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He’s shed sweat, burned calories and generated countless watts of power in the service of Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana, most recently helping the latter to take the 2016 Vuelta a España. Now Rory Sutherland has given an inside glance into the personalities of both Grand Tour champions, saying that the duo have remarkable similarities to each other.
Australian professional Rory Sutherland’s first experience of Nairo Quintana may surprise many people. The Colombian appears expressionless on the hardest of climbs, maintaining a poker face which hints at an emotionless character.
The opposite is in fact the case.
“He is funny, he is always poking jokes at people,” Sutherland tells CyclingTips during a sit-down interview in Girona. “When I turned up to the first meeting with the team towards the end of 2014, the two people messing around the most at dinner were Nairo and Alejandro Valverde.
“They were the ones throwing bits of bread across the table at people and across the room, and cracking jokes. They were the ones sending funny photos and stuff through the Whatsapp groups.”
The image of Quintana as a practical joker is one which may take many by surprise. In addition to that poker face on the bike, the Colombian can come across as quiet and serious off it.
The language barrier also ensures that he is less well known to English speakers than many others.
However Sutherland has been riding for the Movistar team for the past two seasons and has got to know the two riders very well. Prior to his time with the Spanish squad he did two years at Saxo Tinkoff. Because of that, he is also very familiar with Alberto Contador.
He knows that many people’s impressions of the riders are based on what they see through a TV screen or read in interviews. He underlines that this can be misleading.
“I think we need to all remember that from Froome to Contador to these guys to Marcel Kittel, everyone is a person. Everyone needs to relax. Everyone can mess around,” he explains, contextualising the team camp food fights.
“You are serious when you have to be serious, and the same goes for Nairo and Alejandro. At the end of the day they are normal people who are incredibly talented and who have a lot of pressure put on them from themselves and also from teams and the press.”
Competing a total of four years with Saxo Tinkoff and Movistar has given Sutherland an insight into those three champions. While Contador and Quintana come from very different backgrounds, he sees a lot of parallels in their characters.
“They are very similar. Very, very similar. Incredibly driven,” he explains. “They want to win everything they can, which is why they are so good.
“They want to attack, probably Alberto more so than Nairo. He just has this all or nothing kind of attitude. I loved racing for him with that.
“They are also very strong minded. Very strong in the head. Froome is too. That is why these guys who are at the highest level don’t get dropped. They are like, ‘this is not happening [if they come under pressure – ed.].’ They are so positively-minded.
“But they are also nervous in the race. They are nervous about where they are going to be in the peloton. They want to be in the front at all times just in case, just in case, just in case.”
Leaving a rollercoaster behind to be a top team rider
Sutherland is speaking to CyclingTips while sitting on the first floor of the new Federal Café in Girona. Located on one of the ancient cobblestone streets in the old town, the venue is in a prime location and is boosted by the bright sunlight shining through big windows.
Talking to him here is no coincidence. He is part-owner of the business, having set it up with friends. It will likely form an important part of his future but, right now, his sights are set on continuing his pro career.
Sutherland is 34 years of age but continues to make an important contribution to his pro team. He has proven to be an important teammate to Quintana and Valverde, having arrived at this point after making a career-changing decision towards the end of 2012.
That year was his best, with overall victories in the Tour of the Gila and the Tour de Beauce plus stage wins in the Tour of Utah, Gila and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. However rather than continuing on that trajectory in the U.S., he made the decision to head to Europe, give up his chances as a leader and to ride for Contador and others at Saxo-Tinkoff.
Looking back now, he’s certain it was the right move. There is no hint of what-might-have-beens.
His explanation for the change gives an insight into the pressures and potential disappointments of being a leader.
“I think 2012 was a great year,” he says. “But with years like that where you are winning races, there are a lot of highs and a lot of lows. It is an absolute rollercoaster. You have one bad day and you are down in the dumps. You win a race and you are up high.
