"I kept on telling myself 'I have to be willing to lose to win this'," was how Simon Clarke described the strategy that took him to EF-Education First's p/b Drapac's first WorldTour win of 2018, taken in the Vuelta a España on Wednesday.
Clarke secured the much-needed victory for the American squad on a baking hot trek through the hills of southern Andalucia, in a tough three-way battle against two veteran breakaway specialists, Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Alessandro De Marchi (BMC Racing Team).
All three riders have won stages in the Vuelta a España before, but it was Clarke, previously a winner in the race at Valdezcaray back in 2012, who managed to secure his first victory since the GP Industria & Artigianato in Italy in 2016.
"I had information coming from my director that there were three guys coming from behind" - Davide Villella (Astana Pro Team), Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ) and Floris De Tier (LottoNL-Jumbo), who came within eight seconds of the leading trio - "but I was trying not to worry about that," Clarke told Cyclingnews after the finish.
"I said 'if they catch us they catch us, my priority is these two guys, De Marchi and Bauke."
"When they attacked me in the finale, it really hurt, so my priority was not to get caught out by them and just not worry about what was behind, praying things worked out. It was tough, but I'm glad it worked out."
Knowing the other riders' characteristics was a big help, he said, "because although it'd be pretty unusual to have come up against these two previously in a three-way sprint, you race against these guys all year, and I knew De Marchi was pretty fast. But he'd spent a lot of time up the road and I was just hoping he was tired.
"Bauke's not slow either, he's won some sprints and San Sebastian too. But I just backed myself and I'm glad it worked out."
Clarke's memories of battling for victory the summit finish at Valderazcay in 2012 returned during the breakaway, he said, and then, too, he had managed to dispatch a tough rival at the end of a long move - Tony Martin.
"Coming to the line back then, it was another tough opponent to line up against, too, but my goal was there, I was pretty sure I could beat him too," he told Cyclingnews, "and I just had to make sure he didn't catch me out in the final couple of kilometres. And it was a similar goal here, I told myself I had to back myself in a sprint and it worked out."
Speaking later in a press conference, Clarke explained in considerable detail how he had lived through the breakaway and the fraught but fascinating three-way duel that decided the stage, saying that "In the final three or five kilometres, it was always going to be cat and mouse."
Coming into the finish, itself "I needed one in front and one behind to keep an eye on both. But even though it hurt when they attacked beforehand, it felt good because I told myself if they thought they needed to drop me, they must be worried.
"I knew De Marchi was worried about the group coming back because he kept the pace going, then the sprint went the way it did."
Earlier on, he said, once the three riders had gained 90 seconds on the early breakaway of the day, "we had to commit, trying to get as much of an advantage as we could on the [mid-stage] downhill because often on descents riders will ease up a bit, eat a bit of food, and then that's when you can get a gap.
"Plus there was such a strong headwind we couldn't attack one another, so it became a three-man time trial, otherwise we'd have thrown away all our chances." It was a fortunate strategy choice, he pointed out, given how close the chasing group had got to catching them again.
Experience definitely played a part in Clarke's success in other ways. The 32-year-old Australian had already labelled stage 5 as a breakaway day well before the Vuelta, he said, as well as stage 7. But it was stage 5 - for now - where Clarke and the American squad has landed a victory.
For EF-Education First, after a difficult season, a win as big as a Vuelta a España stage was more than timely. "We've got such a committed group, I really don't feel the results we've had this year fairly reflect our hard work," Clarke concluded. "That's why I'm really happy we've been able to come away with a win here today."
And if it might have been a gamble for Clarke to test his luck in such a long-distance, initially oversized break, as the Australian put it, "I had to be prepared to lose in order to win."
Or as Team EF-Education First's manager Charly Wegelius likes to say, "if you don't buy a ticket, you don't win the lottery."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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