Tasmania may only be a small isle off Australia's continental mass with a population of little over 500,000 but its representation amongst cycling's elite just increased with the addition of immensely talented 25-year-old Will Clarke to the roster of the Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project.
Clarke, who hails from the same region of Tasmania as HTC-Columbia professional Matt Goss, Saxo Bank's Richie Porte, FDJ rider Wesley Sulzberger and Pegasus Racing stalwart Bernard Sulzberger, has moved from being Australia's best domestic rider in 2009 to signing a two-year deal with arguably the hottest team in the world when he joined the Schleck brothers in their venture.
This from a man who only took up cycling seriously in 2007 and like countryman Porte made a name for himself riding under the auspices of the Praties outfit with Andrew Christie-Johnson and Steve Price, two of the mainstays of the Australian racing scene.
Falling into the sport
Following an adolescence of athletics - running the 400m and 800m events - Clarke found the rigours of that sport compounded the damage on his body and it led to a conversion to two wheels.
"I had a few stress fractures [from running] - I had my leg in a cast for a while so that's actually how I started riding a bike," he explains. "My foot was so inflexible I couldn't run and I started riding to try and keep fit. Then I got the bug for it.
"I think that maybe coming through later helped me because it's all new and maybe it's a bit more exciting than if I'd been doing it as a young kid," he adds. "I've picked up the physiological side of it pretty quickly and I think coming in later can be good."
It's a similar story to that of Goss, who injured his knee playing Australian Rules football and began cycling as a means of recovery at the request of neighbour and now fellow pro rider Wes Sulzberger.
And like Goss, Clarke's win in last year's Launceston International Classic, a criterium that regularly attracts some of Australia's finest professionals, brought his talents - and his vaunted engine - to the attention of those in the broader [international] cycling community.
"No one outside of Australia probably really knew who I was until I won that race," begins Clarke. "Then I did pretty well at Nationals in January - I was third in the criterium, fourth in the time trial and ninth in the road race.
Clarke took third in this year's Tour of Taiwan riding for Genesys Wealth Advisers, the latest guise of the Praties squad, before returning to Australia and then heading to Belgium, where the hard and fast world of kermesses awaited the lanky Tasmanian.
"I did about 11 and I won six of them in about six weeks," he explains. During his time racing there Clarke underwent physiological parameter testing in Waregem, where many of Team RadioShack's riders are tested, while he was taken care of by AN Post manager Kurt Bogaerts. "I did a pretty good test there, as well," he says. "They said it was one of the best tests they'd seen for a couple of years... That kind of set me up to get a stagiare position [at AG2R-La Mondiale]."
He's also been taken into the rapidly-expanding stable of riders managed by Andrew McQuaid; Porte recommended Clarke utilise the services of the man who is fast developing a reputation as the agent of choice for English-speaking riders.
And Porte's role in Clarke's European experience wasn't limited to recommendations. The Saxo Bank rider housed his countryman for three months in Monaco, where the best young rider at the 2010 Giro d'Italia now resides,
"Staying with Richie in Monaco was really good. He put me up for a few months while I was stagiare - he looked after me, took me training in Livigno and introduced me to all the other Aussie guys. It was really good to get the experience of staying over there with him," says Clarke.
One of those Australians was Stuart O'Grady, who noticed the strength of Clarke and it was upon the 2007 Paris-Roubaix champion's recommendation that the Tasmanian be signed to the Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project - where he will also ride next year - as a domestique for the Classics.
The biggest team in the world
Clarke is hopeful his program for 2011 will focus on putting him in those one-day races where he'll be able to demonstrate the qualities that saw him gain such spectacular results as a rookie in Belgium kermesse competition. And as a Classics-oriented domestique, in some small way it may also fuel speculation that Fabian Cancellara will be making his way to the team once a sponsor is announced.
On the topic of sponsorship, Clarke says he has faith in the process the team's management has undertaken in signing riders before announcing the headline sponsor, pointing to the calibre of manpower already confirmed to ride in 2011.
"You have pretty good faith in them being able to get a sponsor because of the riders that are going there - guys like the Schlecks can always pull something out because I reckon they'll be winning the Tour next year," he explains.
But Clarke's also quick to add that his own progression, which has been extremely rapid, is also a bit breathtaking. "I'm a bit nervous about it - going from not having that much experience racing in Europe to what will probably be the biggest team [in pro cycling] will be a bit daunting but I reckon I can handle it," he predicts.
While he's circumspect about declaring any objectives for the coming year, some of his fellow Australians - and indeed his new boss, Kim Andersen - have expressed where they think his natural physical attributes and affable demeanour will get Clarke.
"Will is a big Aussie with a huge engine," said Andersen upon announcing Clarke's signing. "He caught my eye racing in Belgium this spring, winning kermesse races left and right. That's no easy feat, so we will obviously look to develop his skills for the Classics."
A country boy at heart
When Cyclingnews spoke with Will Clarke, he was back at home in Australia, on his parents' farm about 60km outside Launceston.
He'd just come in from 'marking' lambs - which includes vaccination and ear-tagging - and there were a total of 8,000 to be done.
"We've still got about another 2,000 left, so I hope we can finish them next week before I've got a bit more training," he explains.
Time spent down on the farm may be limited in the coming years however, as Clarke finds his place in the European peloton.
While many Australians professionals return home for the summer, the off-season is generally brief and spent travelling before racing begins for many in January with the national championships.
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