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Q&A: How Jonny Clarke took his first UCI win with dad watts

With his days occupied as a stay-at-home dad, pro cycling veteran Jonny Clarke resorted to riding the indoor trainer, with surprising results.

In the months leading up to his first UCI win, Jonny Clarke wasn’t all that concerned with weekly training hours, wattage numbers, or the daily bike-centric routine of a pro cyclist. Instead, his days centered around his daughter Frankie, who was born last August. He’d feed her, change her diapers, entertain her as best he could while his wife Laura was away at work.

That’s not ideal race preparation, but the 34-year-old Australian made the best of it, and he ended up winning stage 2 and the overall at Tour of Taiwan, March 17-21.

To prepare for 2019, Clarke fit in high-intensity pre-dawn trainer rides. They were simple intervals, no Netflix, no Zwift, just hard riding. Once a week, he’d take the bike outdoors, his only long ride of the week. Although he was disappointed to see UnitedHealthcare, his team of nine years, shut down at the end of 2018, he was still motivated. After joining the new Floyd’s Pro Cycling team late last fall, he went to work, riding that trainer when time allowed, and it paid off.

“I was kind of in disbelief and still am,” he said of his overall win at the five-day Tour of Taiwan.

He won the second stage, which was a shock. He lost the overall lead the next day, which really didn’t bother him all that much. Then things came together on the final climbing stage of the week in stage 4. He finished second that day and reclaimed the overall for good.

We called Clarke at his home in Asheville, North Carolina to hear about his first UCI win, which came after 15 years in the pro peloton, time usually spent as a loyal domestique.

VeloNews: Tell us about the Tour of Taiwan. It’s not very familiar to most Americans.

Jonathan Clarke: I think I’ve done it three times. Last year I was actually second overall by one second. Ironically, in my very short list of results I’ve had a good run here. I think it’s because there are a lot of intermediate stages in it. It’s not full-gas climbing. It’s not pan-flat like Asian races. It’s pretty uncontrolled, a lot of Conti teams there. It’s not as scripted so a lot of times the strongest guy doesn’t win, it’s just all over the place which I enjoy. It starts with one flat day at the start, one flat day at the end, and the three stages in the middle all have climbs in them and come down to small bunch finishes or breakaways.

VN: And you won stage 2. How did that feel, did it feel like you had a shot of winning the overall?

JC: I was kind of in a lot of disbelief. Kind of going a bit broader, I had my first baby last August and obviously with UnitedHealthcare stopping at the end of a nine-year stint for me, I didn’t have a team until maybe the end of November when I got a call from Scott and Gord at Floyd’s Cycling. My preparation has been all over the place. I’ve been training around my baby and my wife’s schedule. She’s the main breadwinner. I’ve been doing trainer rides at five in the morning, getting out on the bike once a week for an endurance ride. When I won the stage I was like, “How did that happen?” Even when I crossed the line I was kind of smiling I didn’t really put my hands in the air because I was just in shock. In one of the interviews, they asked me about the GC and I said I didn’t even care because I didn’t. The next day I lost the GC and there were four of us on the same time, and I don’t know it just kept happening I was kind of in disbelief and still am.

VN: So you only did one outdoor ride a week in the off-season.

JC: Yeah, as soon as Utah finished last year, my baby came not long after that. I knew the team was folding, UHC. I was having no luck with contract negotiations. So honestly, I wasn’t in a good place with the bike so I put the bike away for two months and was in the gym three days a week lifting weights. I slowly brought the bike back in. I went and did my nationals in January in Australia and got my butt absolutely kicked because I was just in the gym and riding a little bit. I got back and had a pretty good February, but it was all indoors, it was all on the trainer. I don’t know what they do on Zwift now, I’m not really into it. I just get on the trainer and do my specific intervals and get off.

VN: You were just staring at the wall?

JC: Yeah pretty much!

VN: What was the longest trainer ride you did?

