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At 29 years of age, Simon Clarke isn’t quite an athlete reborn, but he’s got a new hunger since joining Cannondale Pro Cycling.
The Australian earned a reputation as a solid team rider and occasional winner during his four years with Orica-GreenEdge. Since his move over the winter, his appetite has grown and he’s gunning for strong performances, including at the Giro d’Italia.
Clarke started the season off solidly with two top 12 stage places plus 20th overall in the Santos Tour Down Under. After a three-week altitude camp in February he lined out in the GP Industria & Artigianato in Italy and, thanks to a solo move in the finale, hit the finish line first.
The result was important: in addition to being his first win in two years, it also showed his Cannondale team that he meant business.
After that, fourth on a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico and fifth and sixth on stages of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco continued the good momentum. The results also helped put him in the right frame of mind heading into the Giro.
“I think my form is definitely there,” Clarke said prior to the start last week. “I have been performing well. I have just been a bit under injury management since Liège, just looking after myself. I took a few hard hits there. But I have been fairly good the last couple of days, so I will be good to go.”
Since then Clarke has ridden solidly. He’s been guiding his team leader rather than chasing personal success, but will grab the chance of the latter if it presents itself.
“The main thing [in the race] is riding for Rigo [Rigoberto Uran] and looking after him,” he said. “Then on top of that, when I am granted the opportunity I will have a look at chasing some stages. But that will depend on multiple factors before I will know what days they are. I will basically play it by ear.”
“I needed a new environment”
As has been seen multiple times in professional sport, a change of team can help a rider step things up. Being in the same place too long can have a stagnating effect. Moving elsewhere can, providing the fit is right, generate new motivation.
In addition to that, pressing the reset button can help shake off previous roles. It can lead to a reinvention of sorts.
Clarke doesn’t have any notions of chasing Grand Tour success, or anything like that: riders such as Uran, Pierre Rolland and perhaps Andrew Talansky will be the team’s GC contenders. He knows he doesn’t have the same engine as them and is happy to help their chances.
He’s got other strengths, though, as shown by his past results. When given the opportunity he scooped the Vuelta a España’s mountains jersey in 2012 thanks to some aggressive breakaways, and also picked up a stage win. Two years later he landed a stage and the overall classification in the Jayco Herald Sun Tour.
Clarke was also part of the Orica-GreenEdge team time trial success in the 2013 Tour de France and the 2015 Giro d’Italia, with the latter helping earn him a stint in the maglia rosa of race leader.
Moving to Cannondale will likely give him more chances, not least because of its reputation as an attacking team and relative lack of sprinters. Riding for the likes of Michael Matthews, Simon Gerrans and Caleb Ewan limited the opportunities to go up the road.
In speaking about teams, Clarke is quick to praise Orica-GreenEdge. He describes his four years with the squad as ‘awesome’ and says there were many highlights, including wearing the pink jersey in last year’s Giro.
“Orica was a huge part of my career and something I will never forget,” he says, paying credit where it is due. “But it just got to that stage where I needed maybe a new environment and new challenges.
“Once I made that public, I got in contact with JV [Jonathan Vaughters, Cannondale’s CEO] and sooner or later we had an agreement.”
He sounds energised by the change.
“It’s been really good, really good. I am really enjoying it. I think it is the youngest team in the pro peloton. It is great to be among young, motivated guys who have high expectations and who are trying to achieve big things.
“I definitely see new opportunities. I am really motivated for the one-day races and to continue to improve there. And then there is also the other aspect of being a road captain, mainly in the Grand Tours and also in some of the week tours, which I did in the Tour Down Under.
“We had quite a good success there and so that was good motivation for me to even put more effort into that and to know that the more effort I put in, the better we can make good progress and get results at a world level.”
“I’m at a better level”
Assessing his first few months with Cannondale, Clarke knows the importance of his GP Industria & Artigianato success.
“It was really good. That was my first race with the team in Europe,” he says. “To hit the ground running and get a win in my first race was great.
“I went to Tenerife for three weeks in February, which I had never done – I had never been in February before, in that time period, so that was obviously better preparation. I definitely think I was riding better as a result.
“But also just a new motivation with a new team definitely contributed as well. It was good to show them that I am psyched this year and that I was keen to have a good start. I do think I’m at a better level.”
While the Ardennes Classics didn’t work out as he wished (he was adversely affected by the cold conditions in the Amstel Gold Race, and suffered a crash in Liège), lining out in the Giro gives him a chance to once again show what he can do.
“For me, the main priority is about being road captain, bringing the guys together and making sure we have a good performance,” he states. “Personal aspirations aren’t a goal at the Giro but in saying that, if the opportunity arises to go up to the road like I did last year, then I will definitely be making the most of it. But it’s mostly about helping Rigo.”
Following the Giro, he’s due to get married and then take a break from competition. He’ll likely ride the Tour of Poland rather than the Tour de France, then hopes to be part of the Australian squad heading to Rio.
“I have got my fingers crossed about the Olympic Games. The Aussies are just performing so well this year that it is just going to be a super hard team to make,” he accepts.
“But if I can go, that will be terrific. I just have to see how that pans out.”
He sees the next two and a half weeks as having a role to play in that.
“It will also depend on my form in the Giro. If I can put in some really good climbing performances, I think that will help the selection. We will see …”