By Greg Johnson in Sydney, Australia
Australia's Hilton Clarke is delighted that his first ProTour event will be on home soil when he lines up at the Tour Down Under in Adelaide next month. Clarke will contest the South Australian race after securing a one-year contract with Fuji-Servetto last week.
"It's just unbelievable," said Clarke. "I was trying to get a spot in the national team at the same time to do Down Under, when I had no team. There's just so many good riders that want to do that, that I crossed my fingers as well, whether I was going to get into that.
"So now not to have to worry and be able to focus my training on the start of the year, especially with how huge Tour Down Under is going to be next year, is great."
Clarke will be amongst a handful of Australians to contest the ProTour's opening round next year. Australian riders have one of two ways to ride their nation's largest tour – either hold a contract with a ProTour team or vie for a national team spot, as it's the only local team permitted in the race.
"I guess now that it is ProTour not so many Australians get to do it anymore, so it really is a thrill," he said.
The contract from Fuji-Servetto came as an early Christmas present for Clarke. Having enjoyed his most successful season to date in 2008, the qualified builder was facing the prospect of returning to the construction industry in 2009 until the former Scott-American Beef team threw him a lifeline.
"From a personal standpoint, I never got this opportunity while I was younger but I can't think of a better time to get this opportunity than now," he said. "I'm more ready now than I would have been then.
Clarke will focus on the Australian Open Road Championships in early January, then the Tour Down Under and February's Tour de Langkawi for the first part of his season. The remainder of Clarke's season is yet to be discussed with the team management, however the rider hopes to spend a bit of time in Europe next year.
"Looking at the team I'm thinking all of the Spanish guys aren't going to want to be in the Northern Classics too much, so I'm hoping maybe to get back into Belgium a little bit, but that's going to be a decision made later between me and the directors," he said.
Clarke's long list of wins for the now defunct team Toyota-United in 2008 included success at Capital Hill Criterium, USA Crits Finals, Wells Fargo Twilight Criterium and Beaufort Memorial Cycling classic to name but a few. The rider also took victory at the Tour of Elk Grove's stage two and Mt. Hood Cycling Classic's stage one.