Extending his Orica GreenEdge squad’s grip on the pink jersey, Simon Clarke succeeded team-mates Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews as race leader of the Giro d’Italia on Tuesday.
Clarke finished second on the tough stage to La Spezia, sprinting in 22 seconds behind the solo winner Davide Formolo. He was quickest out of a dozen chasers and threw his arms in the air, apparently believing he had taken the stage victory.
That turned out not to be the case, but taking over the Maglia Rosa was a big, big moment in his career. It followed on from a stage win plus mountains classification victory in the 2012 Vuelta a España.
“It’s a pretty special moment,” he said. “You could see the emotion on the line. I’m stoked to keep the Maglia Rosa in the team. I couldn’t hold it back, keeping it at Orica-GreenEdge. It has been an awesome start to the Giro for us.”
He explained how the stage developed and how he ended up being in the position to chase pink after Matthews found the climbing pace too hot to handle.
“The team had a similar plan for today as yesterday,” he said afterwards. “We couldn’t afford to be on the back foot, and the best form of defence was attack. So, again, Chaves and me got into the breakaway group, which cancelled out the need to chase behind. As a result, we went out to 10 mins or something, then I don’t know what happened behind but obviously someone chased us.”
The move went clear on the third-category ascent to Colle de Velva, which reared up during the first 15 kilometres of the stage. A total of 16 riders coalesced at the front of the race and built a lead of ten minutes.
“We got info that they were coming fast, so the idea was just to hope they didn’t catch us too far from the top of the climb,” he continued. “Fortunately it was only with about 500m to go, but those 500m were very long for me. Chaves had no problem working for me and jumped in. I think I was a good 10 seconds behind over the top. Obviously, Astana and Tinkoff Saxo were riding hard because they had shelled out Urán and others. It was super hard to stay with them, but when the Maglia Rosa waiting for you, it gives you extra motivation.”
Clarke chased hard to try to latch onto the back of the group, knowing that doing so would make the difference between keeping pink in the team and losing it. He gritted his teeth and managed to claw his way back on.
Once that was done, he had a chance to recover and showed his strength again at the finish when he blasted home first out of the chase group. He consequently has a ten second lead over his team-mate Johan Esteban Chaves, and is a further seven seconds clear of Tinkoff-Saxo team-mates Roman Kreuziger and Alberto Contador.
“For now, we don’t have a GC leader,” he said, when asked about the team’s plan later in the race. “We have some good young riders: Chaves in a few years may be capable of a good result in a Grand Tour. We don’t want to push young riders too hard. It’s the same with the Yates twins, who can ride in short stage races, but Grand Tours are something else.
“With Chaves, we aren’t trying to ride for the GC. We’ll wait until he’s mature, instead of burning him out for 20th place.”
As a result the team will have the chance to aim for more stage wins. Matthews and Gerrans will be looking to reach the podium again, while Clarke will hope for the opportunity to make up for his near miss vis-à-vis the stage win.
He said that he is fired up to ride strongly, taking motivation from an affinity for Italy that built up during his time there as an amateur and as a professional.
“I spent a lot of time on Italian teams and riding here,” he said. “Finally, in my fifth season as a pro, I’ve managed to get into a team for the Giro d’Italia, which I’ve never had in my programme before.
“I asked my DS specifically to do it and I did everything I could to be here in 100% good condition.”
As a result leading the race is something that is very special for him; he knows that Wednesday’s uphill finish will likely mean his spell in the Maglia Rosa will be a very short one, but he will draw considerable satisfaction from leading the race on Wednesday.