FORLI, Italy (VN) — Simon Clarke stepped off the Orica-GreenEdge bus Wednesday morning to be welcomed by a phalanx of TV cameras and microphones. The veteran Aussie was the center of the media storm that enveloped the start of the 153-kilometer 11th stage at the Giro d’Italia. His fair play gesture the previous day went viral, and Clarke was ready to explain his version of what happened.
“Richie punctured right in the middle of a roundabout. He was right behind one of his teammates, but they obviously didn’t hear him puncture, and I was already stopped with him, trying not to crash,” Clarke told journalists. “I was directly behind him, and I didn’t notice any of his teammates around. It was a spontaneous reaction to give him my wheel, being an Aussie and a good friend. I just acted on instinct. I didn’t even think. I just did what I thought was right, and tried to support a friend.”
That gesture cost Clarke and Porte a two-minute time penalty. For Clarke, who wore the pink jersey in La Spezia after stage 4, the time losses were irrelevant. For Porte, who started Tuesday’s stage in third place at 22 seconds back, the penalty and time loss from the puncture is devastating. The Tasmanian sunk to 12th overall, now 3:09 back.
“The penalty is really unfortunate. That certainly wasn’t my intention. I was just trying to help a mate,” Clarke explained. “You’d never wish someone to puncture in such an unfortunate moment, especially for a GC guy who could lose the race for that.”
Porte punctured at the worst possible moment. A breakaway was still clear up the road, so the peloton was ripping along at full chase speed. The “safe zone” at 3km to go was still very far away. Porte was desperate to limit the damage.
Many were wondering why Sky was not better protecting Porte’s flanks. As Clarke explained, Porte’s puncture came in a roundabout, and his teammates sped up the road not realizing their captain had punctured. In one photo, a Sky rider is visible at the edge of the frame just as Clarke is tightening down the wheel.
“That’s one thing you cannot tell from that photo. I was already finished changing the wheel when the Sky rider came back. The Sky guy was only arriving, and it was at least 20 or 30 seconds by the time a Sky rider came, and by then, the wheel was already in,” Clarke explained. “Richie didn’t ask help from me. He was shouting to his teammate, but they didn’t hear him. It was just fortunate that I saw the problem. All the Australians are really good friends, and we look out for each other.”
Why did he do it? Clarke explained that he and Porte train together occasionally, and despite never racing on the same team together, he said, “we’re good mates.”
Orica sport director Matt White confirmed that Clarke made the decision on the fly, and did not consult with the Orica team car via race radio.
“We didn’t even know what happened. Clarkie made an impulsive decision to help Richie Porte, and we were none the wiser. We were in car No. 18, so that’s a decision that Clarkie made at the spur of the moment,” White said. “Riders don’t think like that in the heat of the moment. They might have known the rule, but when you’re going 60kph, with 7km to go, the decision Clarkie made was an impulsive one, and that was to help a friend.”
White said he could not remember an instance when the rule was enforced. Teams and riders discreetly help each other out throughout the season. A team might help another squad reel in a breakaway, even if they do not have a sprinter to contest the stage. Why? Because the payback might come months later, when a team might need help in a key mountain stage.
Gianni Meersman (Etixx-Quick-Step) confirmed that he received a wheel from a Sky rider earlier in this Giro, but no one was the wiser.
“The UCI jury made that decision, and we have to accept that. I agree with [Sky principal] Dave Brailsford a lot on this point, but the rules are the rules, and we have to live with it,” White said. “Clarkie was thinking about nothing else but trying to help a friend. Whether we like it or not, we have to accept the decision from the UCI.”
Clarke said the outcome was hardly what he expected for what otherwise was a goodwill gesture. Did he regret it?
“Regret isn’t probably the right word, especially when someone acted and tried to do the best thing at the time,” Clarke said. “When you’re racing at 60kph, you have less than one second to make a decision. That’s the decision I made, and I have to stand by that.”