Simon Clarke on early-season success, coronavirus, Olympic selection and more

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Simon Clarke (EF Pro Cycling) started the season in imposing form. He took second on a stage at Etoile de Besseges, likewise on a stage of the Tour du Haut Var, and then won the Royal Bernard Drome Classic at his first attempt. It all augured well for a strong Spring Classics season for the Australian, who went eighth at last year’s Strade Bianche, ninth at Milan-San Remo and second at the Amstel Gold Race.

And then coronavirus came along and stopped the racing season in its tracks (along with just about everything else). Clarke hasn’t raced since winning Drome on March 1 and like all pro racers, his season is currently in limbo. Chatting to CyclingTips from his home in Andorra — where outdoor riding has now reportedly been banned — Clarke reflects on life as a pro cyclist in the time of coronavirus, his excellent start to the year, his chances of being selected for the Tokyo Olympic team, and more besides.

CyclingTips: What’s the last few weeks been like?

Simon Clarke: The biggest thing is it’s just been a reality check. I mean, to be good at our job we have to be very selfish and self-focused and all the rest and here we are worrying about races being cancelled and programs being altered when there’s just such a bigger picture in the world right now. But when that’s your life, it’s not easy to get your head around, you know?

So what do you do? Do you just keep training? Just try to maintain your condition for when racing starts up again?

I’ve kind of gone with the idea that we’re not going to be racing until, I reckon, June, at best. So I’ve backed everything off a fair bit, knowing that when we do start racing again, we’ll be racing right through till the end of the year. And so if you continue to train the house down now, by the time we actually do start racing and you want to try and race right through, it’s not gonna be really sustainable.

Your team was obviously the first to pull out of races. What was that like inside the team? Is that something that you guys as riders pushed for or was that a team decision?

It came more from management. I mean, as a rider, it’s pretty hard to see the bigger picture, when you’re so focused on personal goals and the sacrifices you make, to then sit back and go “Oh, maybe it’s better if we don’t ride this.” That never really comes into the equation. That [decision to stop racing] particularly came from EF the company, not so much the team. Our team is now very much integrated with the whole EF business family so a lot of decision-making and whatnot — we’re a part of what they decide as a whole company.

Were you supposed to be racing Strade Bianche?

Yeah. I actually nearly cried when I read that email, having won the weekend before and Strade Bianche is my favorite race of the year. But that feeling quickly passed with the feeling that actually we’re probably doing the right thing considering the situation.

It was just hard when it first came out, when it looked like we were the only team that was going to not ride, and everyone else was. And I was just thinking, “If I’ve got to sit and watch this at home on the TV and watch all the other teams races, it’s going to be pretty hard for me.” But yeah, that didn’t happen.

Congrats on the win at the Royal Bernard Drome Classic a few weeks back. Can you talk about that race and how that unfolded from your perspective?

I’ve actually never done either of those races, Drome [on the Sunday] and Ardeche [Faun-Ardèche Classic, on the Saturday]. And they’re actually really nice races. I’m not sure why more teams don’t do them and I haven’t done them more often because it’s kind of like they’re the unofficial opening weekend for the Ardennes kind of riders. You’ve got the opening weekend on the cobbles and these two races are pretty much quite similar to Ardennes-style races and they’re both really quite hard.

The team said to me, “Look, we’re doing these two new races, but they’re right up your alley.” And I had pretty good results the week before in [Etoile de Besseges] and [Tour du] Haut Var so they really told me to come ready to race and ready to try and win.

The first day it was just a blowout. It just pissed with rain from start to finish and I froze and I ended up just pulling out thinking “I’ll put all my eggs in the basket the next day.” And although the finishing photo looked terrible on the Sunday as well, we actually only got rained on for the last hour or so. So that actually wasn’t that bad on the Sunday even though the finish photo was quite bad considering.

It was a pretty nice day all day and it was just lumpy, but not too hard for the first three, 60 km laps or whatever it was. And then we did one last different lap to finish and it was just full of climbs. I think there was like five climbs and just one after the other, no flat in between, just up and down. And that’s basically: one, where it started raining, and; two, when the race was decided.

