It’s been a rough spring for Rory Sutherland. The Canberra native’s program started with a series of chilly, wet races in Europe.
“We just had setback after setback,” Sutherland said, referring to the illnesses that sidelined him and his US-based UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling teammates from starting races.
Sutherland touched the podium just once, a second place on stage three of the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali.
From what he said yesterday the European campaign sounded demoralising. It’s far from a promising platform to build up to one of Sutherland’s main targets for the year, the Amgen Tour of California (AToC), starting on 13 May.
Sutherland’s moral made a 180-degree turn today in the high desert of southwestern New Mexico at 6,800 feet elevation.
Under a blazing sun, Sutherland crested a rise on the climb to the ghost town of Mogollon, in the Gila Wilderness, to win the opening stage of the SRAM Tour of the Gila.
The key moment of the race unfolded as the peloton turned right for the last 6.7 miles of the 92 mile day. Competitive Cyclist, the team of last year’s overall winner Francisco Mancebo were in the lead at the time.
When they reached a mesa, which separates the lower, easier slopes of the climb from the steeper second half, Sutherland’s team took charge.
Australians teammates Ben Day and Jonathan Clarke set a pace that created a lead group of ten and also dropped Mancebo.
Their work launched Sutherland and Marc de Maar onto the narrow, twisty, steep portion of the climb.
The lead group of 10 dwindled to five with Sutherland leading.
“I was actually riding for my teammate Marc after [the mesa], trying to ride a good tempo to hold him near the front. I guess I had better legs,” he said.
Sutherland looked around to find himself alone in the last kilometre or two and told himself to “just keep going.”
UnitedHealthcare and Sutherland didn’t travel to the furthest reaches of New Mexico, just 90 miles north of the Mexican border, for a walk in the park.
Sutherland said the team aims to race and win here as well as prepare for the bigger AToC.
Last year Sutherland finished third on the climb up to Sierra Nevada in California, but he hasn’t managed an overall podium finish at this more prestigious UCI America Tour 2.HC race, something he needs to elevate his career and, as a leader, his teammates.
It’s evident that Sutherland is looking west from the mountains of New Mexico.
It’s also clear he’s relieved to pay back more than just his teammates with today’s win.
“This helps California; it helps the motivation,” he said after the race.
“It shows that all the hard work and the training is actually starting to pay off, which my wife will be happy about. It’s about time.”