Months after a last-minute deal with Israel-Premier Tech in 2022 saved his career from an untimely ending, Australian veteran Simon Clarke said being able to thank the team by taking their first Tour de France stage win was something "very special."
Back in January and left stranded by the closing down of Qhubeka-NextHash, the 35-year-old was the last rider to sign with Israel-Premier Tech for this season.
Fast forward a further half-year, though, and Clarke's last-minute lunge for the line in Arenberg in the Tour de France netted the Australian a massive success.
A former King of the Mountains winner and double stage winner in the Vuelta a España, as well as being briefly the leader of the Giro d'Italia in 2015, Clarke said it had "definitely been a challenging winter for me with the closing of Qhubeka, but I'm always the optimist. I never gave up."
"The solution came late, I'm very thankful for Israel-Premier Tech for giving me this opportunity and I tried to repay them with as many [UCI] points as possible. So to get them their first-ever Tour de France stage victory is very special for me."
While Clarke's latest win will be a welcome boost to Israel-Premier Tech's battle to amass enough points to remain in the WorldTour, he said that as a team the "more relaxed" objective in the overall classification with Jakob Fuglsang gave all the squad opportunities to go for stage wins in the Tour.
"It's always a tricky combination, when you're putting together personal ambitions and riding for a team leader, and I've ridden many Tours for [former EF teammate] Rigoberto Urán and have fond memories for him finishing on the [Tour de France] podium. But in this race, we have a bit more of an open mentality about going for stages."
Even though he made it into the break of the day and was still in at the finish with Taco van der Hoorn (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux), Edvald Boasson Hagen (TotalEnergies) and Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost), Clarke said he was worried about a former double Tour de France winner who was in hot pursuit also joining the leading quarter for a crack at a win. Not to mention Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), hardly a slouch when it came to battling for victories on the cobbles.
"I definitely thought they could catch us, but as we've seen in Paris-Roubaix, on cobbled stages, it's very difficult to close the gap. Even 10 or 15 seconds can be hard. And everybody was contributing in the break, too," he reasoned.
The final battle for the line, though, between four riders all close to exhaustion turned into a spectacularly unpredictable battle in which each breakaway member played their last card, and Clarke won. But only just.
"It was a long one," he said with a grin. "But I just said to myself, I don't have to panic, stay calm as much as you can."
"Powless got the first gap, but fortunately Edvald decided to chase him down, and I stayed on his slipstream, watching the metres click down."
"Taco came over Edvald at 350 metres and I thought now's my chance. So I let him pass, I waited and waited and I went for the line at the last minute. I still can't believe it was enough."
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