After six years without a win, UnitedHealthcare's Jonny Clarke was about to live every domestique's dream: He had broken away from the bunch in a small-but-driven group early in stage 2 of Silver City's Tour of the Gila as part of his team's overall strategy, but confusion and hesitant team tactics in the chase behind left the escapees dangling off the front as they approached the line.
The worker bees were going to have their day.
Clarke jumped early and gained an initial advantage, but as BMC Development rider Arnaud Grand tried to surge past him on the right, Clarke moved toward the barriers and impeded the Swiss rider's progress. Grand immediately called foul, and his team filed a protest. Clarke said he did not know Grand was on his right when he chose his line of attack, but the UCI Race Commissaires' panel sided with Grand, giving the stage win to the BMC rider and relegating Clarke to second.
It was a disappointing end to a long day in the saddle for the 10-year pro who hadn't won a race in six years, but when the decision came down, Clarke accepted the penalty graciously, going out of his way to congratulate Arnaud and complimenting both of his breakaway partners' efforts throughout the day.
“I want to take nothing away from the guys who were with me,” he told Cyclingnews after the race. “Max Jenkins and [Grand], they were sensational, so congratulations to him.”
A few days on from the stage, and Clarke said he had been prepared for the final outcome and the judges' eventual decision. This wasn't the 29-year-old pro's first rodeo.
“I'm not silly, I knew it was touch and go,” he said. “And with that frame of mind, I think I was able to handle it well. If I thought there was absolutely nothing in it, then I might have been a little more angry. I was prepared.
“After the line, I rounded the corner and had a few moments to myself, and I said to myself, 'No matter what, I was proud of my ride, because it's been a while,'” he said.
The easy-going Aussie, who sports what may best be described as a faux-hawk mullet, was almost literally born into cycling. His father, Victorian Hilton Clarke, is a former Olympic track cyclist who has won the Australian Coaching Award for the past two years. Jonny Clarke's older brother, Hilton, who also rides for UnitedHealthcare, is one of the most prolific sprinters on the US circuit today. The oldest Clarke brother, Troy, was a successful track racer in his day.
“He was probably more of a sprinter than Hilton was,” Jonny Clarke said. “He raced the track, and him and Hilton actually came to America together going on 10 years ago. Troy chose other avenues of his life back in Australia.”
Clarke recalls growing up listening to his father discuss race tactics with his older brothers nightly at the dinner table long before he was racing bikes himself, and those early lessons have provided him with a keen insight into the tactical side of the sport.
“When you're 10 years old, and you're sitting at the dinner table hearing about bike tactics when you're that young before you're even riding,” Clarke said, “definitely, a bit of it resonates in your mind.”
That tactical sense is one of the often-unseen skills Clarke brings to UnitedHealthcare as not only a domestique with his legs, but as a road captain that team director Mike Tamayo relies on to make the rights calls during the race.
“He's a thinker, he's a smart rider,” Tamayo told Cyclingnews minutes after having watched Clarke guide UnitedHealthcare to a one-two finish during Gila's Saturday afternoon criterium. Tamayo had instructed the team that Clarke would call the shots throughout the night, and the rider who is soft-spoken off the bike rode herd over the eight-rider squad, making snap decisions each lap and barking out orders on the way to another dominant criterium performance.
“When you have riders like him, it makes your job as a director easy,” Tamayo said. “And he brings the boys first and second. It's better than having a race radio.”
Clarke, who came to UnitedHealthcare in 2010 from Jelly Belly, got his first taste of US racing when his older brother, Hilton, helped him get a stagiaire ride on the Navigators team in 2005. Clarke rode for the SouthAustralia.com-AIS team through 2006 and part of 2007 before signing with Colavita-Sutter Home later that season.
“There's this kind of fork in the road at the end of [riding for a U23 national team] where guys will turn professional or not,” Clarke said. “And I was lucky enough that my brother was racing here and doing quite well, and he was able to help me come to America, so I was grateful for that.”
Clarke rode for Toyota-United in 2008 and Jelly Belly in 2009 before moving over to his current squad, where he quickly established himself as a criterium specialist with a knack for knowing when to chase and how to keep his team at the front of the pack. Having grown up watching and competing in track racing from a very early age, transferring those skills to American crits was a natural transition.
But over the past couple of years, Clarke has been trying to reinvent himself as a rouleur and stage racer, hoping to carve out his own niche in the sport and climb out from under his older brother's shadow.
“He's been losing weight,” Tamayo said. “He's been training really hard and climbing really well in Argentina, climbing really well for us in Malaysia and races like that.”
Clarke still views himself as a domestique for the sprinters in the bunch-finish stages and for the climbers in the hilly races, but he's also begun to look for his own opportunities in intermediate races like Gila's stage 2. Despite the frustration and disappointment on that day, he was back out there slaying himself for the team for the rest of the week.
In Sunday's Gila Monster finale, he escaped the bunch about halfway through the extremely difficult up-and-down stage to set up teammate Phil Deignen's ultimately successful ride into the overall race win.
“So I'm a domestique,” he said “But I think you always have to keep your own ambitions in mind.”