sign he’s got his mojo back. (Of course, you never know what effect the Hamilton revelations about Riis will have.)
Sutherland, nicknamed the Sheriff for his jutting jaw, looked set to happily remain with his UnitedHealthcare family forever. Team manager Mike Tamayo runs a well-organized and efficient Pro Conti machine that’s steadily working its way toward ProTeam status. Sutherland was the top gun on the squad but he finally reached a point where the next step up was to step away.
“I’ve been putting the decision off every year and not really pushing to try and make the move to a WorldTour team and this is the time to do it and I’m very happy with what I’m going in to,” said Sutherland.
Make no mistake: this is a huge move for Sutherland and his family. The money was probably good at UnitedHealthcare and the life in Boulder, Colorado with his wife, a school teacher, and his young son, was a sweet set-up.
On the other hand, Sutherland had hit the deciding number: 30 years of age. As a professional cyclist, it was now or never and the chance to jump to the top, ride a grand tour again, study Alberto Contador up close and learn from one of the true masters in Riis was simply too tempting.
“I’m at a different point in my life and from the discussions that I’ve had with Bjarne [Riis] about it, we seem to be very much on the same page” said Sutherland. “He’s not paying me to be a neo pro, he’s paying me for the opportunity at the highest level to see what we can do with my potential, or to see where I can end up.”
We spoke with Sutherland after his time trial in Denver at the US Pro Cycling Challenge. He was as relaxed and happy as an athlete could be — having won the stage up Flagstaff mountain the day before in front of his hometown of Boulder. He sounded like a man who wouldn’t change a thing in his life. But then, maybe he already had a deal with Saxo all but signed.
If will be interesting to see where Sutherland fits in the revamped Saxo-Tinkoff and even he isn’t sure quite yet. “It’s a tough one because I’m not a pure climber by any stretch of the imagination but I can climb just fine,” said Sutherland. “And I’m not a pure sprinter but bring me to the finish of a sprint with good legs and I can sprint just fine – I think I can do a lot of different races which is a good thing. I can get through grand tours; I can get through some of the big, hillier races. I think this first year both for myself and the team is just going to be a learning experience.”
Riis has always prided himself on his ability to bring talented riders to the next level. Sutherland is one of those projects with intriguing possibilities. In terms of build and skill set, the Australian reminds us a little of Bobby Julich who had a nice renaissance when under Riis’ guidance at CSC.
Sutherland worked well with UnitedHealthcare physiologist and coach Inigo San Millan but perhaps Riis has some new tricks. (And no, we don’t’ mean the ones he used with Tyler Hamilton.)
The Sheriff has left Boulder, Colorado and is headed to Denmark. El Pistolero has a new hired gun.