IN 2004 Aussie Wes Sulzberger believed his dream of riding professionally in Europe was taking shape. Sulzberger, 24, had been riding for the Tasmanian Institute of Sport under the guidance of Paul Brosnan and had won a stage of the Tour of Canberra where he valiantly rode solo off the front of the group for 120 kilometres. In the old Tattersall's Cup Series - one day races held in Victoria and Tasmania - he had also notched up high placings that provided beyond any doubt the youngster from Flowery Gully just north of Launceston was going places. And fast.
Those results demanded attention from the Australian Institute of Sport. After discussions between both institutes Sulzberger was offered a scholarship the following year. "Europe has always been my dream so when I got accepted into the AIS I knew if I worked hard enough I could get there,” he says.
In 2007 Sulzberger won the Australian Under 23 road race championship before finishing second in the world under 23 road race. He earned a contract with French team Francais des Jeux and despite the outfit losing it's ProTour status recently Sulzberger has lost none of the passion and sheer determination that got him to Europe in the first place.
Looking back further, it’s not hard to see where Sulzberger got his love of the sport. Cycling runs in the blood of the Sulzberger family. Mum Linda and dad Michael can often be seen on the country roads near their home, training for local veterans' races every Sunday. Sister Grace is now back on the bike after a layoff and is as accomplished on the track as she is on the road. Older brother Bernard is a well-travelled rider in the peloton having competed in Europe, Asia, and now in the US with Fly V Australia.
The two brothers were more often on two wheels than two feet in their early years. "I always loved riding my BMX around the farm with Bernie,” Sulzberger reflects. "But we quickly made dad aware that we needed mountain bikes to ride up the steep gravel driveway!” The brothers' love of the sport was confirmed later at school. Any thought of homework after the bell was quickly erased when they downed school bags for bikes and buzzed around the local dirt tracks.
A bright green BMX was Sulzberger's machine of choice in those days. Together with Bernard and close friend Matt Goss - now a world class sprinter with Pro-Tour team HTC HighRoad - the trio carved out technical tracks around the farm. Goss lived less than a kilometre away from the Sulzbergers and life in rural Tasmania couldn't have been better for three mates growing up. Sulzberger's competitive fire was first on display when he took his first win in the under 13s on the other side of the Tamar River at the Georgetown track carnival.
It's memories like those that made Sulzberger homesick, something that affects every rider who leaves our shores for life on the other side of the world."Leaving to head over to Europe was a big step,” Sulzberger says. "Not only is the racing so much tougher but there were the cultural and language differences too. I was still only 18 at the time and remember feeling confident and really excited, but also a little scared of the whole European scene.”
But they breed them tough in Tassie. They also breed them very talented."The roads in Tassie are tough and so are the young guys and girls!” Sulzberger smiles. “The TIS and teams like Praties and Lawson Homes give young Tassie talent the opportunity to shine. After riding in the Tour de France and then coming back to Tassie and riding in the local bunch and talking with guys like Ben Grenda and Tom Robinson who are working their way up in the ranks, it helps to show that anything is possible if you want it. With Matt Goss winning Milan-San Remo how can Tassie riders not back themselves?”
Sulzberger has keenly observed the dramatic changes in Australia’s cycling culture, and is now thoroughly impressed at the rise of European-based gun Aussie talent, such as Richie Porte and of course, Goss.
"When I was in Australia I use to get asked all the time, 'So where are you working while your back in Australia?’ I would reply, ‘No I'm a professional cyclist’. They’d come back with, 'Oh so you just ride your bike?' Everyone knows AFL footy players just play footy and now people are starting to realise professional cyclists also just ride.
As far as influences on his career, Sulzberger rates Team Sky's Simon Gerrans as one of the most prominent.
"I rode the 2005 Herald Sun Tour with Ag2r when Simon was with them and he showed me the ropes and gave me some advice,” Sulzberger says. “I've always looked up to Simon; he is very professional and leaves no opportunity to chance".
Relaxing away from the sport comes easy to the down-to-earth Tasmanian. He lives with his partner, Shannon, in a studio apartment close to the beach in Monaco, and plans regular getaways when he is not racing or training.
"Europe is a great place to travel around, everything is so close by,” he comments. “Shannon and I can just jump on the train and head to Italy for a few days or wherever we want to go.”
Finishing in 152nd place in the Tour de France, bringing it all home on the streets of Paris last year, was a far cry from the Exeter track back at home in Tasmania but he wouldn’t have got there without such a solid foundation and enjoyable upbringing. He was in his element on the Champs Elysees as he crossed the line after three weeks, scarcely believing the atmosphere of the great race.
"It was crazy,” he beams. "All the spectators and people yelling and screaming, it never stops. I loved the whole experience and can't wait to ride the Tour again".
Sulzberger still manages to get back to Flowery Gully for an Aussie summer and keeps in touch with his beloved Essendon Bombers in the AFL. He leads the footy tipping amongst fellow Aussies in Monarco too.
"This year we won't be back to Tassie until mid November and then back off to Europe just after the Tour Down Under,” Sulzberger says about his relentless schedule. “It's a good time of year to be in Oz though; we get to spend Christmas with our families and everyone has holidays over summer so we can catch up with a lot of friends.”
So, Monaco or Flowery Gully?
"We love it here in Monaco; there are so many other Aussies here and the lifestyle, weather, everything's just great,” he adds. “The training is awesome too; I always cross over the Italian border and train on the small Italian goat track roads up in the hills. I can see us living over here for a long time to come; it really feels like home now".
Sulzberger has remained with long-time employer FDJ too, and he his hoping for another crack at the world's biggest bike race in July. His Pro Continental-classed outfit has been given a wildcard entry into the 2011 Tour de France and if the affable Tasmanian gets a ride, then there will be some dreary eyes back home in Flowery Gully once the race hits the Champs Elysees.