‘Old boy’ Clarke, UnitedHealthcare aim for Charlotte domination

Aussie criterium veteran captains UnitedHealthcare into the third stop on the 2012 USACrits Series in Charlotte

Few, if any, observers expected the first race of the National Criterium Calendar (NCC) to be over as soon as it was, but they probably also didn’t expect a self-described “old boy” in the ranks of U.S. criterium riders to take part in a two-man breakaway that would completely shut down Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing Criterium on March 31.

“Yep, we served all those young fellas a good lesson,” said Hilton Clarke (UnitedHealthcare).

Clarke, the Aussie veteran of the U.S. criterium circuit, followed an early move by Luis Amaran (Jamis-Sutter Home) that turned out to be the race’s decisive moment. The pair would soon lap the field, instantly diffusing anyone else’s hopes of securing a victory. Along with his UnitedHealthcare team, which is based in nearby Asheville, Clarke will look to stamp out his rivals’ hopes again Saturday night at the third stop of the USACrits Series, the Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Normally my thought process wouldn’t be to take off in the first five minutes and try and lap the field,” said Clarke. “Normally I’d like a bit more time to get adjusted to the crit. But Luis is not a person you give 10 meters to because he’s so strong. So I was really just covering his attack and I have to admit that he was the powerhouse of the breakaway. But it was a good situation for him and for me to guarantee the podium, so we went for it. For our team it was the best-case scenario because I was the fastest on the team that day and then we only needed to race one guy.”

Despite all of the other top talent in the Tampa field, UHC’s criterium hit squad can never be discounted for podium real estate once they roll to the start line. Clarke and company have shown themselves to be a lethal combination of strength and racing savvy that has for the past few years rarely failed to produce. With so many key sprinters on board, it’s tricky to see how they manage to effectively balance all their firepower.

“I just had dinner with Jake Keough, who won last year’s event, and we just decided to arm wrestle over the table to see who’s helping who (in Charlotte),” Hilton said.

Keough is the fifth-year pro who won last year’s Presbyterian Invitational, known as “Presby,” and many see him as the future of sprinting in the pro ranks. When Clarke, Keough and the rest of the team return for the ninth annual running of the event later today, the reality of how UnitedHealthcare works inside the scrum of 128 riders will be far more intuitive than designed.

“The beauty of it is now that, a lot of the fast guys on the team like myself, Jake, Karl Menzies, and Adrian Hegyvary have all been racing together now for three years,” said Clarke. “So when you have that kind of experience together, all of us sort of know where we are at this time of year and what we’re trying to achieve as a team and with our personal goals. Not much even needs to be said.”

UnitedHealthcare will see challenges in Charlotte from Bissell, Kenda-5-hour Energy and local favorites Mountain Khakis-SmartStop. The event, which is a part of the 2012 USACrits Series as well as the National Criterium Calendar, runs on a unique barbell-shaped, one-mile course that has the riders passing in front of the start/finish grandstands twice per lap.

“What a lot of people don’t realize about this race,” said race announcer Chad Andrews, “is that on either side of the start/finish line the riders have to go up and down a slight hill. So because of the shape of the course they have to do that twice per lap. After 90 minutes of racing at those speeds, you feel that every time.”

Clarke concurred: “It is 85km, so it’s a longer criterium. And in a crit, once you start going into the 80km mark, it starts having an impact.”

The Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium is the chief fundraising event for the Brain Tumor Fund for the Carolinas, and has raised nearly $5 million for the charity throughout its existence. Charlotte also carries the single richest prize purse for a criterium of the entire season. There is $75,000 total cash on offer to be split between the women’s and men’s fields — including $7,500 and $12,500, respectively, for crossing the line first. Combine that with the highest amount of NCC points available all year, and you can be certain that every pro criterium rider in the country wants to do well here, UnitedHealthcare included.

“It might make us ride a bit quicker and faster in the corners,” said Clarke, laughing.

For Clarke, who late last year had a plate removed from his shoulder that doctors installed following a serious crash at the 2011 Nature Valley Grand Prix, he’s more than ready to help his team reassert its dominance on the criterium circuit.

“I finished off the 2011 season with the Sun Tour in Australia, which is good for me since it’s my home town,” he said. “Then at the very end of the year, I had the plate removed. My shoulder is completely perfect. Then I didn’t race until the Tour of Langkawi, but everything kind of built up quite nicely for that. Now with that done and a good season last year, I’m ready to tackle the NCC series this year.”

That’s not to say, however, that Clarke has any specific trophy that he’s hunting in 2012. Now in his 11th year racing primarily in the States, he sees his role as being more of a chief cog in the UnitedHealthcare machine that simply has to run right in order for him to achieve any satisfaction on the bike.

“My approach might be different to others, but I don’t care as long as I do my best,” he said. “One thing I’ve done in my career, is that I’ve done well at these crits, so I get to win some races, but I’ve also gotten to help my team. Sometimes not winning the win can make me feel more satisfied if I know that I’ve done my best. Through the season, I’ll be chasing a lot of these crits, but I’ll also be helping the team at events that don’t suit me so much.”

One of those races that he has regularly hoped to be victorious at, however, is the Philadelphia International Championship in June. But even a win in Philly might not necessarily be the cherry atop his racing season.

“I’ve always wanted to win Philly, but whether that would make me happy or not about my season I don’t know. Ultimately at the end of the year, I judge myself by whether I’ve done the best job I can do really.”

Clarke opened the criterium season in Tampa with the best result possible. He’ll look to carry that momentum through Saturday night in Charlotte.