Interview: SCOTT SUNDERLAND Gets Pez’d
Just before the CSC winter “boot camp”, I rang up the team’s new directeur sportif Scott Sunderland. It was the first time I’d actually talked to Scott, but in typical Aussie fashion, he put me at ease right away, chatting on as if we were old mates. I knew right away this would be a great interview…
Questions by Jered Gruber & Richard Pestes
Scott was relaxed and chatty at the start of Ghent-Wevelgem 2004.
Scott had just joined Bjarne Riis’ CSC squad, and was preparing for the teams’ winter Boot Camp.
PEZ: You’re making the transition from rider to Directeur sportif for the highly reputed Team CSC. Tell us how the offer came about … Were you talking to other teams as well and what made you choose CSC in the end?
Scott: My manager Paul de Geyter (from SEM-Belgium) was talking to a few teams for me. Despite my age, teams were interested, but their program looked really heavy and as the thought of retiring was on my mind already during the course of this year, I didn’t know how I’d handle another season. My 2004 season was satisfying and rewarding in many ways. I didn’t feel the need to ride another year.
I spoke to CSC manager Bjarne Riis during the Tour de France. Kim Andersen, one of his directors and a good friend of mine, suggested I’d join the team as a director as they needed someone in that position and Kim thought it’d be a position which would suit me.
Because of my knowledge of the Spring Classics though, Bjarne thought I could still race those and take up the director’s job afterwards. We discussed it and I told Bjarne that it would be hard to motivate myself to train hard during the winter, only to race a good month in spring. He understood perfectly and appreciated my honesty. So we decided I’d move into the DS job immediately.
Why CSC? Because from what I had heard and seen it is one of the most professionally run teams in cycling. I always admired Riis as a cyclist and saw that he was managing his team in a way which really appealed to me.
A few weeks ago I traveled up to Denmark to the service course and I have met most of the people of the staff. Although I have visited many service courses during my career, I had never seen anything like it; it’s awesome. Riis runs the team as a business but with a big heart for its employees.
At the CSC “Boot Camp” in early December, Scott Sunderland, Jakob Piil, sales- and marketing director Lars Gjшls Andersen and doctor Piet De Moor get paddling.
PEZ: Having worked with a lot of different directeurs in your career, what characteristics do you think make up the ideal Directeur sportif?
Scott: First of all, you need to keep an open mind, keep your cool in every situation; be in control but don’t overdo it. Secondly, it is very important that you know what lives in the team; who is training/riding good, who is sick or has a down period, who is happy, who is not, etc. Communication is essential; being there at any time for your riders is vital. Listening to their needs and wishes, advising them and helping them out. You need some organizational skills of course, but I’d say leadership qualities are the most important.
PEZ: You’ll be one of the new kids on the block at CSC, and in the leadership capacity of DS, this will not be the easiest of jobs. Looking to next year, what are your primary goals in your new position?
Scott: I’m keen to learn all about the job and my aim is to integrate into the team as soon as possible. As I’ll be doing training programs, etc I’ll quickly get to know my riders thoroughly. I know most of the riders and staff already so that shouldn’t be a problem. By the end of April, I would like to feel 100% comfortable and confident in my position as a DS. I’ve got a full schedule of races and am happy about that; the first ones I’ll have Kim, Allain or Bjarne there with me to learn from.
PEZ: One of your best years as a rider was with the Danish Fakta team, and now you’ve joined CSC – what is it with you and the Danes?
Scott: I guess Danish and Australians do have a lot in common; although some might argue that. Over the years I’ve noticed that Danes and Aussies tend to get along really well. Like Aussies, Danish people have a very typical kind of humour; I’ve met some crazy bastards in both countries. We can appreciate each other’s culture. On top of that, most Danish speak English, which is very convenient 😉
On the other hand, maybe opposites attract; the cold Scandinavian climate and the hot Australian weather. I find Danish people very welcoming, loving new experiences and having great communication skills – well, the ones I’ve met anyway.
Some of his best years were with the Danish Fakta squad.
LIFE ON THE CONTINENT
PEZ: You’ve lived for many years on the European continent, which can take some getting used to for any foreigner… Describe the European lifestyle as seen through your eyes…
Scott: Europe for me is: Excellent wining and dining, great cars but bad roads, long summer evenings and cosy winter nights. It’s gluh wine in winter and “al fresco” dining in summer. Hundreds of different beers; cool fashion and a melting pot of cultures.
It’s magnificent scenery and fantastic historical places. It’s walking Las Ramblas in Barcelona, visiting the Louvre in Paris, lazing in a deck chair by the pool in the Provence, tasting an exquisite glass of wine and eating fresh olives, French cheeses and Italian pasta.
It’s the fun with the guys from the team while travelling and racing. It’s the taste of victory, whether it’s a personal win or one by a team mate or friend. It’s having a nightcap in some hotel bar and always meeting new people. Europe means friends and family too, very much like Australia.
