Left in the lurch: A chat with Simon Clarke about his last-minute team search

The 35-year-old Aussie had a contract for next season, until he didn't.

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Last week, men’s WorldTour team Qhubeka-NextHash confirmed it wouldn’t continue into 2022 after management was unable to secure enough sponsorship support for the upcoming season. While the writing had been on the wall for a while, confirmation of the team’s demise came as a hammer blow to many, particularly to a small handful of riders who were contracted to ride with the team next year.

Among those riders was Australia’s Simon Clarke, two-time Vuelta a España stage winner and runner-up at the legendary 2019 Amstel Gold Race. After joining Qhubeka-NextHash in 2021, Clarke was due to continue with the team until the end of 2022. Instead, with just a few days until the new year begins, the Clarke finds himself in the unenviable position of looking for a team.

When CyclingTips spoke to Clarke by phone on Tuesday, the 35-year-old had just returned from a training ride in Victoria’s High Country, where he’s preparing for 2022 as if he’ll have a team to race for. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Matt de Neef: What’s your situation now that the team has folded? How are you feeling about it all?

Simon Clarke: I mean, it’s a bit stressful, to say the least. This was always on the cards – that the team wasn’t going to be able to find a solution – but all the information we were getting along the way made it seem like it might not be the next dream team, but they’d still be able to find a solution to continue.

Having a contract with them for next year, I was optimistic that one way or another they’d go ahead as a team, even as a Pro Conti team [ProTeam]. So I was kind of hanging out for that. And for it to have all just fallen over, it’s a bit scarring.

When did you find out that the team was done?

Well, not officially until they sent us an email half a day before they made the media release. But yeah, once the team started missing the UCI deadlines and then the UCI announced that the team had been denied the licence, the hill was just getting steeper and steeper, you know? So yeah, it was tricky.

So what does that mean for your contract? They’ve still got the Continental team next year – presumably you’d rather not ride for that team?

Obviously I’ve never needed to be informed about this, but apparently if you’re in the WorldTour, you’re actually not allowed to go back to a Conti team. Or they’re only allowed one ex-WorldTour rider in their team. So that would be a difficult solution anyway and probably not one that I’d be willing to take on. So yeah, the challenge now is to find a solution.

And what does that look like? I presume you’ve got a manager that’s helping you find a team?

Obviously now that the team [Qhubeka-NextHash] has made the announcement, that kind of gets everyone talking and basically gives the situation a bit of publicity. Up until now, it’s all hearsay [and] confidential contractual discussions, whereas at least now the situation’s got a bit of publicity, which I think is the best thing that could have happened for the guys that need to find teams.

Hopefully the teams see that there’s an opportunity to get a good rider, probably at a bargain price [laughing].

Presumably, you’d ideally like to race for a WorldTour team in 2022. How hard do you think it will be to find one?

I think it’s going to be difficult. The first difficulty is just finding WorldTour teams that actually have any spots left, because there’s obviously a UCI limit. A vast majority of the teams are actually at capacity so even if they were interested, they couldn’t or don’t have the possibility to take on another rider.

So I’m kinda looking at all the teams that might have a spot left and seeing what their situation is. And then there’s obviously a financial part to that, what it costs the team to have another rider on. Hopefully we can work something out, but it’s not easy for sure.

Are you giving yourself a deadline to find a team, after which point you start looking at other options?

I have said to myself that I’m going to race the Bay Crits, the National Champs, and the Tour Down Under – the Santos, whatever it’s called [Santos Festival of Cycling – ed.] And then I’m travelling back to Europe after that. So I’ve kind of set myself a deadline to find a solution by the end of January.

I guess those January races become pretty big for you then? You’ll want to hit them riding well …

Yeah. I mean, I’m not sure if that will make a massive difference but it definitely can’t hurt. So I’ll be going well, because potentially if I don’t find a solution, they could be my last races and I’d still like to go out well, anyway.

I’m basically preparing like I have a contract and as I would every other year, and I’m just going to do the best January possible and try and find a solution if it’s out there.

And you’d be happy racing at a ProTeam level, presumably, if that came up?

Yeah, for sure. Obviously, I’d like to be in a European Pro Conti team and still be racing the European circuit that I’m used to racing. I’m open – I’m not going to be too picky at this point.

Do you have ideas about what you want to do post racing career, whether that’s sooner rather than later or a few years down the line?

Yeah, I’ve actually had quite a few people contact me with opportunities if I was to stop. So if that is the case, then there’s some cool projects that I could be a part of which is actually nearly tempting in a way.

But I just feel like I’m not done with cycling yet, and I feel like I have got more to give, both from a personal point of view and from passing on knowledge to the younger generation. I’d still like to do that for a couple more years if there was an opportunity to do so.

Those project opportunities you mentioned, the ones people contacted you about – were they in cycling, or outside of the sport?

Both inside cycling and outside the sport. I studied commerce at uni, a business degree, which I kind of put on hold halfway through to try and turn pro. So one of my things I’d like to do is go back and finish that and then hopefully I can use that whatever comes up in the future. At the same time, I kind of had a bit of a longer-term plan for these kind of ideas, not so much straight off the bat! But I mean life’s full of curveballs. Just gotta get bat to ball.

As a rider, do you pay much attention to the ins and outs of team sponsorship? From the outside, a lot of people were saying that NextHash looked a bit suss. Do you pay any attention to that? Or do you just get on with the job of riding your bike and leave all the other stuff to management?

As much as we can, we don’t get involved in that kind of stuff. I know NextHash was rather controversial, but I do also know that the level of sponsorship they signed up for was not enough to guarantee the team for next year. So it’s not like NextHash could have caused the team not to go ahead next year – they need another sponsor on top of them. Although it’s a complicated situation, it’s not like what they came to the table with has caused this position for us to be in now.

So it was a bigger-picture thing, needing more sponsorship across the board, rather than just one party being responsible?

That’s exactly right. And hence why they were only ever a second name in the team. You need a first name. As much as it’s a cool story, unfortunately, having a foundation as first-name [sponsor] is not enough to survive in pro cycling.

Is there anything you’d like to say to any team managers that might be reading this? Or anything else you wanted to add?

I haven’t given up – I’m preparing in a way I would every year. So if a team is out there that is interested, they can know that I’ll be ready to go from day one.

Obviously this year was a bit up and down, coming to a new team, but the five years in EF [Education-Nippo] that I spent there – working with Rigo [Uran] and being a part of the team when he was second at the Tour [de France], and being a big part of Michael Woods’s development and what he’s been able to achieve in those years riding together at EF, I feel like the work I do out on the road and helping the guys who need and want some guidance can be really effective and it can really help them gain results.

It’s just something that I feel like I can bring value to any team, particularly now there’s more focus than ever on these young riders. I think that’s great; I don’t have a problem with that. And I think that it’s just a part of the evolution of the sport. But I also believe that there needs to be even more emphasis put on nurturing them and guiding them.

And I think that that’s where I can play a big role. Helping these young guys that are getting signed up and have maybe limited experience in the WorldTour and trying to tackle pro races straight out of juniors, and have the motor but maybe don’t have the skill or various other aspects of pro racing that I can pass on.

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