“There is a lot of stress and changes in your own self-being, your own emotional and mental state. While I enjoyed it and I definitely enjoyed winning, I find more comfort and more contentment in what I am doing now. It has kind of mellowed out the highs and lows into a little bit more of a channel that you can consistently maintain.”
Sutherland was thirty years of age then and racing for Health Net-Maxxis. He said that he had got to the point where it became clear what he could and could not achieve in the sport. While his 2012 results would likely have helped him find a leadership role with a Pro Continental team, he felt it was time to appraise things rationally and make a judgement call.
He concluded that winning the biggest races wouldn’t be possible, and so he changed tack.
“When I turned 30 and moved back here to Europe, I switched to more of a helper role. A domestique role. That became more rewarding to me than it was when I was trying to win races. It was less stress and it was something that I really like to do.”
Riding in that role – he describes it as that of a workhorse – was something he grew to relish.
“I am the first guy in the team to put my hand up to ride on the front because I really enjoy it. I found a groove that I think I am pretty good at. I think that through my experience I can control things to a pretty high level so that we never get in trouble.
“You become…I think the main word is dependable. You know that person is going to be there every day doing their job and the team doesn’t have to worry.”
Because of that, he earned the trust of leaders like Quintana and Valverde and of the team management. And while he is yet to ride the Tour de France, he says he has told Movistar that he completely trusts the team’s decision on selection. Rather than pushing for inclusion in cycling’s biggest event, he insists that he prefers to ride where he is most useful. “If someone else is better than me to do that role, that is fine with me,” he accepts.
This year, his team programme saw him ride the Ardennes Classics and the Giro d’Italia in support of Valverde, and the Vuelta backing Quintana.
“The season was good, actually,” he says, weighing things up. “I had a really good year. I am really happy with how it played out for me personally. I have a different roles than a lot of riders, I am different age than a lot of riders, and have different experience than a lot of riders as well.
“It’s enough for me to just to have a consistent year where my team and teammates are happy with what I have done. That has given me pride in my job and contentment in what I am doing.
“This year and other years, the Movistar team is a consistently well-operated machine. We win races from the start to finish of the year at the highest level. Of course, being in the team in the Vuelta when we won with Nairo Quintana was an experience I have never had before.
“On the last day, when you are riding together after three weeks of hell….that was an experience that I have never had before. That was incredibly cool.
“Also the others races we won was an incredible experience for me too. Being there in the hilly Classics with Alejandro was great. I really enjoy racing with him. When we can win like that [he took Flèche Wallonne], it gives you meaning to what we are doing.
“Doing the Giro with Alejandro was also an incredible experience. He got on the podium and won a stage, making it a podium in all Grand Tours. I really enjoy racing with him.”
Different leading styles, and how the Vuelta was won
Valverde has been around many, many years. He’s two years older than Sutherland and, according to the Australian, a very different leader to Quintana.
Like Contador, the latter is full of nervous energy. He’s constantly worried about being caught out and so uses his team to keep him in the right position.
Valverde is much more relaxed.
“When I race with Alejandro, he sits on my wheel and he doesn’t talk,” he explains. “I just take him where I think he needs to be. If he wants to be somewhere else, he tells me. But 99 times out of 100 he doesn’t tell me anything because he trusts where he is going. He knows that I am going to put him where he is meant to be.
“I personally find it a lot easier riding with Alejandro. He is also 36 years old, and Nairo is 25, 26, which is a big difference in terms of experience. These things will come and people change every year.
“I am not saying it is bad racing with Nairo. It is not bad, it is not worse, it is just different.”
Whatever about the differences between Valverde and Quintana, Sutherland says the team is utterly committed to backing whoever is the designated leader on the day.
“When we have a great group like we do at Movistar, everyone gets along with each other. There is no hierarchy. Yes, we know we are going for a common goal like riding for Nairo, but it all just falls into place. Everybody knows their role and there is no ego.”
Quintana was the number one team rider in this year’s Tour de France. He had finished second overall behind Chris Froome in 2013 and again in 2015 and, on the back of a very successful season, went into the race aiming to win overall.
