On the Monday morning after Simon Clarke became the first Australian to win the climbing classification at the Vuelta a España, Rob Arnold spoke with the 26-year-old. The Orica-GreenEdge rider explained that the blue-and-white polka-dot jersey was far from the original objective of the team but after he earned his first professional victory after five years of trying, it became a goal.
He will now be part of the Australian team for the world championships in Valkenburg, with the road race to take place on 23 September 2012.
This is a transcript of the discussion…
“I wanted to go to my first Grand Tour and really be a part of it” – Simon Clarke
RIDE: Congratulations on a great Vuelta and winning the polka-dot jersey. Let’s talk about the highlights. Can you explain if it was always your intention to chase the climber’s prize?
Simon Clarke: “It definitely just happened. There was no way anyone who has my characteristics as an athlete – and in particular, me – would ever have the initial desire to chase a jersey like this. But when I was found in the situation I was, it was obvious just to go after it.”
And that situation was… what? After stage 14? Or did it become an option sooner than the day of your second big escape?
Simon Clarke: “It all started when I won the stage (in Estación de Valdezcaray, on day four) and I bagged a whole bunch of points because it finished on a hill. That day ended on a category-one climb; that got me the jersey to start with but then I only had it for a couple of days and then [Alejandro] Valverde took it off me. Although I had some time wearing the jersey, it was like: ‘Okay, it’s only a matter of time before the GC big guns just take it back off me’. And they did. There were so many hilltop finishes that so many of the GC guys would be fighting for that it seemed pretty much impossible – if you weren’t riding for GC – to even try to chase the jersey.
“Then, I accidentally got in that break in stage 14. That’s when I thought, ‘Jeez, well I may as well get a bunch of points here just because I can.’ And that put it all back in the mix and we thought, ‘Hang on a second… this actually could be possible.’”
Then, two days from the finish, you really had to work hard to get in the break to defend your lead…
Simon Clarke: “Yeah, basically, it was a case of having to do that to be sure of winning. Although I was in the polka-dot jersey for the whole last week I hadn’t won it by any means; it was mine to win or lose on the second last day. I just had to be in that break, 100 per cent.”
Some people might assume that a bike rider will say, ‘I want to be in the break today’ but could you explain how difficult it is to do what is required?
Simon Clarke: “It was The Most Nervous Hour of my whole life!
“I won a junior world championship in the team pursuit on the track and I was the starter and I was 10 times more nervous before stage 20 than I was on that day all those years ago. No matter what I did, even if I rode 100 per cent and didn’t make a mistake, I could easily have not got in that breakaway. And to have something like that – where there are a large percentage of possibilities literally out of my control – it was nerve-wracking.
“I was dreading the feeling of seeing the breakaway go and for me not to be in it.”
Did it split a few times? Or was there one definitive move?
Simon Clarke: “It took about 20 kilometres for it to go and that was actually quite quick. There were so few stages in this Vuelta that breakaways actually won and that meant that every day the bunch thought there was a chance, everyone just went bananas. The fact that there were so few sprinters in the race this year, meant that there were so many opportunist riders and so it seemed like there were 120 riders in the bunch who were all riding to be in the breakaway.
“So stage 17 was just crazy! We just attacked for, like, 100 kilometres. It was unbelievable! And I was dreading that that was going to happen again on stage 20.
“I still felt really good and I managed myself well throughout the whole Vuelta, in terms of looking after my legs and eating well… my body was still in really good nick. But when you attack for so long like that, you can just throw your good legs away so easily in the first hour. It meant that, even if I did get in the break, and I was racing [Thomas] De Gendt – or any of those other guys who might have wanted to beat me for the jersey – there was a chance that I wouldn’t have the legs to challenge them.
“It was a very nervous morning for me. We had a 10 kilometre neutral zone and I’ve never been so nervous in my whole life. I was shaking saying to myself, ‘I don’t even know what I’m going to do if I don’t get in this break.’”
In that situation, are you the one who is attacking or do you just have to follow the moves?
Simon Clarke: “Well, you’ve got to do a bit of both.
“In the end, there was a group of 20 that got away but if you just sit back and go, ‘Oh, I’ll wait until it splits and then I’ll jump across…’ the group will be gone. If 20 break free, they’re not waiting for anybody. You can’t ‘just ride across’!
“And we didn’t have a super team here, certainly not in terms of putting guys on the front and riding to bring back a group of 20 like that. So I just couldn’t afford to miss it.
“I waited, went with a few moves, and then it split once and Julian Dean helped me get across. I made it to that one but the peloton chased it back… then the next one was the one that went.”
