Simon Clarke (EF Education First) came close to cracking the podium at the Strade Bianche on Saturday, but a moment's hesitation when the winning move went from a select group cost him his chance. The 32-year-old Australian hung on to finish a career-best eighth in the Italian Classic, but at the finish he rued the missed opportunity for an even better result.
"I hesitated when Fuglsang went, and I should have just - I should have gone," Clarke told Cyclingnews, referring to the winning move Astana's Jakob Fuglsang launched with about 20km remaining that also drew out eventual winner Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), who finished third.
"I should have tried to go," Clarke said. "Whether I could have gotten across or not I don't know, but I felt good and I hesitated a second and that was it, and then I was on the back foot."
Clarke rode a flawless race in the early going, and when the top names started to emerge toward the front as the gravel sectors counted down he was still among the contenders in an elite group dangling just behind the day's breakaway.
When Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) moved to the front and attacked over the top of a climb near Monte Sante Maria with 50km to race, Clarke was there along with Alaphilippe, Fuglsang, Van Aert, Lotto Soudal's Tim Wellens and Deceuninck-QuickStep's Yves Lampaert and former winner Zdenek Stybar. Also in the group were Fuglsang's teammate Alexey Lutsenko, Trek-Segafredo's Toms Skujins, Rob Power (Team Sunweb) and Romain Seigle (Groupama-FDJ).
Fuglsang's attack momentarily shattered the group as Van Aert was quickly on his wheel and Alaphilippe initially lost contact but put in a massive effort to bridge. Clarke languished in the chasing group behind as others began to catch back on. He attacked several times, hoping to possibly make it across to the leaders, but he couldn't make the bridge.
"The team gave me a leadership role today, and I really wanted to deliver for them and get a good result, so top 10 was my goal, and then once I knew I was in top 10 on the road I just did the best result I could, but I just lacked - that last 3km was a bit tough for me," he said.
Although he lacked a bit of horsepower for the finale, Clarke said he was happy with his eighth-place finish, his best yet in a race that he says is his favourite.
"I'm happy to finally finish in the top 10 in this race," he told Cyclingnews. "It's my favourite race and I always hold a special place for this race, and finally I've been able to do a good result.
"It's just a special race. We only do it once a year on the dirt, and I grew up in Melbourne on dirt roads, so I rode them my whole childhood, and it kind of feels like home racing."
There will be little time for Clarke to celebrate his top 10 result, however, as he will line up for GP Industria & Artigianato one-day race in Italy on Sunday.
"So no rest for me," he said.
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