Mid-way through his fourth season with Orica-GreenEdge, Simon Clarke sat down with the team to discuss where he sat within its plans for the future and came out of those talks deciding on a fresh start with a new team in 2016. Cannondale-Garmin was Clarke's team of choice with team CEO Jonathan Vaughters personally reaching out to the 29-year-old and offering an exciting proposal he couldn't turn down as he explained to Cyclingnews.
"I got a call from Jonathan Vaughters and he pitched an idea for me to come to the team and one, help the Ardennes group and be a part of that, and two, to act in a mentoring role with Cannondale having the youngest average age of the pro peloton," Clarke said of the reasoning behind his decision to join the American team.
"He felt like the needed someone new to help guide the young guys and also kind of help as a road captain as well. That really interests me to be able to have potentially some freedom in the Ardennes and one-day races, then on the stage stages be a bit more of a road captain and help the young guys develop as much as possible. There's some great talent in Cannondale and I believe with some good development they can become great bike riders."
Clarke's primary objective for the 2015 season was the Giro d'Italia, his decision to swap the Tour de France for the Italian grand tour paying dividends in the first week as Orica-GreenEdge won the opening team time trial and Clarke's second placed finish on stage 4 saw him slip into the leader's maglia rosa jersey.
"It was amazing, it's every kids dream to be the centre of attention for a whole day of the race and it's only something that one leader experiences per day. It was definitely a moment I won't forget," he said of wearing the maglia rosa.
"It was my first Giro so it was pretty special and to be able to wear the leader's jersey on first attempt, win a team time trial and come second on a stage was I suppose was a dream first Giro. Looking back at the team effort, all the other teams in the race during that week were looking at us and thinking 'how can we beat these guys, they seem to be in the jersey everyday and whilst in the jersey they're either winning stages or running places everyday.'"
Clarke's dream Giro briefly turned to chaos as he offered a front wheel to fellow Australian Richie Porte on stage 10 after the Team Sky rider flatted in an act of friendship. The duo were docked two minuted by the commissaires and fined 200 Swiss Francs as according the laws the sport. It appeared Porte's bid for the podium was over but he would withdraw from the race with injury and 'wheelgate' would have no effect on the overall standings much to Clarke's relief.
"We have a joke about it and obviously its always a topic of conversation," he said of the incident. "It was just something I did in the heat of the moment, just wanting to help out a mate, never would you have thought in that situation would it ever be such a story or blow up the way it did. It's good to look back on it now and the good thing is I am glad that the penalty, which Richie had, didn't affect any kind of result he was going to make. If he lost the Giro by less than two minutes, it would have been devastating but I think we can all have a bit of a laugh about it now and talk about it considering it didn't cost him the Giro."
Despite not enjoying a personal victory in season 2015 after a stage and the overall at last year year's Jayco Herald Sun Tour, Clarke explained it was a fulfilling year considering he performed in the two big goals that he set himself.
"I really focused heavily on the Giro an the Ardennes and I arrived there in some of the best condition I've had in my career and I am really proud of the way I could target those races and then perform in them knowing the preparation I was doing was the right preparation and getting the maximum out of myself," he said.
"Post-Giro I struggled a bit with the rest of the season as I think after putting so much effort into the Giro and I just focused so hard I found it a bit tough after a break to bounce back and get back to a similar level I was at in the first half of the season. I think with the results I was able to achieve in the first half of the season, I can still call it a good season, a good year."
A fresh start with Cannondale-Garmin
From his early sensations of the Cannondale-Garmin team for 2016 at an Aspen training camp, Clarke explained he is excited for the year and challenges ahead and feeling refreshed to take them on.
"We had a great camp actually, one of the most enjoyable training camps I've ever done," he said of the training camp. "Aspen is an amazing place and to be able to go up there and mountain bike around the area and really get with the guys while out exploring the single-track all around Aspen was a really nice way to get to know the guys. Everyone in this business likes riding bikes, so it was a nice way to gel together but then at the same time not feel like we're at a training camp just churning out the miles."
With Cannondale-Garmin farewelling Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal, two riders who have been with the team since its inception, and welcoming onboard 11-new riders, Clarke explained there is a buzz surrounding the potential of what this group of riders can achieve with the number of new riders also making the transition a little easier.
"The sense I got from the camp in Aspen is that it really feels like a fresh start for Cannondale next year. They've made quite a few changes and I am kind of glad to come in in a year when they have made a lot changes so I can be part of a fresh feel and not enter into what is already a niche group and having to find my place in that which would happen if you were coming to a team with only a few changes," he noted. "It poses for a really exciting future over the next couple of years I think with Cannondale as we have a great group of guys who are really motivated and we should be in for some good results."
With Clarke deciding on returning to the Giro d'Italia with the new team, his racing programme for the first half of 2016 will largely replicate that of this year. Although with the Qatar Worlds taking place in late October on a flat course, Clarke added he is likely to miss the championships for the first time since 2010 due to the parcours and its place on the calendar.
"Briefly, it's going to look very similar to what I did this year. I'll be building up for the Ardennes and the Giro and obviously kicking off here with the Tour Down Under in Oz, then getting over the Europe and doing the Italian races. After that we'll reassess for the second half of the year," he said of his his calendar, adding "I need a course that's more challenging [than Doha] and that being one point and the other point that it is late in the year and drags the season on so much longer for an Aussie who has been full gas since January.
"I am keen to have a bit of a crack at Tour Down Under being in a team with a bit of freedom now. I'll have a go not only in stages, but the overall if that eventuates. I am keen to get going really well this summer and come to Down Under in good form and with a new team to try and get the ball rolling with Cannondale in 2016."
At the Tour Down Under and in the Ardennes particularly, Clarke will find himself riding against friend and mentor, Simon Gerrans. Something that hasn't quite sunk in yet after spending four seasons together with GreenEdge.
"It's going to be interesting. I don't know how I am going to find it to be honest but it's been great racing with Gerro over the last four years," he said. "I am proud to have been part of many of his of victories, not only ones that have been special to him and GreenEdge, but the history of cycling in Australia.
"He's achieved some pretty great things, winning Liège particularly so I look back on these four years really fondly from working with Gerro and I am definitely going to take away as much I can from what I learnt from him to Cannondale and try and use that myself in the future."