It wasn’t that long ago that the Franзaise des Jeux cycling team had a particularly Aussie flavour with Brad McGee, Baden Cooke, Mark Renshaw and Matt Wilson all wearing the good-luck cloverleaf of the French national lottery. In 2009, the only Aussie face on the team was neo-pro Wesley Sulzberger and after ticking off finishes in several of the better known classics, a ride in a Grand Tour and a first pro win on stage 2 of Paris-Corrиze, the quietly spoken man from Flowery Gully in Tasmania has had a pretty good first season to reflect on.
PEZ: FDJ used to be one of the teams for young Aussie riders to make their mark in. Things have changed a bit since then, so can you tell us how you came to be riding for Marc Madiot’s ProTour team this year.
Wes: I was riding for the Australian Under 23 team and was based in Italy and having a pretty good season. Australian national team coach Shayne Bannan went to the start of the 2008 Tour De France and talked Marc into giving me a stagiaire contract for four races towards the end of season. After having nothing else on the cards I agreed.
Wesley on the podium following a fantastic ride at U23 Worlds in Salzburg.
How important do you think your time with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and SouthAustralia.com was in making the step across to riding on a ProTour team?
Wes: The AIS really helped pave the way to slip across into the ProTour Team. Having such a great, clean program with a lot of young Aussie talent, some teams were interested, but FDJ were the ones to give me a leg up. The AIS program wasn’t just all about cycling either. When you’re living on the other side of the world, it makes it hard for Mum to wash, cook and clean for you, so you pick up a lot of life experiences early on.
Did you get any good advice from other Pro’s ahead of your first year that you can look back on now and thing, “Yeah, I’m glad they told me that, it really helped”?
Wes: Yes, living close to Simon Gerrans (Cervйlo Test Team) and Mark Renshaw (Columbia HTC) was great. When I had some knee problems half way through the year, they said you never get a chance to have a good break mid season and not to worry because it would be an advantage for the second half of the season. After doing the Vuelta and then having a great ride at Worlds they were right on the money.
Ed steals a few moments of time with Wes before he sets off on his first Gent-Wevelgem adventure.
By anyone’s measure, you had an amazing first year as a professional. As well as taking a first pro win, your spring classics program was pretty incredible.
Wes: It was exciting doing so many big races but at the same time I was scared of not being able to finish them all. I raced as hard as I could and somehow came out the other side. After the classics Marc and the team had a lot of respect for the little 66kg joey kanagroo bouncing along the cobbles of Roubaix, Flanders, Gent Wevelgem and Amstel Gold.
You weren’t just making up the numbers either. You were in the big first break in Paris Roubaix too. What was that like?
Wes: At the start of Roubaix I went and saw Marc at the team car and said, “Today I’m going with the breakaway”, he said “Okay , today you are free, you can do as you please.” With that said I stuck to my plan and made sure I made the early break. It was unreal with so many people lining the course screaming and yelling “Go Fdj.” It was amazing feeling and it didn’t seem real at the time. I had watched the race on TV in Italy when Stu (O’Grady) won and I did a victory lap around the AIS team house on my BMX with Aussie flag.
Two Tassies chat it up – one was about to set off on a 300km foray to Sanremo, the other, well, he was going to do some driving, typing, and picture taking.
Do you think that the Spring Classics are where your future lies? Has riding these races given you a taste for it?
Wes: I loved doing the spring classics for experience it was something truly special. But, being so light and small compared to all the real spring classic riders, I can’t see myself at this stage making my mark with these sort of races.
What is the build up to the Tour de France like from within a ProTour team? As someone who didn’t ride, do you still get caught up in it?
Wes: Around the Tour time it’s very competitive with so many young guys in your team, everyone wants a spot and thinks that they deserve it. I had a knee injury around the selection time, who knows what would have happened if I wasn’t injured.
You did end up riding the Vuelta though. What was your first Grand Tour like?
Wes: It was very demanding and I was ready for it after spending three weeks in St Moritz training with Simon Gerrans. I was very excited about waiting for the right day for a breakaway and pull a stage result. That plan changed when I arrived in Spain the second day with stomach bug giving me gastro for three days. After that I was in survival mode for a week and half. I knew that all I had to do was hang in there and if I finished the Vuelta I was a sure start for worlds.
