Slowly but surely Sutherland returned to cycling’s top table, and this year the 36-year-old made his Tour de France debut. From his home in Spain – where he also runs a restaurant – Sutherland spoke with Cycling Central.
Rory Sutherland is no ordinary cyclist. While most elite athletes balance media commitments in between training sessions and recovery, Sutherland fits in his chat alongside the morning school run and duties at a cafe he runs in Girona, Spain.
As his colleagues relax on beaches or begin their pre-season planning, Sutherland is as busy as ever. “My offseason doesn’t stop – it is tougher than my on-season,” he chuckles.
The UAE Team Emirates rider’s holistic approach to life was shaped by an experience that might have ended the career of other athletes. It has influenced his career for over a decade now, for better and for worse.
In the early 2000s, Sutherland was a cyclist on the rise. Coming from a “very sporting family – my mum was a PE teacher and my grandfather was a runner” – the Canberran had been spotted by a talent identification program. “I was tall and had good endurance so they said I could get into cycling or rowing,” he recalls. He signed with the Rabobank development team and ultimately graduated to the Dutch team’s elite roster.
Sutherland won the U23 Road National Championships in 2004 and seemed destined for big things. Then, in late 2005, the Australian tested positive for a WADA-prohibited substance called Clomiphene, used to aid female fertility. Despite an independent investigation finding no evidence of intentional wrongdoing – that “Sutherland took the substance unknowingly” – the Belgian Cycling Federation imposed a nine-month suspension.
Coinciding with several high-profile doping scandals, Sutherland was tarred with the same brush – notwithstanding the unusual circumstances. Rabobank terminated his contract and Sutherland returned home. His hopes and dreams seemed dashed. Today, Sutherland looks back philosophically.
“Sitting out of the sport is one thing, but having to deal with something that is never going to go away is another,” he reflects. “It is a branding you get – no matter how it happened. Thankfully I had a chance to reset. If that happens at 30 you have family responsibilities, whereas I was in my early 20s – I could just go home and live with Mum and Dad and figure out something. That was a blessing.”
Following his suspension Sutherland was unable to return to Europe, instead signing with American team Health Net–Maxxis. He would spend the next six years racing predominantly in the United States, collecting a handful of results and some strong overall finishes at the Tour of California, but failing to break back into the World Tour.
“The path I took really moulded me into who I am now – I have a lot of pride in the way I slowly but surely built my way up back to the top of the sport,” he muses. “I wouldn’t say it was a blessing in disguise – it definitely wasn’t a fun experience – but I wouldn’t change it.
“I look at a lot of the guys I grew up riding with,” he continues. “They have all stopped cycling now and many aren’t in a good place, whether financially or mentally. But I went to the States, fell in love with cycling again, met my wife, we’ve had two fantastic kids. None of that would have happened if it was not for the suspension.”
In 2013, Sutherland returned to Europe and signed with Saxo–Tinkoff. He would later move to Movistar and most recently UAE Team Emirates. Since leaving the United States, Sutherland has ridden the Vuelta a España, Giro d'Italia and – this year – he made his Tour de France.
“The Tour de France was never the be-all and end-all,” he says. “I wanted to go for the right reasons. I enjoyed my Julys – July at home is nice over here, summer-time and the kids are out of school.”
Sutherland helped team-mate Dan Martin to a stage win and overall eighth place in France, although a crash derailed the Irishman’s grander ambitions. “On the start line it is something new and exciting, but otherwise it’s getting to work doing what you are supposed to do,” Sutherland says. “Just double the number of people on the side of the road.”
He may have only recently made his Tour debut, but Sutherland’s 37th birthday is only months away and the rider knows his career is winding towards a close.
“Cycling does not last forever,” he says. “There is never a perfect time to stop. I had never thought about retirement until this year. There were a few frustrating moments with the team situation that I wasn’t happy with, and it made me wonder whether it was still worth doing this. But we seemed to have got through all that and the team is being rebuilt for 2019, which makes me excited to continue.”
While 2018 might not have been his easiest season, it ended on a high with Sutherland riding in national team colours at the World Championships in Innsbruck. “Because I have had to live 50 per cent of my life away from where I was born, you lose some of the everyday patriotism,” he admits. “But being in the national team environment is special – when the jersey comes out, I am incredibly proud to wear it. It definitely lifts you to a new level.”
As the interview wraps up, Sutherland prepares to head to his restaurant – Federal Café in Girona. “It’s fun, it’s different,” he says. “It’s Australian – brunch, coffee, light meal – which is something different here.”
It is apt that Sutherland’s restaurant is different, because he is a little different, too. Over a long and sometimes fraught cycling career, that attribute has served him pretty well. He might not have too many marquee victories on his palmares, but Sutherland has plenty to be proud about – including speaking four languages.
“I am not a prolific winner,” he admits when asked for his career highlight. “A lot of people would choose a win – Mat Hayman is the perfect example, he would pick Paris-Roubaix. For me it is different. Maybe one of those moments will come for me, or maybe it won’t – I am cool with that. For me, it is the whole package of what I have been able to experience in cycling. Even now I still just love riding my bike.”