From racing bikes to shearing sheep: Will Clarke is a farmer now
When the 2020 season came to a close, so too did the career of Australian racer Will Clarke. After coming up through Australia’s National Road Series (NRS) the Tasmanian had a stagiaire ride with Ag2r La Mondiale in 2010 before joining the WorldTour in 2011 with Leopard Trek.
Ten years later Clarke ended his career with the same team (now named Trek-Segafredo), having done stints with Champion System, Argos-Shimano, Drapac and Cannondale/EF Pro Cycling along the way. For much of his career ‘The Big Horse’, as he was affectionately known, used his huge engine to ride in support of his teammates. But he got his own opportunities too, and won a bunch of races when he did. His solo stage win at the 2012 Tour Down Under remains his biggest victory, but he had others, many of which came in prologue time trials.
After retiring at the end of 2020, Clarke returned to the family farm near Campbell Town in Tasmania. CyclingTips caught up with Clarke to chat about his career, his retirement, and what life is like on the farm. When we spoke, he’d just finished a big day of shearing sheep.
CyclingTips: Were you always planning to retire at the end of last season?
Will Clarke: To be honest, if I could have kept going, I probably would have. I was still kind of motivated to race. I had a pretty shit year with 2019. I had a good start – I think I was in good shape at [Tour] Down Under and then did the Giro and then I came out of the Giro [and] I was feeling pretty good in the Tour of Belgium. But then I busted my shoulder and scapula and did the ligaments in my shoulder [in a crash at the Tour of Belgium – ed.].
That took a while to figure out exactly what I did to my shoulder with the ligaments. It wasn’t until end of November  that I’d actually had the second surgery that fixed the ligament damage.
So that kind of dragged on, that injury, for eight or nine months, and then by the time I came back it was UAE Tour . I was riding OK there, but then we got locked down in the hotel and I didn’t race again until August in Occitanie, in France [La Route d’Occitanie – ed.]. All I did before that was a couple of those Tour de France [stages] on Zwift [Clarke won the final stage – ed.] and that was about all I did before I went there. And then I did Tour of Hungary, Tour of Luxembourg – I got a bit sick there – and a couple of one-day races and that was about it for the year.
I think I realised that I was coming to the end but if I had the option I probably would have continued. But having no other solid contract offers, I decided it was probably time to come home.
2020 was a pretty tough year to be out of contract, what with COVID and everything …
Yeah, it was pretty hard I guess. Then I ended up getting COVID in November before I came home. I guess it was quite common over there in Spain, but I managed to pick it up.
Was it always the plan that you’d go back and work on the farm once you were done with cycling?
Yeah. I guess sport was always my number one passion. I always wanted to do something in sport and I guess I was lucky enough … I used to do athletics and swimming at school, and managed to fall into cycling, which is the most fun sport I ever did. So I managed to do that for about 10 years as a professional. I was pretty happy to do that in the end. But then it was always an option – my parents said I could come back when I finished cycling, however long that was going to be. So it was always the plan to come back and help out. There’s always plenty of work to do!
For a lot of pro cyclists, that transition from racing into a ‘real life’ can be really tricky, but you’ve always had this waiting for you …
Yeah. When I was on Drapac we had the programme … that was helping riders [work out what they] wanted to do after cycling. And I guess I always knew what I wanted to do so I sort of zoned out in that stuff. I was a bit more just wanting to ride my bike. I was a bit lucky I guess to have that to fall back on.
When you look back on your career what are the things you’re most proud of?
I guess when I started out, winning the NRS in Australia was an early achievement I was quite proud of. Then obviously my Tour Down Under stage win in 2012, that’s probably still my career highlight. I guess being an Australian, you know, it’s probably like a French guy winning a WorldTour race in France. It’s probably the biggest thing you can do as an Australian cyclist apart from win a stage of the Grand Tours or a big Classic. So I was pretty proud to win a stage of Tour Down Under.
And then I guess a couple of stage wins at Herald Sun Tour and wearing the yellow – I was also pretty happy with that. And then a couple of wins in Europe also – in Tour of Austria and Tour of Portugal – are probably a couple of my other good moments. And then also getting to do a couple of Grand Tours, tick them off was another thing.
What about the podium photo from your win at the 2016 Tour of Austria?
*laughing* Yeah. That still gets a few laughs. Often people ask me about that photo and I bust it out on the phone and show them. Pretty funny moment. I don’t really know if they planned that or what.
Did you have a sense in the moment of how it was going to look? Or was it only later that you realised?
I had no idea that even happened. I think I was looking forward towards the camera and didn’t know that she was holding the salami right there.
Are there things in your career you wish you’d done? The Tour de France comes to mind …
Yeah, as a cyclist, if they find out that you’re a professional cyclist that’s pretty much the first question: “Did you do the Tour de France?” And then you have to say “No, but I did the Giro and Vuelta.” And that sort of goes in through one ear and out the other. I know the Giro and Vuelta are probably just as hard, but they just don’t have quite the prestige … or people just don’t have the knowledge of the other [Grand] Tours.
So, yeah, the Tour. Nothing else, really. I guess it’d be nice to have done the Olympics or Comm[onwealth] Games, [to] represent Australia in a big event. But yeah, I guess that’s probably the main thing, the Tour.
Were you supposed to be racing the Tour in 2019 just before you had that big crash in Belgium?
No, I don’t think I was down for it. I was probably in better shape last year but I wasn’t on the list.
What was it like seeing Richie Porte get on the podium at the 2020 Tour? He’s obviously a good mate of yours.