Things didn’t work out, though, with Quintana appearing to be some way off his best before rallying in the final week to take third in Paris.
After the race two rumours went around. The first suggested that he was sick during the event. The second said that his drop in form was more due to the pressure of being one of the big favourites and Quintana’s nerves in trying to take the win.
Asked as to which – if either – was the case, Sutherland says he doesn’t know.
“I have no idea. I don’t know. But I think if you are on the podium of the Tour de France, I don’t think there are any failures at all,” he states.
“I think if you have had a bad Tour and come third, I think you can probably say it was a pretty damn good Tour.
“Was it to what he wanted? No, because he wanted to win. So I am sure he is going to be disappointed. But at that level, at the Tour de France, even at the Vuelta and the Giro, that 0.25 percent difference makes a difference.
“Whatever happened, I don’t involve myself in that. Maybe nothing happened. Maybe Froome was just better in the end and that is what happened. It is racing.”
Whatever the reason, Quintana set his sights on winning the Vuelta a España. While Froome went to Rio after the Tour, the Colombian put everything on taking the red jersey in Madrid. Missing the Olympics meant he was fully recovered from the Tour and he lined out at the start of the Vuelta in prime physical and mental condition.
“He was hungry. He was definitely hungry,” says Sutherland. “When we saw him when he turned up there, there was no question of, ‘oh, I have had such a great year, I can kind of relax a little bit now.’ I think he had a fire in his belly to make up for … for what nobody thinks were shortcomings in the Tour, but what he obviously felt was not to what he wanted to achieve.”
Quintana quickly got into his stride while Froome appeared to struggle with the Tour and the Olympics in his legs. He was some way off his best climbing form early on and was 54 seconds behind race leader Quintana heading into stage 15.
He didn’t panic, though, knowing that the stage 19 time trial would give him the chance to fight back. Quintana had other ideas, though, and after an early attack by Contador, the Colombian and others got clear and built a decisive advantage over Froome.
By the time they reached the summit finish at Formigal, he had increased his overall lead to over three and a half minutes. It proved to be more than enough to win the race.
“It was pretty cool to be part of that experience,” says Sutherland. “There have been a lot of times where the shoe has been on the other foot and we have been caught out in things. Everyone thinks, ‘maybe it will be easy at the start.’ But Imanol Erviti [his teammate – ed.] and I rode to the start, which you don’t do in Grand Tours. We did the first 20 kilometres of the race to see what it was like.
“When we looked at it beforehand on Google maps and zoomed in on it, it was like, ‘there are some tricky pieces there. There are some tricky little descents.’ It is not like there was a big climb and a big descent. There were smaller roads, twisting and turning, and then out on to a big highway. A lot of people lost the chance and lost the Vuelta literally within about a three kilometre period.”
While he said the move wasn’t planned, being in the right place at the right time was not a coincidence. Sutherland states that the Movistar team tells its riders each day ‘Coche Rojo’ – Red Car. This signifies the lead car in races such as the Vuelta, and is a reminder that they should be right at the front as the race rolls out of town.
“You don’t have to be a genius to realise that if you start near the front, you can control a lot more than if you start at the back,” he explains. “So you control the controllable, you make sure you are not in the wrong place at the wrong time… I think that is what happened to Sky. They had the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong time, for whatever reason. Be it fatigue, be it they weren’t good enough, be it they were being lazy. Whatever it was.”
The attack paid off and Quintana got the buffer he needed prior to the final time trial. He resisted Froome’s attacks in the final week and sealed the win in Madrid, rewarding Sutherland and others with the final victory.
“It was really great,” Sutherland recollects. “Going into Madrid where Telefonica, Movistar’s owner is based, with Nairo in the red jersey… To take a leader to the finish line to win a Grand Tour was cool.
“All the sponsors came out. We were all given red socks and red sunglasses. It is kind of like doing a victory parade.
“I can only imagine or dream what it would be like at the Tour de France. The Vuelta was a smaller version of that. But for me it was definitely rewarding for the work we had done. That really felt good.”