You ended up coming out of it OK too, with good form for the Worlds.
Wes: It could have gone two ways, and I’m so happy it didn’t turn out the other way. I felt like I could just keep running all day in diesel mode at Worlds. I’m not saying I was floating along not feeling any pain, it still really hurt, but I guess I had pushed myself to new limits doing the Vuelta.
Watching the world road title in Mendrisio, it looked like Australia had ‘missed the boat’ with only Mick Rogers in the break with the big guns from Belgium and Italy. Then we saw you, Simon Clarke and Stuart O’Grady take things in hand while the other strong nations sat back and let you get on with it.
Wes: Yeah it was lucky we took action quickly or the race would have been out of reach for Cadel and Simon [Gerrans] within no time.
Sulzberger formed part of the huge Aussie effort at Worlds, which netted Evans and Australia their first ever men’s Elite RR win.
Cadel Evans paid a special tribute to the work that you did in helping him realise his dream. How big was it to be part of that day and also to be recognised for playing such a key role?
Wes: It was great that Cadel had the support of such a strong team, being part of that was so far, the highlight of my career.
You are heading into the second year of your two-year neo-pro contract. What, if anything has the team discussed with you as goals for the season?
Wes: I will have a similar program to 2009 but swap the flat Classic races for Ardennes Classics and it would be nice to swap around one of the Grand Tours for next year, who knows.
You divide your year between Flowery Gulley in Tas and the French Riviera. Good and bad points for both places?
Wes: Best bits of the Gully: Mum’s shepherd’s pie and golden syrup dumplings. Best of the French Riviera: I took the recipe with me to make Shepherd’s pie and got my girlfriend Shannon to make the golden syrup dumplings.
Sulzberger vying for the win at U23 Worlds.
You’ve moved from a personal page to a fan page on Facebook this year. How do you cope with the fans and the idea that people want (or expect) a piece of you because your “famous”?
Wes: There are some weird and wonderful people out there, but that don’t mean I want them to be my Facebook friend! That’s why, with the input of Shannon I made a Facebook fan page .
You are back in Australia at the moment. What’s the plan for the next month?
Wes: I have been looping around my old training grounds with Bernie [Wes’ Brother and 2009 SuperWeek winner], Matty Rice [ex-team Jelly Belly heading to Bahati Racing] and Ben Grenda [scholarship holder with Tas Institute of Sport]. I have had more time to train this year for nationals and TDU. It was great news that the team allowed me to miss the team training camp in Paris so that I could prepare myself for nationals and TDU. I’m really looking forward to starting the season in good shape.
Any specific goals for TdU?
Wes: Yeah, a stage win and maybe the KOM jersey.
You mentioned that you had both you and Bernie had been away racing this past weekend. What was the race and was it a Sulzberger combine or a fight to the death between FDJ and Fly V?
Wes: It was the Dicks Smiths V8 super cars criterium in Sydney. The race was held around the V8 track at Bushy Park Olympic stadium. It was great event and they are planning to make it an annual thing.
Bernie and Wes, a pretty fast brotherly pairing, no?
Last year you and Bernie lived together in your house in Launceston over the summer. Bernie’s older, but do you ever pull the “who’s got the higher world ranking” trick when it comes to who has to cook or wash up?
Wes: Last year we had the house in town, it was great. This year we came home to find out that Dad had rented the place out. I guess with us both being away overseas all year it was bound to happen! So, now I’m living with my girlfriend’s parents and Bernie is living with his fiancйe Katie.
Is it good to get back to the local bunch and get a few rides in with Bernie? Any plans on carving up the local crit scene again like you two did last year and the year before?
Wes: I love meeting up with the “5 Ways” bunch in Tassie to go training and I even started Facebook page for it. Also, Last weekend was the Tassie Criterium Titles and I beat one of the young new-comers to the sport Will Clarke for the win.
We’ll be keeping an eye out for Wes Sulzberger at this year’s Tour Down Under and also seeing how his second year in the Pros pans out, as he tackles a different set of races in this year’s classic season.
PEZ would like to say a big “thanks” to Wes for his time and wish him all the best for his early start to the 2010 season in a couple of weeks time.