Orica GreenEdge's Simon Clarke was the sole Australian finisher at the World Road Race Championships in Florence in seventh, 34 seconds down on race winner, Rui Costa (Portugal). In the reduced bunch sprint for sixth -after Ukrainian Andriy Grivko slipped away for fifth, Clarke was bested only by Peter Sagan as he came in ahead of headline riders such as Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) and Philippe Gilbert (Belgium).
Originally charged with protecting Cadel Evans until the last lap, Clarke was literally the last man standing for Australia after six of the nine Australian starters were brought down in crashes throughout the race. Rory Sutherland and Cameron Meyer were the only other Australians to avoid going down, but were never in contention after being distanced by the Italian lead peloton, leaving Clarke to ride the final 100km on his own.
"The conditions out there were just unbelievable," said Clarke. "Richie [Porte] crashed on the way into Florence and then there was that massive crash coming into the second climb and I knew I had Cadel, Michael Matthews and David Tanner on my wheel and they were all caught up in it.
"The difference between me being a part of that crash and not was only a couple of millimetres. I'm extremely lucky not to have been involved. When I heard the noise from behind, knowing where our guys were positioned, I was pretty sure that we had gone down.
"Soon after I got the message that those three were out. I knew it was my turn to step up and try to deliver a result for Australia. I did everything I could."
Having previously ridden three senior world championships as a domestique, including helping to guide Cadel Evans to victory in Mendrisio, Clarke finally got the chance to show his own capabilities.
"This is my 9th worlds now [including U23 and junior championships] and it all came down to reflecting on what I've learned from Cadel and the other guys over the years and making sure I did everything right out there today," said the 27-year-old.
Clarke positioned himself well throughout the race, but when push came to shove he was unable to follow the race winning moves initiated by Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) and Joaqium Rodridguez (Spain) on the last lap.
"Unfortunately, I couldn't quite get across to the likes of Nibali, Valverde, Costa and Rodriguez," explained Clarke. "I was just in that little no man's land between those two and the group behind me.
"I ended up getting caught before the finish, and there was a group of 12 of us racing for fifth place. I wanted to finish off with a good sprint to prove that it wasn't a fluke that I had remained around the mark. I'm happy with seventh. Top ten is great.
"It's not every day that all your leaders crash out and there's an open door to ride your own race. I'm glad that I could make the most of the opportunity."
Australian director, Brad McGee, believes that Clarke's ride was a breakthrough performance that has certified his credentials as a "modern one day race performer."
"Simon's performance today made a statement that he's not just a wingman, but he can step up to the plate and deliver on the big stage," said McGee. "He will now be etched into the rat pack of modern one day race performers and that will be the level he will aspire to for the rest of his career."
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