The climbers jersey is one that everyone tells me is one that you can’t plan for at all.
Simon Clarke: “Yeah, that’s pretty much true. I fell into it by winning a stage and then getting in a break. And only then did I go after it. But the thing is: once you’ve got point, it’s easy to defend because… well it’s easy, in theory, to defend – but not necessarily physically. You can mark people and you know you’ve just got to get in the break and bag enough points so that, no matter what the GC guys get on the last hill, you’ve got more each day along the way.
“In the end, it wasn’t very close. I was on 63 points and David de la Fuente from Caja Rural was on 40 in second place but the thing – and this is why stage 20 was so important – was that the finish was the highest pass of the Vuelta and it acted as a bonus climb for points, there were extras on offer for the finishing climb. That just made it even harder because I had to be that many points in front of [Joaquim] Rodriguez, [Alberto] Contador and Valverde expecting that one of those three were going to win the stage. In the end, they never caught the break, so they never got the chance and all those points were absorbed.
“I ended up winning by quite a bit but it could have, mathematically, been a lot closer.”
So what’s happened to you in these last three weeks? Do you feel like you’ve matured – are you a different person at the end of the Vuelta than the one who went into a Grand Tour for the first time?
Simon Clarke: “Not so much. Personally, I feel like I’ve been knocking on the door for a big result and people who are close to me have also said that. It’s just that, for a long time, it hasn’t come. And winning that stage was a huge moment. In the end, although I came home with a prize jersey, it wasn’t as though I was out there dropping Contador and Valverde or Rodriguez. I wasn’t doing super-human stuff to win this jersey, I was just going in breakaways and picking off the other guys who were in the move so that I could pick up a bag of points.”
It’s a different scenario to what the team would have expected. Going in to the Giro and the Tour we heard all about Matt Goss going for stage wins and the points jersey. And here it is, you’ve got to the Vuelta and achieved a prize jersey – only that it’s a different one to what the team has really been structured to achieve.
When we first started speaking, you’d just come out of the junior ranks and you’d only recently ridden a madison at a track World Cup with… Matthew Harley Goss. The progression of the young guys is really happening.
Simon Clarke: “Yeah, you’re exactly right. It’s really great to look back and recognise what’s been achieved. Even if you just look at the group that we had at the Vuelta – and we spoke about it only a few nights ago – we all came from the same crop. There was myself, Mitch Docker, Wes Sulzberger, Cam Meyer, Travis Meyer… and we’re all from the same age bracket. Some are a little bit older or a little bit younger but we all grew up racing together from the juniors to a Grand Tour.
“When we were doing the junior worlds, if we said we’d all be riding the Vuelta a España in the same team it would have seemed daft. It’s pretty cool and there’s clear evidence of a good development system.”
We’ve seen so much hype around the Tour de France – and we’ve just finished an issue of RIDE that’s got coverage of that race and the Olympic Games – but it’s come out after the Vuelta has finished. And we couldn’t squeeze much coverage of the Vuelta in, which is a shame… but most of our Facebook followers have said how wonderful the Vuelta was as a race. It was great to watch this year; how was it to ride?
Simon Clarke: “This is my first Grand Tour so I can’t really compare it to the Giro or the Tour. But the biggest thing I learned was that, if you prepare 100 per cent and you’re not overweight and you come in with the right condition, you can get through a Grand Tour in reasonably good condition. People who suffer are the ones who go in out of condition, overweight, or go in looking for condition.
“I had a mid-season break in the week after the Dauphiné, which was a race that I went really badly in. I was suffering badly. I was travelling so much to racing that I was eating so much pasta and rice – carbs and everything without planning it well – and I put on a bit of weight. And the experience at the Dauphiné was a big wake-up call. I thought, ‘Hang on a second, if you want to be good in these really top races, you’ve got to micro-manage everything!’
“The Dauphiné was one of the hardest races I’d ever done, and I really had to give it respect and arrive in good condition otherwise I’d cop the flogging like I did.
“After that, I had a holiday and went to the beach and then came back; from then until the start or the Tour of Burgos, I had seven weeks which was a fortnight before the Vuelta. I planned with my coach for those whole seven weeks and pretty much laid everything on the line. I did a full prep.
“The way I was approaching it was as though I was going there to ride GC, in the sense that I was up at altitude and I was weighing my pasta for every meal and making sure that I only ate what I needed. I wanted to go to my first Grand Tour and really be a part of it.
“I’d wanted to attempt to win a stage and although I was never sure if I could pull it off, I wanted to give it the respect that these kind of races deserve. I wanted to have the condition that allowed me to get through the race without having to worry about trying to finish – and that allowed me to focus on going well.”
