Back to the big leagues: Will Clarke reflects on his return to the WorldTour
When the Australian Pro Continental team Drapac merged with the Cannondale WorldTour team at the end of the 2016, just three riders came across from the smaller setup. Of the three — Will Clarke, Brendan Canty and Tom Scully — just one had prior WorldTour experience: Will Clarke.
Affectionately known by teammates and fans as “The Big Horse” — for his strength and impressive workrate — Clarke rode at the highest level in 2011, with Leopard Trek, and then in 2013, with Argos Shimano. He joined Drapac in 2014 and rode with the second-tier outfit for three seasons. The last of those, 2016, was the most successful of his career.
Clarke won five races for the season — the prologue individual time trials at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour and the Tour of Austria, plus two stages at the Tour of Taiwan and one at the Volta a Portugal. Those results made him a prime candidate for a spot in the post-merger Cannondale-Drapac outfit.
CyclingTips caught up with 32-year-old Clarke ahead of the Tour of Austria to find out how his return to the WorldTour has gone, and what’s coming up next.
CyclingTips: You were one of three guys that came across from the Drapac Pro Continental team this year. What was the team looking for from you in 2017?
Will Clarke: Last year was probably my best season results-wise so this year stepping back up to the WorldTour it’s not … it’s a bit different to a Pro Conti team, the way it’s structured. Often you’re filling a teammate role. I was just put in that sort of … basically [it’s] more about being more of a helper this year.
But you do get your chances. [Tom] Scully won a race on Sunday, so he grabbed that chance. I think I’ll still get some chances — I’ve just got to do the same.
How much did your experience in the WorldTour help in making sure you were one of those guys that came across? Or was it just your results from last year?
I don’t know if it was about my experience. I really enjoyed the last three years at Drapac just racing my bike basically. I had a good time.
What did you take from those three years at Drapac when coming back to the WorldTour? Do you find yourself approaching this level of racing differently or is it just business as usual?
[I’m] probably a bit more relaxed now. I don’t stress as much about it. I just try to get in and do [my] job and just have a go and see what happens.
Why is that do you think? Is that just experience?
Yeah I think it’s just [being] older, a bit more mature. Back when I first rode WorldTour [I’d] get a bit more worried about it, but now it’s just racing your bike. That’s it.
Is anything noticeably different about WorldTour racing now, compared with 2013?
Everything’s changed a little bit. It was just as professional back then as now [but] maybe there’s more focus on nutrition and that than there was before. The technology as well — everything is a bit more power-based.
Did you think during your time with Drapac that you’d get a chance to step back up? Or did you think ‘I’ve done my time at the top’?
I wasn’t really sure. I was quite happy racing at Drapac the last three years. If the merger hadn’t happened I probably would have just stayed on at Drapac.
But yeah, when the opportunity presented itself it was probably … for me at my age it was like, ‘Yeah, it’s now or never to try and do it again.’ So yeah I thought ‘Yeah, why not? Try and tick off some races that I haven’t done before.’
One of those races was Milan-San Remo. You got in the big breakaway — was that always the plan?
Yeah, it was in the meeting the night before. It was actually Toms [Skujins] and me can both try for the break and we both ended up in the break. It was pretty good. It was actually a nice race. It’s a long race obviously — it was nearly 260km in the break. There’s not many races you can do 260km in the break.
What was that experience like? Your first Milan-San Remo, being up the road, and the race as a whole?
Yeah it’s pretty big. It’s a big crowd when you start in Milan. Atmosphere-wise it’s right up there with Paris-Roubaix, just the crowds and stuff. It’s probably been one of the most enjoyable races this year I’ve done.
How hard was it in the break?
I guess because it’s so long my power wasn’t anything crazy for the day. At the start it was quite a strong headwind so we went quite hard the first 15-20 minutes and then sort of cruised for a bit and then once we hit the coast we sort of jammed it a bit more. So sort of on and off a bit.
There was quite a few little hills getting towards the end so that just made it a bit harder as well.
You were saying last night that your break was caught on one of those hills, the Cipressa, and the favourites came absolutely flying past you …
Yeah. We were still pressing on okay but the speed that they went past was just incredible really.
