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If there was a prize for the season’s best domestique, chances are Movistar’s Rory Sutherland would be among the nominees.
The 34-year-old Australian did impressive work throughout the 2016 season, including big pulls dog-sledding his way across the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. Thanks to his help, Movistar won a stage and finished third overall at the Giro, and won a stage and the GC at the Vuelta.
What goes into those victories? And what does it to take to be a domestique on a top-level, WorldTour team? We sat down with Sutherland to talk about the keys to being a successful “gregario” in today’s peloton.
First off, to be a good domestique, a rider must embrace the role. A rider must recognize that they will never win the Tour de France themselves, but have the skills to help someone else. It takes a village. Though only one rider stands on the winner’s podium, cycling is a team sport, and all the big captains know they cannot win races alone. Taking pride and being part of a winning team can be as satisfying as crossing the line first.
Sutherland: “For the job that I do, I fully embrace it because I get the respect from others on the team, and you feel valued. I’ve built up this diesel engine over several years, and I can ride the front all day, and I am fine with that because I’ve trained for that. The people following behind me in the peloton are actually worse off than me. During the Vuelta this year, [Movistar teammate] Imanol [Erviti] and I figured we did about 850km or 900km together at the front. I love it, that’s my job. I really embrace that role now. If I walk down the street and no one knows, I am completely happy.”
Do the work
As Sutherland mentioned, there’s a lot of work that goes into being the first guy at the front of the peloton. Sutherland’s job is to go so hard that no one can attack, or, if there is an attack, go hard enough to neutralize the danger for his GC captain. That takes some serious horsepower against a peloton of 400 legs.
Sutherland: “My diesel engine has improved dramatically the past couple of years. To train for this work, you do less high-end stuff, and you do more of that hard-tempo training. The reason I can do it now is that four years ago, I started working with Iñigo San Millán (a PhD and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at University of Colorado Hospital’s Sports Medicine Clinic), and I’ve been doing this ‘zone 2’ stuff for years. When I was in Boulder, I wanted to go ride out on the mountains, he [Millán] was like, no, you need to go out on the flats, you need to ride at 1.1 or 1.2 millimoles of lactate for four or five hours. You start out, you can only do it for two hours, then slowly you can do it longer and longer. It’s about controlling your lactate, and by doing that, it’s created a huge base for over here in Europe.”
Know your motor
Accepting your abilities is a key step, followed up by working on your strong points. Sutherland, though he doesn’t climb poorly for a big rider, knows that his work comes on the flats. Or, on the flats after some early climbs. So he trains accordingly; to be there in the meat of the race (when no one is watching on TV), and discreetly peel off near the finish line (when everyone is watching).
Sutherland: “All professional cyclists more or less train the same amount, so it’s more about defining your specific role. I don’t need to be there in the high mountains, so it doesn’t matter if I weigh one kilo more. In fact, I need to have my kind of engine to be able to ride at the front, with one or two other guys, or by myself like it was at the Giro, to ride 40km to 100km at a tempo that doesn’t let a breakaway go away. I train for what’s specific to what I do. I am 76-77kg, and I can put out 350 watts on a normalized day, and that is six-seven-hour day. During the Vuelta and Giro, I was between 330-350w normalized power. A fit person in the public would struggle with that for an hour, but because I’ve trained for doing that all winter, and I am 34, and I’ve been doing it for a long time, I have the capacity. Some guys might read that, and say, OK, that’s what I have to do to be pro. But he’s 65kg and he has a day job. If I had a desk job, I’d shoot myself. This is my full-time job.”
Ride for a winner
Riders will turn themselves inside-out if they know that their captain can deliver. There’s nothing worse for a pro rider, however, to sacrifice his own chances and put out the painful effort only to have the team leader consistently fail to deliver. Sutherland is lucky at Movistar, where team captains Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana can have a legitimate shot at winning in nearly every style of race they start, be it one-day classics, to weeklong stage races and grand tours.
Sutherland: “It’s unique here, because we have guys like Nairo and Alejandro, that any race they go into, they can win it. So they need that support and to be put into that position. The older I get, the more of a purpose I need. I’ve spoken to [Movistar general manager] Eusebio [Unzué] about this a lot. I haven’t trained to get into the breaks, that’s not what I do anymore. When I go to a race with someone to help, I ride better. You step up 10 percent, because you have purpose. Every team has its agenda, but if I went into the Vuelta with a team like a Giant – Alpecin — there are guys there for developing, other guys are looking for breaks, and no one’s going to win a sprint or ride for the GC — why would I want to go? I’ve been more channeled to ride at the front for strong leaders, and I thrive on that now.”
A big part of the payback for being a domestique, apart from the monthly check, is the acknowledgement of a job well done. Professional cyclists are at the elite of the sport, and receive a high degree of satisfaction when the team can deliver on a strategy of winning. A team can’t win every day or every race, but patience and proper execution eventually delivers results. And when the team captains and management acknowledge the role that everyone contributed, it fuels a desire to work even more.
Sutherland: “I have a good relationship with the riders and staff, and I have a lot of respect for Eusebio. You can really see why his teams have been going on for so long. He respects people. That’s not to say other teams don’t, but you can see that there is a base of riders and staffers who are always here. You have your Nairos and Alejandros, but everyone is valued here. For me, I’m 35 next season, [respect] is the most important thing. Of course, the financial part of it counts, but the work conditions are more important for me now. If you’re not happy, and you’re not valued and respected, there is really no point.”