But also, Europe has traffic that drives you absolutely nuts, friends stressed out by crazy schedules and demanding jobs; the neighbours trying to keep up with the Jones’s and a lot of status symbols.
And of course, a lot more rain than in Australia! It’s training my butt off in the freezing cold in February in Belgium and still being snowed on during the first races in France. It’s the heat of the mid-summer races in Spain and suffering like a dog when you don’t have the legs to go up that mountain.
PEZ: If you could import one item from back home what would it be?
Scott: The weather!
PEZ: As a rider, how did you evolve as you got older? Of course you learned as you progressed, but was there a continual progression of getting faster as well?
Scott: Most of all, I got wiser, I think. Knowing your body and your immune system is a very important thing. Learning to notice the signals your body is giving you takes time – valuable time.
I experienced progress in different aspects over the years; technically and physically. I got stronger, surely. I always had a good sprint in my legs. And when I felt I was up to it, I would certainly take the chance and do well in a group sprint, especially in uphill finishes; but being in a domestique role most of my career didn’t allow me many extravagances in that area.
There’s a profound analysis to be made there, one I won’t bore you with. But it’s a fact that it is smart for young riders to work with a personal trainer; someone who can look at things more objectively, who motivates you when you’re being slack and who calms you down when you do too much. That’s what is so great about the Australian Institute of Sport system. Riders get the perfect guidance there.
PEZ: At 17 you packed up your things and moved 700 km from your hometown of Inverell to Sydney, that’s quite a move for a 17 year old. Can you tell us a bit about that experience and how it impacted your path through life?
Scott: It had a huge impact. I was young and so bloody stubborn. When I moved away from home, I was supposed to be looked after by this couple in Sydney. They both turned out to be alcoholics and life at their place was hell. I didn’t want to “give in and quit”, so I bit the bullet and stayed.
Alex Fulcher, my “mentor” didn’t have much contact with me outside of the racing scene and there was no AIS support for me back then, so I took everything that bit too far. I worked too hard to have enough money to live and I trained way too hard on top of that. It was as if I was trying to get rid of my frustration on the bike. I got diagnosed with bronchitis but kept training and that almost wrecked my whole career. After a while, I was completely exhausted. I found no more pleasure in riding my bike. I came close to giving it all away. Luckily I made the conscious decision to step out of the vicious circle; I went to America and found renewed interest in cycling.
My days in Sydney made me strong. It’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If my time there thought me one thing, it’s that you need to stay true to your principles.
Some might have seen me as a naive kid from the bush, but I never kissed arse or said the right thing to the right people simply to gain someone’s favour. My refusal to be politically correct just to get something boycotted my chances more than once, within the Cycling Australia system that is. Now I’m retired though, I’m very happy that I stayed true to myself and the way my parents raised me.
PEZ: When did you realize that cycling was going to be your career? Was there ever a moment when you decided, hey, this is what I want to do, and that’s that?
Scott: I started racing at the age of 7 and I knew that was what I wanted to do for a living.
PEZ: When you made your first overseas trip as a cyclist, what were your main impressions, what are your memories of the racing and living conditions? Did you ever feel like packing it up and heading home?
Scott: When Jean Pierre Mazza saw me race in Australia; he decided he’d give me a change to ride for his Swiss Amateur team. I went over to live in Europe.
I was excited and eager to get into the racing. I didn’t care how or where I’d live, as long as I could race my bike. It was a great learning experience. I would lie though if I said that I didn’t feel lonely now and again.
Jean Pierre had me and a few other riders living together in an apartment in Geneva. He was a good man and took care of us. The Mazza team was actually more professional run in a lot of ways then some so-called pro teams are now. We had top class material and access to the right foods and nutrition.
But, you can imagine; we had little money and the first months we didn’t speak a word of French, so it was a tough school for all of us. Some couldn’t hack it, missed their family too much and went back home; a lot of talent went to waste that way. I loved the racing and I was successful. There and then, I knew I was going to make it and it motivated me even more. I met some great people and they made me feel more at home.
To be honest, my first year as a pro with TVM was a step down from where I was with my Mazza amateur team. Not racing-wise of course; but in terms of comfort and professionalism. I was very lucky to survive that first year as a pro, especially after suffering a bad knee injury. My tenacity helped me this time and the memories of lesser days motivated me. At the end of my first pro year, I had nothing but a badly paid contract with the Dutch TVM team.
A loan my parents gave me allowed me to make the move up to Belgium over Christmas. I vividly remember sitting in my studio in Ninove that first evening, all wrapped up in a blanket, without warm water or electricity… the power had been cut after the previous tenants had left and back then, there was no way to get it connected over the Christmas break. Even if I wanted to pack up and fly home, I couldn’t as I had not one penny left to buy a ticket! I smile when thinking about it now.
In all, cycling has been good to me and it’s great to know that in my new job, I can give something back to the sport and its athletes.
PEZ: Scott – thanks for taking time to chat and best of luck in ’05!