Australian makes it to velodrome at Hell of the North
Will Clarke's debut season with Argos-Shimano has so far taken him from his home WorldTour event, the Tour Down Under, to Belgium, to the mountains of Catalunya then back to Belgium for The Ronde and then earlier this week, the Scheldeprijs. Each time, there's been a different role to play with variety indeed proving to be the spice of Clarke's life after two often trying years.
On Sunday, he made his debut in Paris-Roubaix, one of nine Australians on the start line in Compiegne. In theory, it's a race that should suit his abilities as a powerful rouleur, especially one who is unafraid of chancing his luck in a breakaway.
Clarke made his debut at the sport's top level as a stagiaire for Ag2r La Mondiale having graduated from the highly-successful Praties squad in Australia in 2010 before joining Leopard - Trek for 2011. When the Luxembourg project merged with RadioShack at the end of that season, Clarke endured a nervous wait before signing on for new ProContinental outfit Champion System for 2012. It was an unsettled season for the Tasmanian but with Argos-Shimano, Clarke has found the perfect environment.
"The variety is great," Clarke told Cyclingnews. "If it's a harder stage we've also got freedom to be in the breakaways which is what I like doing and then on the sprint stages I might be riding on the front to control the break or trying to help in the lead-out also.
"We've always got a job to do and it's always fun."
While Clarke admits that his Flanders debut was not quite his finest day on the bike, the experience has not dampened his enthusiasm for the race they call The Hell of the North.
"I didn't have a super day but it was my job to cover the early breaks for the team so it made a little bit less work for them later in the race so it was tough," he explained.
Just as he did in Flanders, Clarke was riding for John Degenkolb in Roubaix. When Argos missed the early break, it was up to Clarke and teammate Tom Stamsnijder to take the brunt of the workload before the first sector of cobbles.
"I struggled a bit after that," he admitted with doubts more than a few times over whether he would actually finish the race with the memory of a DNF in Flanders, fresh. What didn't help matters was that he rode the last 120kms without a drink, with the team car long gone up ahead. But Clarke fought on.
Riding across the finish line in the Roubaix Velodrome in 112th position, just over 26 minutes behind winner Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack Leopard) Clarke had endured his own battle with the group "racing pretty hard" over the last few sectors or cobbles.
Overwhelmingly, Clarke was tired, but he'd made it through.
"I'm happy to have finished," he told Cyclingnews. "It was an okay day without it being the best."
Like many Australian riders of his era, Paris-Roubaix came crashing into his consciousness with Stuart O'Grady's historic winning ride in 2007. The first time an Australian had made it on the podium, let alone climb onto the top step. In the day's early break, O'Grady punctured in the Arenberg Forest before making the defining move with 25km to go, chasing, crashing and then catching the lead group of riders. In stifling conditions, it was a win that showed that while misfortune could hamper, fortune very much favoured the brave, the race never really over until you're forced to walk away.
"It just looked epic," recalled Clarke, with the race only earning free-to-air television time in Australia from 2008.
When he got his own taste of Arenberg during reconnaissance late this week, Clarke had set himself for the harsh reality of Paris-Roubaix.
"When I went and saw Arenberg, and we did the last probably 15 sectors of cobbles, I think they're the hardest roads I've ever ridden," he told Cyclingnews.
Kittel's win last Wednesday at Scheldeprijs was a morale boost for the team after the German was knocked about by a virus following Paris-Nice along with Koen de Kort's classics build-up hampered by a fractured collarbone but with the pair well and truly back on track this week, the Dutch team's fortunes are looking up. And Clarke's with them.
"Last week I was involved when Marcel won the Scheldeprijs so it's great to be involved when the team wins but it's also good if you win some races yourself. I think on Argos as long as you're a strong supporter within the team you can go a long way.
"I'm fairly happy now. It's a team that hopefully I can stay with for a long time."
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