Simon Clarke (EF-Education First-Drapac) put all his skills on display in taking a masterful win on stage five in the Vuelta a Espana.
He was smart, composed, tactical and cold-blooded in beating Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Alessandro De Marchi (BMC racing) as the three raced into Roquetas de Mar after a long day in the breakaway.
“It’s just amazing. I worked so hard since I last won a stage here, and I just couldn’t repeat it. It’s taken me so long to get back there and have my stars aligned. Even today I wasn’t sure it was possible,” said Clarke.
The Australian had marked this stage of the Spanish grand tour as breakaway-friendly and made sure he was part of a large escape group of 24 riders that broke away after 40 kilometers of racing.
The break eventually shattered, the heat taking its toll, until only Clarke, Mollema and De Marchi remained. They tackled the climb up to Alto El Marchal and then it was a long haul down and onto flat, wider roads to the finish.
The trio built up a gap of 1:20 over a chase group of three riders also hunting victory — and in the case of Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ), also dreaming of the red jersey. The Frenchman had begun the day 3:46 begin race leader Michal Kwiatkowski but Molard found himself over six minutes in front after the last climb of the day. The jersey was unexpectedly there for the taking so Molard went full-gas to the end.
The race within the race made this stage dramatic from beginning to end. Molard, Davide Villella (Astana) and Floris De Tier (LottoNL-Jumbo) struggled to cut the gap but in the final five kilometers, as Clarke and company began to play games, they closed with within 10 seconds. Sadly, they only succeeded in having a closer view of the final sprint.
In the run-in, Clarke, the former track rider, was attentive to every move, knowing he had the stronger sprint. De Marchi put in a few digs but seemed the most fatigued after a full day on the attack. Mollema, who finished 3rd and 4th on stages in this year’s Tour, is often in the mix but lacks the acceleration to win.
“When you come three-up to a final, there’s always going to be cat and mouse,” said Clarke. “Coming into the final 5km, I said to myself: ‘I need to keep one in front and one behind.’ That way I could keep an eye on both of them. Each time they attacked, it was really hard. It really hurt. It also gave me a lot of confidence that they felt like they needed to attack me and not come to the finish.”
Still, it was a mentally challenging test and Clarke put all his experience on the line. “It was a tricky one to pick. I knew I had good legs and I just had to pray that the moves I was doing were the right ones,” said Clarke. The veteran moved back and forth across the road, keeping an eye on his rivals and cutting off their space to attack.
“I know that De Marchi is fast, but it’s such a long stage. It’s so hard to sprint after that. Even I was cramping when Mollema attacked and I just rode through it. I backed myself. I was so worried they would catch us from behind, but in that situation you just have to be as cold as ice,” said Clarke. “You’ve got to be willing to lose to win, and I was and I came out on top.”
It was textbook intelligent bike racing. Before the stage Clarke had given advice to teammate Pierre Rolland to stop going into every single break and instead to focus his efforts. Then Clarke showed Rolland exactly how that works: pick your stage and give it everything.
“Simon got the result the way he usually does – via intelligence,” said EF Pro Cycling CEO Jonathan Vaughters. “He knows how to play a tense situation just right.”