Yeah, obviously I feel Richie should have already been on the podium multiple times in Grand Tours. Maybe if he focussed more for himself earlier in his career … the Vuelta, the Giro … or the Tour, I think he could have won one of them at least by now.
It’s a bit like “finally” – satisfaction that he got the result he deserved. It was great to see him finally get that podium. I think he’s still got it in the legs in the next year or two to get another podium maybe.
How’s life back on the family farm? Are you enjoying it?
Yeah, I’ve been really enjoying it. I guess I’m starting at the bottom a little bit. I’ve gotta get up to speed on a few things that I haven’t done for a while. But I’m enjoying being outside and being active and being involved in the family business. It’s been a long time in the family so it’s nice to be part of that.
How long’s the farm been in the family?
175 years now, so quite a while.
You used to work on the farm a bunch before you were a pro, right? And also when you’d come back from Europe for the offseason?
Yeah. I worked on the farm for a couple of years after I left school and then did a bit of other stuff and then took up cycling. And then I was a pool lifeguard for a bit. My dad wasn’t really keen that I was out riding the bike at like seven o’clock at night in the dark [after working on the farm]. So yeah I went and got a job where I could train more normal hours and do the actual work that I needed to become professional.
I did that for a while and then I guess in the offseasons I came back. Early in my career I came back straight away and sort of went lamb marking for a few weeks in the offseason. So I guess my offseason was lamb marking for a while, but then later in the [career], the seasons sort of got a bit longer and I missed a bit of that.
What’s lamb marking involve?
It’s where you vaccinate and ear tag and mark … because all the sheep have to be identified by which property they belong to. So you mark that they belong to you otherwise no one really knows who they belong to. And then you remove the tails and stuff like that. So you’re sort of getting them ready.
What’s taking up your time on the farm at the moment?
We’re shearing at the moment. We’re nearly there – we’ve got one more day. That’s been keeping us busy – we’ve been going for a bit over three weeks.
How many sheep have you got there?
This is just the ewes, the females. We’ve done about nearly 15,000 now. So it’s taking a bit of time. But it’s been going pretty smoothly which is good. We had good weather and stuff – they don’t like it if the sheep get wet before [shearing]. They won’t shear them if they’re wet.
Do you own all those sheep or are you shearing them for other people?
No, it’s all my family’s sheep, not my sheep. The family business’s sheep.
And how many of you work on the farm there?
Well there’s my brother, my dad, and then we’ve got like six employees. But in shearing time we have contractors who come from everywhere. At the moment we’ve got some guys from Queensland, South Australia, Victoria – [the shearers] sort of travel around a bit – and some locals as well.
And you’re on a massive property – about 20,000 acres (8,100 hectares) right?
Yeah, about 20. It’s sort of in three farms but in total it’s a little bit over 20,000.
What else do you do on the farm apart from shearing? There must be a bunch of stuff.
Yeah, we grow a lot of crops. So we grow poppies which they make the painkillers like OxyContin and morphine and things out of. Tasmania is one of the only places in the world where they grow it for medicinal purposes. So they’ve been doing that since they started growing poppies in Tasmania, probably in the early ’90s, I think. And then we grow wheat, barley, oats, potatoes sometimes. Quite a few different things. Sometimes vegetables, but not so much.
Do you watch much racing these days?
I haven’t been watching them live or anything on TV. Every day I pretty much check ProCyclingStats still or read some results to see what was happening. But yeah I don’t have quite as much time to watch it or stay up [to watch the races].
Yeah. It’s going to be different to try and watch the Tour for you now, isn’t it, compared to what it would have been like in Girona?
Yeah, maybe I’ll just watch the highlights afterwards.
Do you miss the racing?
Yeah. I went and watched Nathan Earle race a local race a couple of weeks ago here in Tassie and it sort of makes you think “Yeah, I want to get out there and do that again”, even though they’re only like 50 or 60 km races. Maybe I’ll have this year off and then get back into it. Maybe next year I’ll just do some local stuff but nothing outside of Tassie I don’t think.
Do you miss being over in Europe, living in Girona and having your cycling mates around you?
Yeah, I still keep in contact with Miles Scotston and Ryan Mullen and a few of my old teammates, Richie and Jasper [Stuyven] and just a few guys I chat to every now and then. I do miss being a pro cyclist. It’s pretty good. It’s not an easy job – it can be dangerous and hard and challenging. But on the other hand, you get to travel all over the place, race your bike which is really good fun … if you’re going well. You can live in a place like Girona where it’s good weather and good food – not a bad spot to live.
Are you riding much these days?
I’ve been riding like once or twice a week. When I first got home I was riding three times a week. If I could get an hour after work or something I’d go for a spin. Then on the weekends I’d try and do a little bit longer. But now when I wake up it’s dark and you finish work and it’s dark, and you work eight, nine, 10 hours a day – you don’t always feel like riding.
I try and get out on the weekends now so I’ll go tomorrow and do a couple hours or three hours or something.
I guess it’s not like you’ve gone into an office job where you finish the day with a bunch of energy. I imagine working on the farm is hard yakka and you’re pretty tired by the end of the day.
Yeah, it’s pretty physical. All day you’re lifting and pushing things. You’re not sitting at a desk all day. By the end of the day you’re pretty tired and doing a ride’s not always what you want to do, but sometimes I do it.
But I’m guessing you still enjoy getting out for a ride when you can?
Yeah, I still love it. Still love riding the bike. Even though I can only do a couple of times a week I still just enjoy just going out. It makes you feel better after doing a bit of exercise.