So how have you seen your season so far? Have you been happy with what you’ve been able to do for your team?
Yeah I think so. I think I’ve done mostly what I’ve been asked to do in the races, which is just helping out, moving the guys up a bit — just trying to be a good teammate. But hopefully I can get a result or two in the second half of the year …
Are there particular races you think you’ll get an opportunity in?
I’m sort of looking forward to the Tour of Austria [ed. which starts this Sunday, July 2.] So hopefully we can roll the dice there a little bit.
So will you try and get up the road?
Yeah maybe. We’ll just see what happens and then I’m not really 100% sure what the program is yet after that. I think I’m doing the RideLondon Classic and then I’m not really sure. I think I’ll probably know in the next week …
Any chance you could do the Vuelta a España? That would be your first Grand Tour …
I think I might be on the long list with that.
Is that something you’d like to do — race a Grand Tour?
Yeah. I guess it was one of the reasons why I wanted to come back to the WorldTour was to try and do a Grand Tour. So I guess the Vuelta was one I sort of put my hand up for. I know that the course is quite difficult this year. It seems to be that each Grand Tour wants to out-do the other ones — they don’t really make them very flat anymore.
You rode the Hammer Series earlier this month. How did you find that? It’s obviously a very different style of racing than what we’ve seen in the past?
Yeah it was a different format. The first day … I’d say we got a little bit worked over, a few of us. They called up some teams and not other teams like us. There was meant to be neutral — there wasn’t a neutral zone. And I think me and Sep [Vanmarcke] and Tom van Asbroeck never got in the race. They just dropped the flag.
We went through a tunnel, a few corners, and then by the time we got out the guys at the front were already 500 meters ahead and it was just single file and then we went up the hill and that was it. But the next day went well. They went well in a sprint race — I didn’t do the sprint race — and then we did the bunch team time trial. There was such small time gaps that basically five teams came together after about five k’s …
It sounds like there’s a little bit of work to do to get it up to speed, but in terms of the actual format of the racing, does the Hammer Series have potential?
Yeah I think it could be really fun. They just probably have to to iron out a few things, like the team time trial. Especially on small roads and stuff — teams were drafting off each other but you’re always going to draft off each other especially if you move over and another team just jumps straight back on the back of the other team.
We were like ‘We’re trying to do the right thing, but they’re not doing the right thing.’ So we all start doing the wrong thing.
So five teams were all drafting one another?
Yeah, it was like about 40 of us in a bunch. Maybe they could think up a different way, maybe bigger roads or something like that for a team time trial, or you just say everyone does an individual time trial and then the [lowest] cumulative time is the winner or something like that.
So what’s the goal for the team at the Tour of Austria? What are you guys hoping to get out of that race?
I guess they’re taking Davide Formolo who was top-10 at the Giro. I haven’t really heard how he’s going but he’s probably going pretty well. So I think maybe he’ll be riding for GC. And Canty’s going as well, so we’ve got him as another strong climber [ed. Both Canty and Clarke won stages for Drapac at last year’s Tour of Austria.]
So I think it might be GC with Davide and I don’t know if Canty will be supporting him in the mountains. And then we’ll have Sep Vanmarcke as well so there’s a couple of … lumpy finishes that’ll probably suit him.
Outside of racing you tend to spend a bit of time on the farm back home in Tassie. Can you talk about the farm and the significance of that?
Yeah. My family are farmers back in Tasmania. It’s been in the family for quite a long time now, getting up to 180 years actually. In the off-season I spend most of my time on the farm. It’s mostly sheep and cropping. So I try and help out a little bit when I can. Usually in the off-season they get a little bit of work out of me. [laughs]
Where is the farm?
It’s Campbelltown, which is sort of 70k’s south of Launceston.
How big is the farm?
Nearly 20,000 acres. Pretty decent size for Tasmania.
Is that something you see yourself throwing more time into once your career as a pro eventually comes to a close?
Yeah I think after I finish cycling I’d like to go back and help out. My brother’s always asking me ‘When are you coming back?’. I think he thinks cycling’s a bit of a game.