JC: I didn’t have a lot of time. My wife was leaving for work at 7:30. So if it was an hour and a half trainer session, I’d have to be starting at 5:45, and I’d just bang the efforts out, get off and be straight into childcare for the rest of the day until my wife got home. On Sunday I’d go and do four or five hours pretty slow. It’s all quite a shock. Maybe I’ve been overtrained a lot of my career. As a pro, I’ve never been good with hobbies, so I tend to want to train a lot. Maybe that’s got nothing to do with it [winning in Taiwan]. Maybe it was just my day. Who knows, I was kind of in disbelief.

VN: The fire is still burning, even though you’ve been a pro for 15 years or longer without having won a UCI race up until this point. How does that motivation stay strong?

JC: It’s all I’ve ever done. I didn’t finish high school. I left when I was 15 to go to race in Europe. My dad was an Olympian, my family is a cycling family so it’s all I really know. The biggest motivation is I love the lifestyle. I love training. I love bringing your body into shape. I think honestly the lifestyle I get to have is motivation enough. I had such a good stint with UHC, nine years of good employment with a good team. I didn’t just want to throw the towel in when they stopped. I was definitely motivated to keep going. I still am. I don’t struggle with motivation at all. I don’t know, I feel stronger and stronger as I get older.

VN: You’ve spanned generations of pro cycling going back to around 2007. Tell me about what it’s like to see the ebb and flow, especially of the American domestic scene.

JC: I feel like guys are much quicker to go to Europe. Looking back at the results in the early 2000s, your [Chris] Horners, your [Eric] Wohlbergs, they’d still be racing at home even if they were European level. They’d still even be doing Athens Twilight and stuff like that. As the sport’s evolved, guys are really willing — and I don’t blame them — to go to a more European-based type of thing.

I think a big shift in American racing was when all the Medalist races — I don’t know what you call them now — Missouri, Utah, Colorado, California, got big. [Sponsors wanted to be at those races], and teams had to invest in them. I feel the crit scene really died off, and I feel that was definitely America’s bread and butter. Guys could come here, both my brothers came here. My oldest brother Troy, he flew into JFK [airport] with his track bike his road bike and got the Greyhound bus to T-Town [Trexlertown, Pennsylvania] without a dollar in his pocket. But he was able to make a living. The local crit had five or 10 grand up. Guys could just come here and make a living and survive. Once everyone put more energy into the big stage races, I think that scene died off a lot. We’re seeing that now as well. California is great and everything, but I think there’s a bit of a price to pay with the domestic end. Sponsors look at California, and it’s sometimes I feel an all-or-nothing type of response.

VN: Is this transition to the Floyd’s Pro Cycling team an opportunity to ride for yourself a little more, a change of scenery?

JC: For sure. I’m just not putting as much pressure on myself. UHC was a bigger team, Pro Continental, I think I put more pressure on myself then. Now having the baby, I don’t expect as much from myself, and I think it showed when I won that race. With 5km to go, I was nearly dropped. I just didn’t expect anything. There was no pressure. I went to the front on the downhill with a K to go.

I don’t know, it could be something different. It’s a bit smaller team, I don’t have as much pressure on my shoulders but who knows, it could be the one and only win of my career. But I don’t know. I’d like to keep getting results, just help grow the team. I feel kind of bad — there’s a lot of young guys on the team and the first race of the year, they’re at the front riding for me. I kind of felt pretty bad because I feel I’m there to help blossom their careers. But I think they enjoyed it; they enjoyed the experience of having the jersey and defending it. It’s a good group of guys at Floyd’s Cycling, that’s for sure.

VN: And Floyd’s a pretty relaxed guy, that must set the tone.

JC: Yeah, he was at training camp and at the presentation. He’s a pretty chill dude. We try to bring that out. I don’t think he wants a very square team. He wants a team that has fun and races hard and gets results but also at the end of the day has a laugh. I think that’s where I’ve been able to push my career through is wherever I am, to always have a laugh at the end of the day. I try to push that onto the young guys here. They can definitely get caught up in their Strava or their power output for the day. Whether it’s a beer or a coffee at the end of the day, having a laugh and having another crack the next day. Hopefully, I can rub off on a lot of the young guys.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.