Who is your coach?
Simon Clarke: “His name is Jonathan Hall. He is now the head coach of triathlon in America and he’s heavily involved in that sport; I’m the only cyclist he looks after.”
What about your team? What was the role of Daniel Teklehaymanot and Julian and Wes and all the others?
Simon Clarke: “Basically the team for the Vuelta was a bunch of young guys who had never done one before and a bunch of other guys who hadn’t done a Grand Tour this year, and then Peter Weening who believed he might be able to go well in the mountains after coming out of the Tour in good condition.
“It felt like were a mixed-bag team, like they’d just thrown whoever was left in. And it was nice, it was no worries at all! And, if anything, for the guys who did get sent it offered a better opportunity because everyone was ready to chase their own aspirations.
“It also felt a bit like a B-team because the Giro and the Tour were built up to be so big, and were based around real objectives. Those races were all about Gossie’s sprint train… and if you look at the names of riders we had to take to those races, there are some pretty special bike riders. On paper those selections seemed like the strongest options but the nine guys who rode the Vuelta really gelled as a family and we got along well and stuck it to them.
“We had a big discussion about this on the bus before the last stage and Neil Stephens highlighted the reality: you don’t need a huge team on paper to achieve good result. I think we managed to prove that at this Vuelta.”
What you’ve done these last three weeks, is that enough to put you in the world championship team?
Simon Clarke: “Ah… yep. I’ll be back. I rode last year and I was the assigned ‘Breakaway Man’.”
So does that mean you’re chasing rainbows yourself or are you working for someone else?
Simon Clarke: “It’s 100 per cent for ‘Gerro’. If Cadel was going to be there, we’d be doing a joint captaincy between those two but everything that Cadel has had to deal with in the last little while means that he won’t be there so that narrows it down pretty quickly from two to one.
“A lot of people have suggested that I could go well at the worlds and go for a good result but Cycling Australia is at a level now where we don’t go there just to get a ‘good result’ – we go there to win! To do that, a fully convinced team has to be there working for one guy. You can’t just go there and think it’ll work out. I don’t have any personal aspirations for the worlds for that exact reason. It’s not my time and I’m not stressed about that.”
We were talking about your condition before. Can you tell me your weight from before the Vuelta and after it?
Simon Clarke: “I started my prep after the Dauphiné at 67.5kg. By the time I got to the Tour of Burgos I was 63.5kg; I lost four kilos in my ‘Grand Tour prep’ phase. I arrived there in the condition that was enough for me to be ready for the Vuelta because although there was two weeks between the two, there was the Clasica San Sebastian in between and I needed to be able to maintain that condition for that time span.
“I think I lost maybe about a kilo during the Vuelta. Not much.”
What about your numbers – were you riding with an SRM and did you surprise you want you were putting out? Is it much different to what you’ve achieved before?
Simon Clarke: “The breakaway days were pretty special. They were really quite high numbers.”
On the day you beat Tony Martin to win the stage, what was your power for the last 30 minutes?
Simon Clarke: “The actual output for a climb like that was so high for me because we were in the breakaway all day. If you compare it against a Lance Armstrong at his prime when he sat behind his team-mates and gets led out for the last climb and then goes at six Watts per kilo for the last hill… it’s not fair. It wasn’t like that. We’d ridden for a 150 kilometres, chopping off with five blokes.
“But, considering the fact that I had ridden in the break all day, the numbers were still consistent with some of my best despite having been in an escape rather than a peloton. The number in itself wasn’t anything special but, considering the situation, it was good.”
Let’s talk about the stage win itself. How important was it to beat someone of Tony Martin’s calibre? He’s no slouch…
Simon Clarke: “It felt important on a personal level. Of course it was great to be able to contribute to the team and get a stage win but we’d already done that at the Giro and it wasn’t going to be something new. But for my personal aspirations it makes a world of difference.
“If you look at my resume, you see that I have so many top five finishes but no wins as a pro and an opportunity like that was too good: I could just not let go. There was no question: I was not going to let him beat me that day!
“I find that I can operate quite well under pressure in a situation like that. I go back to basics and just think, ‘Right, where is the wind coming from? Which way does the last corner go?’ And I make sure I’ve got the fundamentals going through my head and remind myself to worry about all the external stuff later.
“I don’t find it too hard focussing in a nervous situation like that but, at the same time, I had to respect that I was racing Tony Martin and it was never a given that I was going to beat him.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold
RIDE Media publishes RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
RIDE Cycling Review is now available in a digital format via Zinio.