Knowing that I had good legs and I pulled out the day before I was pretty motivated to make up for it the next day and just tried to position myself well on the wet descents because they were quite technical and then pick the right move to get away.

Warren Barguil, Clarke and Vincenzo Nibali in the winning move at the Drome Classic. (Image: Boucles Drome Ardèche / James Startt / Agence Zoom)

How did that winning move come about?

Actually, it went away on the flat, not actually on a climb. It went away after the third last climb and we’d just raced the whole previous four climbs nearly full gas all in a row. There was only 15 or so of us left, and [Vincenzo] Nibali was really pushing the pace and he got away after the descent on the third last climb, and I jumped across to him and then so did [Warren] Barguil. And that was pretty much it.

After that we just worked quite well together. There were two more kickers before the finish. But the most important part was the last kicker, which finished at a K to go. We did it every lap except at the top we went straight and we didn’t turn left like we did at the finish. So the last kilometre we actually never saw during the race. And it was super technical. It was like these two really tight switchbacks and then about five corners and then the last corner was with 120 metres to go. So whoever was first through the last corner was gonna win. No one was coming past you.

So luckily the start was actually at the finish area and so after we did the teams presentation all of our boys went and rode the last kilometre together. So I actually knew exactly what was coming. And yeah, that made it a pretty big difference, knowing that — particularly in the wet — coming into that finish and needing to be first through the last corner and how you were gonna make that happen. Seeing that last kilometre was vital in finishing off the race. There’s no use being at the front if you don’t know how you’re going to ride the finish.

I went to the front at the K to go, at the top of the last kicker, ready for the descent so that at least I was in control of going down the tricky switchbacks and then Nibali came past me and I jumped behind him. So I had Nibali in front and Barguil behind and I just held Nibali there and actually gave him a little bit of space so that it kind of discouraged Barguil to jump me. And then I just lined up Nibali coming out of the second last corner with about 350 to go, knowing that basically the finish line was at 120 to go.

Image: Boucles Drome Ardèche / James Startt / Agence Zoom

You had a great start to the year, and you had an awesome year last year obviously. How much of that do you put down to changing things around and skipping the Aussie summer races in 2019 and 2020?

Yeah, so last year I actually had a baby in January, which is the reason why I skipped all those races. We didn’t change the program intentionally to skip the Aussie stuff. I was just semi-forced to by the situation and as a result it went well. And so I kind of said to the team, “This year is a massive year for me. I’m up for contract and we’ve got Olympics in the picture as well”, which the team isn’t selected for until the end of April. So I said to the team, “What do you think about just replicating my exact program from last year and trying to repeat similar performances?” And they were all on board with that.

That’s been the plan all along this year — to hit February like I did last year. Last year I just came short of winning Tour of Provence and although I didn’t do Provence this year, I purposely changed that with Besseges because they changed the course in Provence for this year and it was a completely different race. I don’t know if you saw, but they finished up Mont Ventoux which they didn’t do last year. So I saw that announcement in October and quickly rang the team and said, “Yeah, I reckon Tour of Provence is off this year. [laughing]” And so I switched that around. And that ended up working out really well.

Besseges was a really nice race this year. I was a little bit underdone, but it was obviously 10 days earlier than Provence was last year so I was conscious that maybe I didn’t want to hit that period, my first race, quite as good as I was last year. And then by Haut Var I was feeling really good and I was able to get a second in a stage at Col d’Eze there behind Quintana. That led into a nice little win the next weekend.

So all was on track until it wasn’t. But I mean, that’s reality. Sure it’s a little bit frustrating, but I’m the first one to accept that we need to do exactly what we’re doing for the benefit of the community. There’s much more important things than racing a pushbike.

Clarke had a very strong 2019 season, headlined by a second place in an unforgettable Amstel Gold Race.

