With Richie Porte forced to miss the UCI Road World Championships through illness, Jack Haig and Simon Clarke will be flying the flag Australia in the men's road race this Sunday. In Porte, the nation had a shot at a podium place in Innsbruck but they have had to reset their ambitions over the last week.
"We're not the favourites, I'm the first to admit that but between Jack and myself we can definitely have a good presence in the final on Sunday. We'll do everything we can to do our jersey proud," Clarke told Cyclingnews at the team hotel on the outskirts of Innsbruck. "I think that a top 10 is a realistic goal and anything better than a top 10 means that we've had a really good ride and if we finish outside the top 10 then it's fair to say that things didn't go our way and we played our cards incorrectly in the final couple of laps.
"I've got a lot of experience doing world championships and I'll be leaning on that on Sunday and Jack has been climbing well this year and the way he rode Worlds last year I'm sure that he'll do really well."
Haig has been a prominent rider in the mountains for Mitchelton-Scott throughout the season and took third overall at the Tour of Utah in August. The 25-year-old arrived in Innsbruck on Thursday evening after a 10-hour journey from his home in Andorra. His performances this season make him the obvious replacement for Porte within the Australian line-up but this is just his second appearance in the elite race at the World Championships and he is very much keeping a lid on his expectations.
"I spoke to Richie quite a few times during the Vuelta and I really hoped that his form would come up because I think him in top condition could really content for the World Championships. I was a bit sad because I was looking forward to working for him," Haig told Cyclingnews soon after arriving at the hotel.
"Now Richie isn't racing because he's sick, it changes things a little bit but I also don't see myself as a big favourite. The team here is quite a young one and I think what I'll say in the team meeting is for everyone to take their own opportunities. I'm not going to sit down in the meeting and ask everyone to work for me. I'd prefer everyone to enjoy the moment.
"I don't like to set a goal of the top 15 or top 10. I'd prefer to set a goal of trying to race well and naturally a good result will come if I race well."
After a tricky start to the season when he broke three vertebrae in a crash at Milan-San Remo, Clarke has enjoyed a successful second half of the year with a stage win in the opening week of the Vuelta a Espana. It was his team EF Education First-Drapac's first WorldTour win of the season and his first win in two years.
Like Clarke, Haig arrives at the World Championships after completing the Vuelta a Espana less than two weeks ago. In Spain, Haig was a key support rider for Simon Yates as the young Brit rode to the overall title. Having previously made the podium at the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana with Esteban Chaves, it was the team's first Grand Tour victory. There was plenty of celebration afterwards but Haig has had to keep a check on things with some big goals still to come, not least this Sunday.
"At the finish of the Vuelta, there was a big high and there was a bit of a comedown after that," he explained. "I did the same thing last year with the Vuelta before going to Norway so I have a little bit of experience trying to manage these two weeks in between, but it is always hard because each Grand Tour is always different. I used last year as a bit of a template as what to do in these two weeks.
"I try to keep a level head and sure I enjoyed the moment of the finish of the Vuelta but I still have five more race days of the year and there are still some important ones like here and Lombardia."
After turning professional with Orica-Scott in 2016, this season has marked a major step forward to Haig. Prior to the Vuelta a Espana, he proved invaluable to Yates at the Giro d'Italia in May before Yates cracked in the final week and enjoyed his own success at the Tour of Utah. He has also shown promise in the one-day races with 14th at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. With Roman Kreuziger set to leave the team next season, Haig is hoping to get more chances at the Ardennes.
"I really like riding them. I also like the length and the strategy and the history behind Grand Tour racing," he told Cyclingnews. "The team maybe doesn't have an Ardennes specialist. We had Simon Gerrans, then [Michael] Albasini was second in Liege and last year we had Roman. I hope that maybe I can step into that direction or maybe have more opportunity racing there.
"I don't want to pigeonhole myself too young and at the moment the team at the Grand Tours are taken by the Yates brothers and hopefully Esteban can come back next year at a top level, so maybe there is a bit of an opening in the Ardennes area. I think I need to take my opportunities where I can take them and then naturally I'll progress into either direction."
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