Simon Clarke, back from the brink: From no contract to Tour stage winner

Simon Clarke sat slumped on a roadside kerb in the northern French town of Wallers, head resting on his arms, his body heaving, awash with emotion. Exhaustion, joy, and sheer disbelief – it was all there as a team staffer patted him heartily on the back, reminding him to breathe.

Six months ago, Clarke had well-founded fears for his future in the sport. Caught in the crossfire of NextHash’s unignified exit from the sport, early retirement looked the most likely option for the 35-year-old. Today, Clarke is a Tour de France northern stage winner, having tamed the legendary cobblestone roads of France, no less.

It’s a result no one could have predicted at the end of last year. Clarke himself wouldn’t have dreamed of such a fairytale. Indeed, when I spoke to the Victorian in late December, he sounded like a man defeated.

He’d been set to continue on with Qhubeka-NextHash in 2022, but when NextHash’s sponsorship fell through, taking the team with it, Clarke’s contract evaporated overnight.

And so it began an ambitious search for a new team just days from the start of a new season. With team rosters filled months earlier, Clarke knew getting a WorldTour contract would be a stretch. He’d have been happy settling for a second-tier, ProTeam contract – “I’m not going to be too picky at this point,” he told me.

But while Clarke felt he wasn’t ready for retirement, it looked like it wasn’t going to be up to him. If not resigned to that fact, there was a sense Clarke was starting to come to terms with it – he already had some post-racing opportunities lined up, and spoke about going back to university to finish a commerce degree.

But then, in mid January, Clarke got the call. Israel-Premier Tech had found a room for him.

He cancelled his plans to race the rest of the Australian summer, jumped on a plane to the team’s training camp in Spain, and set about constructing his season. He had no idea what races he’d do, but he was just grateful to be racing again, especially at WorldTour level.

Regardless of which races he was sent to, Clarke vowed to “make the most of it”. He knew he’d been given a lifeline, and he didn’t want to squander the opportunity.

Clarke in Israel-Premier Tech gear just hours after arriving at team camp in January.

Clarke had pitched to teams in December that, if they took him on, he’d be “ready to go from day one”, having trained through the off-season as if he had a contract. He delivered on that promise, hitting the ground running in his first races for Israel-Premier Tech.

In his first three races of the year, all of them one-dayers part of the Challenge Mallorca festival, Clarke finished inside the top six, including third at the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana. At the Ruta del Sol in February he finished second on a stage, he took seventh on a stage at the Volta a Catalunya in March, then he snagged a couple more top-fives at other one-day races through April and June.

Clarke was both taking the opportunities that came his way, and rewarding the faith Israel-Premier Tech had shown in him. Crucially, he was also securing valuable UCI points for a team that was staring down possible relegation at season’s end.

And as we now know, the best was yet to come.

After racing the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, Clarke was selected for Israel’s Tour de France team as a rider for the breakaways. He was anonymous the first four stages, riding in support of teammates en route to four finishes outside the top 110 places.

And then came the long-awaited stage 5.”[Sports director] Zak Dempster came to me this morning and said ‘Clarkey, today’s the breakaway day,’” Clarke said afterwards. “First one up, so I just gotta make it count.”

Clarke fought his way up the road and settled in for a long day in a strong breakaway. As carnage unfolded on the road behind – ending the GC hopes of some and the race entirely for others – and as his breakaway group thinned down, Clarke held firm. On the fourth-to-last sector of cobbles, with 22 km to go, Clarke briefly lost contact with the front of the race, but battled back over the pavé to be perfectly poised for a shot at stage honors.

Clarke leading the break on stage 5 of the 2022 Tour de France.

The final kilometers were a masterclass in patience and racecraft, Clarke leaning on more than a decade of WorldTour experience, not least two stage victories at the Vuelta a España. When Neilson Powless attacked from the break with 1.2 km to go, Clarke didn’t flinch.

“Both the stages I won in the Vuelta came to similar finishes – two- or three-up sprints – and you really just have to bid your time,” he said. “Even when Powless attacked you’ve just gotta sit back and pray that the other guys panic before you do.”

Clarke gambled on Edvald Boasson Hagen blinking first, the Norwegian veteran being the most decorated sprinter in the group. Just when it looked like Powless was riding to victory, Boasson Hagen finally gave in and punched away in pursuit as the chasers rounded a final left-hander with 800 metres to go.

When they caught Powless, Clarke again dug into his bag of tricks, dangling just off Boasson Hagen’s wheel. “I just tried to leave Edvald a little bit of space [so] that he would try to get the jump on me and he took the bait,” he said. “Then I really had to chase him hard.”

In the sprint that followed, the exhaustion of all involved was clearly evident. Boasson Hagen hit the wall and was reeled in; Taco van der Hoorn surged past to hit the wind, his head bobbing up and down furiously; and, Clarke visibly dead on his feet, waited and waited and waited for his moment. “Taco was well ahead of me even with less than 50 meters to go,” Clarke said. “I was cramping in both legs and I just lined up the biggest [bike] throw I could possibly do and I just prayed it was enough.”

It was the sort of bike throw you might see in a racing textbook. Clarke, his backside well behind the rear axle, his arms fully outstretched, his front wheel edging past Van der Hoorn’s with less than a meter to spare. Perfection.

He didn’t think he’d won it at first. But then the confirmation came, and with it the celebrations. A rapturous hug from teammate Mike Woods; an equally enthusiastic embrace from former teammate turned rival Alberto Bettiol.

Amidst all of Clarke’s joy was, perhaps, a feeling vindication. He had He deserved another season at the highest level, and he’d been able to reward Israel-Premier Tech for believing as much.

The team had taken a gamble on him, and he’d delivered their first ever Tour de France stage win. He’d also brought in 120 valuable UCI points that could well be crucial in keeping the team in the WorldTour ranks next season.

“After the winter I had when I had no team, to then have Israel call you up and say ‘we’ll give you that chance’ just gives you such a reality check, to make the most of every opportunity,” he said. “I think you’ve seen all year I’ve come out every race swinging because I just try to make the most of every opportunity.”

The fact that this opportunity came on the infamous cobbles of northern France adds its own significance. ‘Roubaix stages’ at the Tour stand out beyond the usual. They’re days where something eventually happens. The victors are long remembered. But where previous winners have been proven Classics riders – Lars Boom in 2014; John Degenkolb in 2018 – the cobbles aren’t Clarke’s favorite terrain.

In 13 seasons as a pro, he’s raced Paris-Roubaix just twice. The first, in 2011 – his debut WorldTour season – ended in the broom wagon after he hit a car. His second visit, in 2021, concluded with an unremarkable 55th place.

Previous ‘Roubaix stages’ at the Tour tell a similar story. In 2014 Clarke came in 50th. In 2018 Clarke finished 106th, more than 12 minutes down. 2022 was a different story altogether.

In a career that’s netted seven individual professional victories, Clarke’s Tour stage win is clearly his biggest. It is a childhood dream come true; a win 20 years in the making. And he very nearly didn’t get the chance.

“What a rollercoaster this year has been,” Clarke said. “But sometimes you don’t get the best out of yourself until you are put under extra pressure. I am an optimism person and I try to always believe that things happen for a reason. This winter was a bit challenging but I found a solution and I promised to never look back and make the most of every opportunity and that’s what I did today.”

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