After a successful early season, Australian all-rounder Jonathan Clarke believes his UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling men's team has planned wisely by skipping the European spring races in order to best showcase the team in the major US races to come.
In the eight-stage Tour de Langkawi that finished last Wednesday, UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling was one of the standouts, with the American Pro Continental outfit leaving Malaysia with one stage win – by American sprinter John Murphy in stage 3 – victory in the teams classification, Colombian Daniel Jaramillo's second place overall, while Slovakian Janez Brajkovic and Clarke placed 11th and 12th overall respectively, and American Tanner Putt won the daily most combative rider award on stages 6 and 7.
It brought to an end a successful trip for the American team that had earlier raced well in the Herald Sun Tour of Victoria in Australia where Murphy won stage 3 to Inverloch, Putt was second on stage 2 to Moe, and Clarke placed sixth overall after a third on the final stage to Arthur's Seat.
"We had a great week," Clarke, 31, told Cyclingnews of their Tour de Langkawi in which the goal was to win a stage at the start, but at one point also saw them eyeing up a tilt at the overall win with a planned three-pronged attack by Jaramillo, Brajkovic and Clarke on stage 4 to the Cameron Highlands.
The latter challenge eluded them. None of the trio could follow Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), who won that stage and took the yellow leader's jersey – only to lose it to South African Reinardt Janse van Rensburg (Dimension Data) two days later and finish third overall behind a victorious Janse van Rensburg and Jaramillo.
But Jaramillo and Clarke tried to match Lopez in the Cameron Highlands finish before placing second at 30 seconds and fifth at 35 seconds, respectively, while Brajkovic was 10th at the same time as Clarke; yet all with their confidence intact. "All week we had good moral and it's been a good start to the year," Clarke said.
"[The Cameron Highlands finish] was a bit bittersweet for me. I ended up going with Lopez and then I couldn't stay with him. But 'Danny' salvaged our stage, but it was good to have three in the mix.
"Even [on stage 7] on the climb when it split [after 25km], we had six guys on the front [Putt in a break and others in the first peloton.]
"We had a good week. There are less of these weeks than bad ones."
The road ahead
The UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling men's team have not only been racing in Australia and Malaysia. They have been racing in the Tour of Taiwan that finishes on Thursday and in which Colombian Carlos Alzate finished second on stage 1 and Italian sprinter Marco Canola placed second on stage 2 and fourth on stage 3.
The team have also raced in the Tour de San Luis in Argentina in January that was highlighted by fifth place in the stage 1 team time trial, and in February at the Tour of Qatar, and then at the Tour of Oman in which Canola placed third in stage 5.
But the US team will now focus on the American races, notwithstanding, the Tour of Turkey from April 24 to May 1 is still on the team's website calendar.
It is sill a crucial shift in thinking. A European spring often drained their riders for a US return.
Clarke's season began in Australia at the Australian road titles in January, where he placed 12th in the time trial and 15th in the road race and 15th again in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Geelong, Victoria.
But he now wants to be as best prepared as possible for the Joe Martin Memorial stage race in Arkansas (April 21-24), the Tour of Gila in New Mexico (May 4-8) and the Tour of California (May 15-22).
"In other years we have been really good now and have gone to Europe," Clarke said. "By California we have been under the thumb. We were doing some fantastic races, but we were spread too thin and couldn't get results.
"We have dialled the program back and the races we do we are getting results in."
Clarke, who lives in the US in Ashville, North Carolina, plans for three weeks of high altitude training before racing again.
"It's the first time I have been able to do a training block in March and April for California," Clarke said. "I have usually been getting my butt kicked in at Belgium and then trying to front up at California, and have been no good.
"So I am going to go to altitude and really dial it in for Gila and California."
UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling team manager Hendrik Redant believes the team's performances at the Herald Sun Tour and Tour de Langkawi will have done wonders for their self-belief.
Based on those results and also on past campaigns in Europe, Redant, a former Belgian professional, believes the team can develop into a WorldTour player.
At least, that is his hope.
"Oh yes …," Redant told Cyclingnews.
"We [have been] working on that for several years. It's all about the money of course. In a WorldTour team, you need quite some budget.
"At this point we are till looking for some sponsorships.
"Our aim is to go on the big WorldTour level, riding all those Classics.
"Last year we did Paris-Roubaix, [Giro di] Lombardia … races like that; but of course, doing the whole set of the WorldTour races would be something else.
"The South Africans [now team Dimension Data] aimed high and they are now in there. That is one of our goals.
"I would like to take these guys up to there. They already could taste a few races.
"They have been doing a 'Euro' program over the last four years.
"It has not been all the real top classics, but still we have nice races and hard races, so they have tasted how it is … that ambience, that stress, and that victory minded public.
"So yeah … that's our goal."
Redant's belief in his team was boosted by their performance in Paris-Roubaix two years ago. He said the team that raced that 'Hell of the North' were "completely inexperienced" and did so "with material that was at that time limited."
It was not their results that impressed him so, but their attitude as a team - an attitude that he believes still exists today. "They all finished because they wanted to finish," Redant recalled.
"We were one of the only teams to finish with all eight riders.
"I was so proud. I knew that for them it was really something special. That spirit, 'I want to finish Paris-Roubaix' … that was there and I loved that.
"We had so many punctures and bad luck but still all our guys were there and made me feel proud.
"That is because those guys know what it means to race a Paris-Roubaix, to race it to the finish …
"It's an honour to do it and I loved that attitude they had. So [next time] let's go for an even stronger better team and let's go and aim for a win."
There are certainly riders on the team who have ambitions of racing WorldTour. And Clarke is definitely one of them.
"All my career I've dreamed of riding in the WorldTour, except now it is not a dream," Clarke said. "It's a clear-cut objective."
Rupert Guinness first wrote on cycling at the 1984 Victorian road titles in Australia from the finish line on a blustery and cold hilltop with a few dozen supporters. But since 1987, he has covered 26 Tours de France, as well as numerous editions of the Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana, classics, world track and road titles and other races around the world, plus four Olympic Games (1992, 2000, 2008, 2012). He lived in Belgium and France from 1987 to 1995 writing for Winning Magazine and VeloNews, but now lives in Sydney as a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media) and contributor to Cyclingnews and select publications.
An author of 13 books, most of them on cycling, he can be seen in a Hawaiian shirt enjoying a drop of French rosé between competing in Ironman triathlons.
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