When Rolf Sorensen talks about cycling and the Classics, you can tell he still loves cycling. Anecdotes tumble out, populated by some of the biggest names in the sport.
“I was 22 had just won Tirreno-Adriatico and had gone to Belgium for the Tour of Flanders in 1987,” he recalls. “At the start I saw Sean Kelly, who was like a big idol of mine, I was kind of star struck and Kelly saw me and said: ‘oh, you’re the boy who won Tirreno?’
“I said yes and I told him this was my first time in Belgium, in fact, Flanders would be my first race in Belgium. He looked at me and said, ‘You’ll do alright boy’ and that was that.”
Claude Criquielion soloed to a win at the 1987 Ronde, Kelly came second and the young Sorensen rolled in seven minutes after Kelly. “I was finishing as he came down from the podium. He saw me and said: ‘where did you finish? 65th? Good enough. That’s good enough.’” It took Sorensen another decade to win the Tour of Flanders, achieving something his erstwhile idol never did.
And so began Rolf Sorensen’s love affair with the Classics, an obsession with the Monuments that still define a rider’s status and character. “After I won Tirreno with Ivano Fanini, I moved to Ariostea under Giancarlo Ferretti and he said to me that I’d never be a Grand Tour rider, I was better suited to one day races.”
In fact, Sorensen won Tirreno twice and was a regular general classification podium finisher in the Tour of Denmark, the Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) and suchlike, even wearing the Tour de France yellow jersey, briefly, in 1991.
However, Sorensen excelled in hard, hilly races, with a third at Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1991 and a win in 1993.
“I don’t have too many regrets,” recalls Sorensen, “but when I think of 1991, well, maybe that. I was in the winning break with Moreno Argentin, who was the leader at Ariostea. I attacked solo before La Redoute, as planned, got to the top with 15 or 20 seconds and then eased back, waiting for Argentin who was also going to attack.” Sorensen pauses. “You know, I think if I had just fully committed and kept riding I would have stayed clear, because the finish was in Liege, it was a flatter run-in and with Argentin behind, covering counter-attacks, well…”
Instead, Sorensen was caught by Argentin, Claude Criquielion and Miguel Indurain, and he dutifully led out his team leader for the last of the Italian’s four wins in the race.
Sorensen’s own win in 1993 came in a Carrera jersey. “Yeah, it was funny but for all the good times and results I had at Ariostea with Ferretti, my big wins were never with him.”
Tony Rominger riding for Spanish squad CLAS, Lotto’s Jan Nevens and Maurizio Fondriest in Lampre fuchsia had broken clear on the lower, steep section of the Haute Levée climb, still 60km from the finish in Ans.
Flanked by team mate Stephen Roche, Sorensen anxiously watched them ride away on the long, exposed drag over the top of the climb out of Stavelot.
“Roche turned to me and said: ‘That’s it. That’s the move, you’ve got to go now.’ So Stephen went flat-out to bring their lead down a bit. He rode himself to a standstill then turned to me and I jumped across the gap to get to the break. And he was right, that was the move.”
1993 was the first year the race finished in the Liege suburb of Ans, with the final climb – the suburban ‘Cote d’Ans’ – rising just before the finish. Nevens, the weakest rider, attacked at the foot of the climb and got a gap which Rominger rode across to him as if on a motorbike. Nevens laboured.
“Rominger was flying – we had finished first and second overall at the Vuelta Pais Vasco the previous weekend – but I still had Fondriest on my wheel who had a good sprint. I looked at Fondriest and he said: ‘I’m fucked, it’s up to you’ which was actually the moment I won the race.
“If Fondriest hadn’t said anything, if he had bluffed and I had waited longer, there’s no way I would have got back to Rominger. If he had gotten another hundred meters I wouldn’t have caught him.
“It was a decent thing to say to me,” recalls Sorensen.
So the Dane launched himself in pursuit, flew past Nevens and caught Rominger – “that was the toughest chase in my career” – and the pair rode to contest the finish.
“We had been racing each other in Spain, so we knew each other well and he knew that finishing second was better than fourth and I was 90 per cent sure I could beat him in a sprint.”
Sorensen duly did to win ‘La Doyenne’ becoming the first Danish rider to win a Monument. It was his first, but not his last.
Riding for Rabobank, Sorensen would win the Tour of Flanders in 1997, arguably the highlight of a career which included 46 wins.
Almost inevitably for riders campaigning though the 1990s, Sorensen was implicated in blood doping and EPO use. In 2013, following an investigation into the Rabobank team, Sorensen released a statement.
“I used EPO periodically in the 90s, I have also in some cases used the substance cortisone. There is no other excuse than that I did what I felt compelled to do to be an equal among peers. Over the past year I’ve been asked several times about this issue and I should long ago have come clean.”
Sorensen now works as a television cycling commentator.