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Edging out Taco van der Hoorn after a tough day on the cobbles to take his first individual Tour de France stage victory was a big moment for the Australian, but it was made all the sweeter by the fact that he was nearly left without a racing contract for this season.
Taking one of the biggest victories of his career was an opportunity to reward the faith that the team had shown in him earlier in the season.
“I’m always the optimist, I never stopped training, I never gave up. I always believed that there would be a solution out there,” Clarke said. “It came late but I’m really thankful Israel-Premier Tech believing in me and giving me this opportunity. As you’ve seen all season, I’ve tried to repay them with as many points as possible and to get the first victory for them in the Tour de France is very special. I’m also extremely happy to be able to repay that to the team.”
Clarke only rode Paris-Roubaix for the second time in his career last season, but he took on the cobbles from the front. He was one of six riders that made it up the road early on and survived as the group thinned out to just four by the finish line.
The six leaders were given a lot of room by the peloton to begin with, but it was kept on a very short leash as the bunch hit the cobbles. With 30 kilometers remaining, the breakaway had just two minutes and a late surge by Tadej Pogačar and Jasper Stuyven inside the final 20 kilometers saw it come down to around 40 seconds.
“We had information that they had a gap but as we’ve seen in many Roubaix editions, in the final kilometers of a Roubaix-style race, it’s very difficult to close the gap. Even a 15 second gap can be un-closeable in such a difficult stage like today,” Clarke said. “I had information that they were coming but if they caught us, they would have to ride super-fast. With Taco, Powless and Edvald, we had a super strong break, and everyone was contributing 100 percent and fortunately it was enough to go for the line.”
Having worked together all day, the breakaway began looking at each other as it went into the final kilometer. Neilson Powless was the first to strike just before the flamme rouge, with Edvald Boasson Hagen the first to blink in the chase.
Clarke sat in Boasson Hagen’s wheel until Van der Hoorn jumped out into the wind inside the last 400 meters. It was only with 50 meters to go that Clarke finally put his nose in the wind and took the victory on the dive for the line.
“I said to myself that you can’t panic, and you must be as cold as you can. Even when Powless attacked, I think maybe it was about one kilometer to go,” Clarke said. “He got a gap and I thought maybe it’s the move, fortunately Edvald decided to chase him down and I managed to sit back and stay in his slipstream and bide my time for the sprint.
“I was watching the boards and counting them down and Taco came over already at 350 and I thought “now’s my chance.” It was a little bit too far still, so I let him past and I waited and then I went for the line at the last minute. I still can’t believe it was enough.”