Vuelta a Espana

Faithful domestique Clarke ends EF’s WorldTour slump

EF Education First-Drapac gives Simon Clarke a chance in stage 5 and it pays off handsomely with first WorldTour win of 2018.

ROQUETAS DE MAR, Spain (VN) — Simon Clarke is usually tethered to Rigoberto Urán as the Colombian’s trusted sidekick.

After sensing he had the legs to win, EF Education First-Drapac gave Clarke freedom to chase the breakaway at the Vuelta a España. The veteran Australian delivered the goods with an emotional victory Wednesday to give the team its first WorldTour victory of 2018.

“I put a circle on this stage,” Clarke said. “I spoke to the team about having some freedom today, which they gave me, and I had to make that count.”

At 32, he has emerged as Urán’s most trusted ally on the team. Clarke is designated to guide the Colombian through the hazards of each stage. Clarke acts as his pilot, bodyguard, and confidante.

EF’s sport directors sensed an opportunity to change the script in stage 5. They saw how the breaks were seeing rope early in this Vuelta and realized that Wednesday’s lumpy stage across the Sierra Nevada was ideal for Clarke’s skills and acumen. The decision was made to give Clarke the green light to chase the early moves.

“I spent a lot of my time looking after Rigo [Urán],” Clarke said. “The team relies on me to be on his side, but they saw I had good legs in the first couple stages, and today they gave me the green light. I’m so glad I made it count today and I crossed the finish line first.”

Urán was as pleased as everyone inside the EF bus. The Colombian was forced to leave the Tour with injuries. Now he is quietly riding back into contention during the Vuelta. Urán was happy to let Clarke take his chance Wednesday.

“If there is an opportunity to win a stage, we have to give it a try. Today was a perfect day for the escape,” Urán said. “I’m feeling better by the day. Simon took his chance and it’s very important for the team.”

EF Education First-Drapac was languishing at the bottom of the WorldTour winner’s list as the only team without a WorldTour win this season. On Tuesday, Dimension Data earned its first WorldTour win of 2018 when Ben King claimed his first career grand tour stage victory out of a long breakaway. Clarke’s win acts as a salve for what’s been a sometimes frustrating season full of close calls.

“We have been chasing the win all season long. Sometimes you need the luck but you never stop fighting,” said sport director Fabrizio Guidi. “We were four days in the breakaway with Pierre [Rolland] and Simon. Simon today was smart and strong. For the team, it’s a great day. Today is a little bit special for us.”

Clarke said the riders were not feeling any undue pressure from management to chase the win.

“Winning WorldTour races is the result of having the right processes,” Clarke said. “We obviously hoped more from the Tour. When you commit to one guy, you take the risk. If it doesn’t work out, you risk not having a good Tour.”

For Thursday’s stage, Clarke reverts to his bodyguard role. With momentum from his victory, Clarke is hoping the team will have a tailwind all the way to Madrid.

“We’re here at the Vuelta to show we’re a strong team and with some good luck on our side, we can have some good performances,” he said. “Not only today, I’m sure over the next two and a half weeks we’ll see some good performances. Rigo is super motivated, and we’ll see him going strong in the mountains.”