Grand Tours have proven to be happy hunting grounds for Simon Clarke since his debut at the 2012 Vuelta a España when he won a stage and the mountains classification on his first attempt at three week racing. The second time was just as good with his Orica-GreenEdge team winning the team time trial at the 2013 Tour de France and holding the yellow jersey for four days.
On his second appearance at the Tour this year, Clarke celebrated his 28th birthday on stage 13 by wearing the red dossard in recognition of his most combative rider prize from the day before. It was Clarke's second most combative award having also collected the prize for his aggressive riding on stage 3 at the 2013 Tour which was won by teammate Simon Gerrans.
Next season will see Clarke line up at the Giro d'Italia for the first time in his career and will do so in a protected role having received the blessing from the team.
"I asked the team if I could do the Giro and they were keen to support me in that request. It's great, I am really happy that they are willing to back me and [next year] we have similar aspirations to this year at the Giro," Clarke told Cyclingnews at Mitchelton Winery during the team's River & Ranges Winery Ride. "If we can go back there and repeat what we did this year, it would be more than satisfying, not only for the riders there, but also for the team.
At this year's Giro, Orica-GreenEdge won the opening day team time trial and then held the leader's pink jersey, first with Svein Tuft and then Michael Matthews until stage eight. The team also collected two individual stage wins via Matthews and Pieter Weening.
Directeur sportif Matt White further expanded on what the team's ambitions will be for the first week of the race.
"Very similar to this year, win the team time trial and hold that jersey for as long as possible on someone's back," White told Cyclingnews. "It's quite a different first week of the Giro to this year. Those stages in Liguria are pretty solid, they are certainly not normal sprint stages which suits us.
Racing the Giro will see Clarke adjust his schedule from previous years that saw him line up at the Tour and the Vuelta, although he isn't ruling anything out just yet.
"It's yet to be decided, but I might end up skipping the Tour and focus on the Vuelta again," Clarke said of the planning so far for 2015. "But as we all know, it's a long year, and I'll get through the Giro and I'll definitely reassess after that and see how I'm going and whether I keep going or take a break."
While Gerrans will be a protected rider at Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Clarke is also looking to take his chances at La Flèche Wallonne next year with the team giving him opportunity to do so.
"Flèche is always an opportunity but we'll see what happens," said Clarke who finished 16th this year. “I think I still have a little bit of development in those six-and-a-half to seven hour races before I can really be at the front. While I am developing and learning the ropes, I am more than happy to be at Gerro's side for as long as he needs it.
"Flèche is a good race for me at the moment because it's that little bit shorter and I still have a few bickies (biscuits) left at the end to have a crack. If Gerro doesn't do it again, like he has in the last three years, then I'll see what happens and have a bit of a dig there."
At 28, Clarke is entering the peak years of his career and it's no surprise that he is looking to pursue his own opportunities having tasted success at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour in February.
"It was one, obviously being from Melbourne, that I really wanted to tick off," he said. "Obviously racing with Gerro, who I aspire a lot to his achievements and try to follow a path similar to his. With him having success early on at the Sun Tour, I figured it was also a good place where I should try to tick the box on my palmarès. I am really happy to tick that box and for [team owner ] Gerry Ryan, words don't describe the support that he puts in for us, and to win at home in front of Gerry was special and a bit of a thank you I suppose.
"I think after my performance this year, I'll be pretty marked out, but that will give the other guys some opportunity and well see what happens," he said of his title defence. "The plan is to defend it as a team, whether that’s me or someone else we have to work out but I’ll be going here to personally defend it."
For Clarke, developing as a rider is not just about winning races but also providing leadership to the younger riders on the team as he explained.
"In last couple of years in the national team they've given me the captain job, and I also did that in the Vuelta last year, so I am doing it more and more these days and I suppose that role for me is only going to become more predominate in the future as some of the older guys in the team move on, when they move on," he said not wanting to see them go before their time "I am just taking it day-by-day as they say and if there's races they want me to take responsibility in and call some shots on the road, that's good and for the other ones I'll just keep doing what I am doing.
"I am not too stressed about that, I am happy to look after the younger guys on the team and mentor them a bit but I am pretty focused on my performance and I want to step that up in the next few years."
While Clarke is passing on his experience to the younger riders, he isn't immune to learning from the more experienced riders on the team such as Mat Hayman whose signing was a real coup as he explained.
"Yeah, Matty is awesome and I know that GreenEdge really wanted him from the start and obviously he had pretty good wicket at Sky and was happy there," he said. "There was no real reason to leave but eventually they convinced him and it's a great benefit to have him on our side. He's got great experience and he can pass on some good insight to the younger guys."
The World Championships have also been rather kind to Clarke who was a key-domestique for Cadel Evans when he won gold in Mendrisio and was again crucial for the team as he helped Gerrans claim the silver medal at this year's Worlds. In 2013, then Clarke showed himself capable of leading the national team when he finished in seventh place in a group that contained the likes of Peter Sagan, Phillippe Gilbert and Fabian Cancellara.
The Richmond course is one that could suit a rider like Clarke but for now the emphasis is on first-half of 2015 and Clarke isn't entertaining any thoughts of what September may hold.
"We'll see, it sounds more like a Flanders style of race more than anything but the distance is more what gets to everyone," he said of the parcours. "Even if you only put one hill in a lap, if you do it 14 times, the altitude adds up pretty quickly.
"I've had a pretty good run in the Worlds in recent years and obviously if I do the Vuelta I'll be setting myself up for it, so we'll see how it goes."
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