Is your success the past season and a bit simply down to removing that early-season peak in Australia, which instead allows you to have that first peak later in the year?

I think there’s multiple factors. I think one of the main factors is actually just a personal thing. I wouldn’t necessarily say that because it’s working for me, everyone should do it like that. I always really struggled being really good in January because I just didn’t have as much time as I needed to get going properly. And so every year I was racing January at 85, 90%, not because I wanted to, just because I wasn’t ready in time. I needed more time.

And so I think without changing my whole race program — finishing the season earlier than I normally do, and then starting early — I wasn’t going to be able to change how well I was going in Australia. So by skipping Australia, not only did I have more time, but I’ve done the last two years a much more gradual build-up.

So when I start training in November, it’s like eight weeks or something to Nationals from day one. And so you’re trying to do some base, some midrange stuff, and then intensity in eight weeks, and you break it down and you go, “Right, I’ve got like two and a half weeks of each block and then I’ve got to be good”, you know? Whereas when you don’t race till February, you’ve got a month of each of those, more or less. And so just that much more gradual and more thorough build up, I think, results in a much higher level of fitness and form than I’ve been able to get previously and I think that’s the biggest factor for me.

But once again, I think it’s quite a personal thing. You see guys like Luke Durbridge and Darryl Impey and even Gerro [Simon Gerrans] when he was still riding, they were really good at being good in January. But it was just something that I’ve always struggled with. And then I was trying to be good then and then by trying to be good then, but actually still not being great, I was sacrificing how good I was later on in the spring because I skipped all of the thorough build-up that I’m now doing.

It doesn’t mean I don’t ever want to race in Australia again. I really miss doing it and I really want to go back there. But I need to rethink how I do that. At this stage I plan on racing in Australia next year, obviously depending on how the season unfolds this year with race rescheduling. But if all goes to plan, I hope to be racing in Oz next year but I’m gonna try and review how I approach that and do it a little bit differently to what I’ve been doing the last couple of years.

Assuming that the season gets back on track at some point in the next few months, are you pretty confident of making the Tokyo Olympic squad?

No. I’m hopeful. I believe I’m on the long-list of six but it’s a very, very tough team to make because we only qualified four spots and then the track tends to normally take an extra spot for their teams pursuit so that takes us down only to three spots. And so to make a three-man team is a very difficult scenario no matter how many races you win and how well you’re going.

At the end of the day it’s gonna be up to the selectors obviously, and I’m just trying to perform as well as I can and prove my case as best as possible and see what happens. I’m pretty aware that it’s a super tough team to make. You’ve got the likes of Jack Haig and Michael Matthews and Rohan Dennis all going really well. So it’s not going to be easy.

You mentioned it before but this year is a contract year for you. How does the chaos around coronavirus and a lack of racing change things in that regard?

I mean, it was a bit frustrating missing those races, knowing I was in good condition and a nice result would have been super helpful for the contract negotiations. But at the same time, it’s the same for all of us and you’ve just gotta remind yourself that you’re not the only one sitting at home and everyone’s in the same boat and try and just shift the focus to later on in the year.

I’m pretty motivated now on just focusing on the Tour de France. I think that there’s a pretty good chance that that’ll still go ahead in some way, shape or form. So I’m going to focus on that and obviously with Olympics being a week after Tour de France, that falls in the same category — obviously, depending on whether I’m selected or not — but they’ll be my next two focuses for now.

I’ve pretty much given up on the fact that we won’t be racing anymore Classics this year, before July anyway. Maybe they’ll reschedule them till after, but they won’t be happening in their original form.

That was all the questions I had. Was there anything else you wanted to add?

I think it’s just important that we all remember in this time how important health and good lifestyle is on top of everything else that we do in our lives. Whether you’re an athlete or you’re getting caught up in work and whatnot, I think this period now with this pandemic that they’ve announced is a pretty big wake-up call.

We need to remember life’s short and to look after ourselves and make the most of it. What you may think seems important in life actually probably isn’t quite so much. Family and good health is the most important thing.

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