Hilton Clarke will bring his ProTour experience back to the US in 2010 with the recently announced Bahati Foundation Professional Cycling Team. The Australian sprinter hopes that his well-known criterium expertise will bring success to the new squad in order to inspire and empower underprivileged youth to rise above their circumstances.
"I did my year there and this opportunity came up," Clarke said. "It sounded like a cool thing that Rahsaan is putting together and I wanted to be a part of it. I definitely look forward to doing all the NRC [National Racing Calendar] races again. I'm thinking we will target those events but we haven't gone over that yet."
Clarke raced for American teams Navigators Insurance Cycling in 2005 and 2006 followed by Toyota-United Pro Cycling in 2007 and 2008. After more than 60 career victories he was picked up by the Spanish-based ProTour team Fuji-Servetto in 2009 and upgraded to races like the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, Tour de Suisse and the Volta a Catalunya.
"The experience was really good and I gained a lot of depth coming from Europe back to America," said Clarke, who struggled to get a podium placing this year. "It was a Catch-22 as to whether I wanted to have success in America at a lower level or be pack fill in Europe at the ProTour level.
"I'm glad I haven't had to make that decision because the teams have made that decision for me," Clarke continued. "I felt I made it through a lot of races in the mountains that I might not have been able to before. But, the things I could do in America to seal the deal, I found difficult in Europe this year. It was a great experience but for me, because I did so well in America before, I was expected to do the same in Europe and I wasn't able to come through."
USA Cycling announced a new set of rules this summer whereby the American UCI teams must have a majority of riders from the USA and under the age of 28. These two adjustments made it difficult for riders like Clarke to find employment in the United States.
"The whole age thing that the Continental teams have is tough," said Clarke, a native of Ormond, Australia with a racing age of 30. "Most teams already have there three or four guys over 27 years old and there aren't many opportunities for guys like me because I'm also foreign. Every year there might be one spot for a foreign rider who is also over 27 in America. No matter how successful you are, there aren't many spots available. So, a new team starting offered a lot more spots."
Clarke currently resides on the West coast in Los Angeles, California where he met Rahsaan Bahati, the team co-owner and former US national criterium champion. The recently announced roster included top guns like Jason Donald, who joined the team from Garmin-Slipstream and fellow countryman Nathan O'Neill who returns to the sport following a two-year suspension on a doping positive for an appetite suppressant.
"I'm excited to ride with Rahsaan next year," Clarke said. "We excel in similar races but we have a different style. We will do well together with our two different styles of racing because we will have two cards to play in the same sort of races. It's always a plus to have Nathan on any team in American because he is such a strong GC rider so he will focus on the GC in American races."
Brothers back together in America
Clarke's return to the USA has reunited him with younger brother Jonny Clarke who resides on the East coast in Asheville, North Carolina. The pair last competed on the same team with Toyota-United in 2008. However, this year they will not be competing for the same outfit.
"When I first came to America my younger brother was in Italy with the [Australian] national team," Clarke said. "I really pushed to get him over here on the same team as me. When we both rode for Toyota-United, it was really cool to ride on the same team as him. Now we have different opportunities and I don't have to be his big brother pestering him anymore, [I'll] just let him do his own thing. Once he has a few years of learning the ropes, I hope we can get reunited again on the same team."
While Hilton has found a new home with the Bahati Foundation Pro Cycling Team, Jonny, 25, is currently contracted with the Jelly Belly Pro Cycling Team and rumored to have signed with the United Health Care Team in 2010.
When asked if there would be some awkwardness competing against his older brother, Jonny said, "You just have to do your job. He won't be on my side next year so it might be a different ball game. He's used to racing well here and I think he'll have a great year. I'm sure we'll help each other out."
Jonny is the youngest of three brothers all involved in cycling. The eldest sibling, Troy, has retired from professional bike racing. "I enjoyed racing with Hilton immensely," Jonny said. "I've never known anything different because Troy, Hilton and I are very tight as brothers. It's great to help a teammate but when you help your own blood and he comes up with a win it's special. I hope to race with him again one day but for now it's good I go my own way."
There's five years difference between the two brothers and Hilton has cemented his ability as a sprinter. Jonny admits he still has time to develop. "He's a lot faster than I am," Jonny said. "Hilton is very strong in the crit style of racing and the way he talks about a crit, in the depth he goes into, I've never heard that from anyone else. He knows those races inside out. Personally, I don't really know where my strengths lie yet. I'm still trying to figure it out."