‘It is never about winning’: Jonny Clarke on cycling, life and his first pro win
Australia’s Jonathan Clarke first started racing as a professional back in 2006. He’s raced in the US for almost the entire time since, in a career dominated by a nearly decade-long stint with the UnitedHealthcare squad. But despite being a mainstay of the US racing scene and a valued member of the teams he’s raced for, Clarke hasn’t been able to ride his way to a professional victory. Until this year.
In late March the 34-year-old took out stage 2 of the Tour of Taiwan before converting that win into overall success. CyclingTips contributor Zeb Woodpower caught up with Clarke in the wake of that victory to talk about the significance of finally hitting the winner’s list and what cycling means to him.
Cycling has always been Jonny Clarke’s life. He followed his dad and two older brothers into the sport and later into the professional ranks. After leaving school at 15, cycling has been the only career he’s known. But Clarke isn’t motivated by the same things as many others; he’s not a rider that’s driven by the need for individual success.
“Maybe if I was a prolific winner I would sit here and tell you another answer but it is never about winning for me,” Clarke told CyclingTips at the Tour de Langkawi. “It has been about the process.”
Equally capable of guiding teammates through a sprint finish or mountain stages, Clarke’s career has predominantly been spent in the service of others. Indeed, professional victory eluded the 34-year-old until this year’s Tour de Taiwan. So surprised was he when he won stage 2, he didn’t even raise his arms in triumph. The overall win a few days later was even more surprising.
While the win was reward for effort, it isn’t likely to define Clarke’s career.
The lead-in to the 2019 season was a period of great change for Clarke. In the offseason, he became a father for the first time, he completed his high school studies, and he changed teams after nine seasons with UnitedHealthcare. With the closure of UnitedHealthcare at the end of 2018, Clarke was left without a ride. He could have hung up the wheels after a solid career but he entertained no such thoughts — he’d already decided to go around again.
“I was always going to ride on, no matter what,” Clarke said. “Even if it was an amateur team. I didn’t want to stop racing the year after I’d had nine great seasons with UHC and the team folded. I didn’t want to just pack up. I don’t feel ready to stop to be honest, I don’t feel too old for it.”
While the change in teams wasn’t Clarke’s first choice, with hindsight, the move was the right one. Clarke felt refreshed, rejuvenated, revitalised and relaxed by the new scenery at Floyd’s Pro Racing.
“A lot of the time, you don’t know when you need a change. If I could sit here and say UHC would be here again, I would,” he said. “But I think a good change came at a good time in my life. New directors, new staff, new riders, new bike, new clothing … It was a good change and I needed it. It definitely lit a spark in me.
“I am not putting as much pressure on myself and I think I am making better decisions in the racing and I am not down on myself if I don’t have a good day.”
Clarke admits he has often overtrained during his career. His eagerness to train has affected his performances and in the past he rarely arrived fresh for races. “I like to train, to train my body into condition,” he says. “I like how that feels. I love the feeling when you are paralysed on the couch after a hard training session.” But getting out for big training miles isn’t as easy as it once was.
Since September, the arrival of a baby girl has changed the lives of Clarke and his wife. For the better. With his wife, a midwifery nurse, gone most of the day, Clarke is “chief childcare” when at home. Looking after the needs of his daughter has taken priority over training.
And the lower training load has already reaped benefits. Clarke no longer sits and ruminates over a bad training session; an off day quickly pales into insignificance.
“You almost expect to be bad in training because you are constantly on your feet, constantly doing everything that is not what you are meant to do in cycling,” he says of his new routine which features fewer long, solo training rides compared to previous years. “It has actually taken a load off my shoulders so I don’t expect as much of myself when out training. All in all, it has had a great effect on my cycling.”
And becoming a father has given Clarke a renewed focus when it comes to his racing. Pinning on a race number and performing his role for the team ensures he can support his family, allowing them to continue enjoying the lifestyle they’ve chosen.
“I think it has taken a lot of pressure off my cycling,” he said. “A lot of the time I wonder why I don’t want to win more. I don’t yearn to win. I think it is because I come to the race and do the job for the team to live the lifestyle I want to live at home,” he says. “I have learnt that a lot in the last few years as I have gotten older.”
The move from Pro Continental level (with UnitedHealthcare) down to Continental level (with Floyd’s) has reduced the pressure on Clarke too. It’s given him greater freedom personally and professionally; he’s blossoming at home and abroad as a result of the change.
Floyd’s director Gord Fraser has known Clarke since the 2000s but 2019 is the first year the duo have worked together on a trade team. When putting together the roster, Fraser wanted winners. But equally important was a road captain, a rider of Clarke’s calibre and experience. And Clarke was the perfect fit, as Fraser explained to CyclingTips.
“We are a struggling Continental team in terms of budget,” Fraser said. “The first priority was to get the proven producers of results like Serghei Tvetcov and Travis McCabe but of course I knew Jonny’s qualities and his old team really revered him as a leader.
“We are not really big on using the radio as a team. So to have a captain like Jonny, a calm, level-headed guy who has seen every tactical situation, is a real luxury for me as a director.”
While cycling has been Clarke’s life, it hasn’t always been about the bike. The bike has been an enabler of lifestyle, of friendship, camaraderie and freedom. And for Fraser, Clarke is an ideal role model and example for his younger riders who often get caught up in the minutiae of the sport. Clarke is a living demonstration of how enriching cycling can be; how important it is to enjoy the moment.
“He sets the tone off the bike as well. Always cracking jokes, keeping people loose,” Fraser says of Clarke. “We have young guys and they get uptight. That current generation is stereotypically into their watts and get all upright and Jonny is a good check and balance to that.”
Having waited so long into his career to claim a win — the first for the new Floyd’s team no less — Clarke could be forgiven for enjoying the moment and revelling in victory. However, considering Clarke did his best to rid himself of the leader’s jersey in Taiwan, Fraser needn’t worry about dealing with an inflated ego from his Australian road captain.
“I won the first day and I didn’t even put my hands in the air because I was so surprised,” Clarke said of his stage 2 victory in Taiwan. “Then I lost the jersey but we were on equal time. I was kind of happy to lose the jersey because I wanted to get rid of it. Even going into that last climbing day, I wasn’t even thinking about it.”
But on stage 4 of the five-stage race, Clarke finished second and took back the lead. He held it through the final day.
“The stars aligned and there it was,” he said. “It was a cool experience and obviously one I haven’t had before. I would love to have it again but I might never have it again.”
Floyd’s Pro Racing is now back stateside after an early-season block of Asian racing. It was a solid campaign — in addition to Clarke’s Taiwan stage win and overall success, McCabe took a stage win and the points jersey at the Tour de Langkawi and Keegan Swirbul finished second on GC. For Clarke, every race is already a win so to have recorded a number of results is an added bonus.
“With a Conti team when you are racing these Pro Conti teams, you can only win,” he said. “If we get beaten by them, whatever. That’s fine. But if we beat them, well that’s awesome. That’s the way I look at it.”
While a lot has changed in his life this past year, Clarke remains committed to the same process he always has. And that doesn’t look like changing anytime soon.
“The perfect moment on the bike is out on a backroad somewhere, by myself, no cars around,” he said. “Not really doing anything specific. Just riding along. Not pedalling along too easy, not going too hard, just grinding it out. I think that is where I am at home.”
For Jonny Clarke, cycling is life. And life is pretty good right now.