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Masterclass: The Hurt Locker

The ability to suffer is often the difference between winning and losing, and Simon Clarke is a rider known for his ability to ‘tough it out’. We caught up with him for a glimpse inside his world of pain.

It’s a strange old thing; we spend thousands of dollars on gram saving carbon components, sci-fi and wifi monitoring gadgets that tell us how good we are or not, and how hard and far we should ride. We pore over training, technical and other potentially physically enhancing advice, often paying a small fortune for it, all in order to be able to ride faster.

Yet, the cold hard facts of bike racing are that winning will often come down to a battle of wills and bravado – presuming the physical playing field is not too lumpy that is.

It’s guts on the road, edge of the saddle and grinding of teeth stuff; learning to make it all hurt that little bit more than anybody else. Combine this with making a clear-cut and instant decision on when and how to take up the challenge and turn on the hurt; this is ultimately what separates the champions from the rest of the pack in bike racing.

You may prefer to side-step it, but if you’re not prepared and able to handle the suffering then you are missing that vital component, and your brakes are touching the rims.

One big misconception about cycling is that as you ride and train more that it gets easier, but as Greg Lemond once said; “It never gets any easier, you just go faster.” If it does seem easier then you need to ride harder.

One rider who has the ability to push himself beyond his limits with little fear of failure is Orica GreenEdge rider Simon Clarke.

From his early track racing education to graduation from the AIS academy he progressed into the pro ranks in 2000 with the Italian Amica Chips. From there he moved to Ukrainian teams, ISD and then on to Astana, where he first made his presence felt on the World Tour with a brave breakaway in the Tour of Flanders, his first ever pro cobbled classic.

His gutsy Flanders ride lead him to GreenEdge in 2012, where took a mountain stage victory and the KOM title in the Vuelta a’ Espana, a career changing and character defining ride.

Last year, in his first Tour de France he made his presence felt with some brave and aggressive riding, earning him the combativity award on stage three, and a team time trial stage win too.

Rounding off his 2013 season he put in amazing performance to survive one of the harshest World Road Race Championships in years, finishing a superb 7th; the only Australian rider to make it to the line.

We chatted with Simon about his approach to racing. 

Bicycling Australia: In 2011, when you were riding for Astana in the Tour of Flanders, you put in a near race-long attack and took it almost to the line. It was your very first northern classic, and your first year in the World Tour. How did you manage that and what was going through your mind?

Simon Clarke: It was my first-ever professional cobbled race and first northern classic, and my teammates kept going on and on about the Oude Kwaremont climb and how it was so pivotal in the race; saying that it was so hard to get to the front, and that if you weren’t in the first 20 you were out, so I got pretty scared.

On the climb before this the Garmin team had blocked the road, then a Skill guy attacked and I managed to follow. I thought if I could just get ahead for the next five kays and get over the Kwaremont then even if I slid back into the bunch afterwards—or even on the climb—that I’d probably save energy and be in a better place.

When we were away I felt pretty good, and then Sylvain Chavanel came past, and I thought “he’s a pretty good bike rider and must be on to something” so I took off with him.

From then on I was all in. I got to about 30km to go before being caught. It was a non-result on paper, but I was pleased with my first ever classic. I just decided not to be afraid and to get involved with the race, which is pretty well my philosophy on racing – it’s better to be in there having a go than not, even if you don’t succeed, if you don’t try you never know. 

BA: How much freedom do you have in such decisions; when and where to attack?

SC: One of the great things about being at Astana was that at a lot of the races I could do pretty well what I wanted to do, and do whatever I could (as I wasn’t racing with Vinokourov).

There aren’t many WorldTour teams where you can do that; normally you’re lining up on the front and that’s it. At GreenEdge I probably don’t get as much freedom, as I have guys like Gerrans and so on with me, but I also learn a lot on riding with them which is valuable, and when I do get given the opportunity I try and make the most of it. 

BA: In last year’s Tour de France you were pretty aggressive and looked like you were on course for a stage win in Corsica, but instead your teammate Simon Gerrans won and you walked off with the combativity award – a brave move in the first week of your first Tour?

SC: The idea was that I’d go out front and take the pressure off the team, and put the onus on others to chase. If they didn’t chase then I had a chance to take a stage win, if they did then we’d be all in to lead out Gerro. When they did catch me that was pretty much what happened, we went into control mode and took it right to the finish.

The combativity award; it’s not something that I’d go out to try and win, but it was nice to have it on my number the following day. 

BA: Last year’s world road race championship was one of the toughest on record, with rain battering the field and forcing many riders to the ground with a thud. You were the last Aussie standing, and took seventh place from a last minute stand-in role as de-facto leader, how did you turn a domestique role into such a great ride?

SC: The first thing to realise is that it’s not often that you get all three of your captains crash out; Gerro crashed out at the Vuelta and then Cadel and Ritchie both crashed out on the race day. So, to be given the opportunity (part way through the race) where you can be 100% the team leader and ride for yourself, and with also knowing that I’d just come off the Vuelta and had decent form, I just thought; ‘this is an opportunity I cannot miss’.

Guys often dream of this sort of a chance. I knew that I had to really go for it, and also to carry the Australian flag for the team. I knew that if I wasn’t able to finish up there that the media reports would have been the opposite (negative), more to the tone of the British team reports. 

BA: The 2011 Vuelta a’ Espana was a major breakthrough for you. Not only did you manage to pull off a classic mountain stage win, you went away from the race as the King of the Mountains. As a relative underdog how did it change you?

SC: The Vuelta stage win and KOM title was a huge barrier overcome and a major confidence booster for me. I felt like I’d been knocking on the door for a long time, but hadn’t quite cracked it, which plays on your mind and really restricts your confidence, and in turn limits your performance potential.

It showed me that with the right mindset that I could do it and achieve anything. I guess it was quite a turning point for me, and I’ve used that experience and self-knowledge a lot since then, it was a big leap forward, especially mentally.

BA: When you do go all out and push way beyond your physical limits, how do you handle it mentally?

SC: Every race and situation is different. For example; in that 2011 Flanders race I knew that even if I stayed in the bunch until the last climb that when Cancellara and so on attacked that I was going to get smashed, so my best chance way to have a go and get out there. If I’d got an extra minute, even if Chavanel dropped me on the last climb, if I go over it and got on Cancellara’s wheel over the top, who knows what could have happened.

You’ve got to be in it to win it, and find the best tactic to make it happen.

 BA: When you’re out there suffering like a dog, how do you keep it up?

SC: Well, I don’t let it become an issue. I just focus on that immediate climb or task ahead and tell myself that I have to get over it to be in it. Your legs will only do what they can do; getting them to do it is often a case of mind over matter – or mind over suffering.

The best approach is to just focus on achieving that goal, and not to sit back and wonder about things ahead and if you can do it. If you don’t then you start to question whether or not you’re good enough, which I’ve done a lot less of since the Vuelta stage win in 2011. 

BA: In a long race, when you’re suffering early on, how do you manage to get through that mental barrier and hang in?

SC: For me that’s the hardest part, especially in the classics, where they’re 250km long and the racing doesn’t really start until 200km is done.

You have to try and get through that first 200km without expending too much energy, and without suffering, which is almost impossible. I always suffer, and always think if it hurts now what will it be like later. 

There’s a real art to handling that, and I think it only comes through self-confidence and experience of knowing that it’s going to be like that, and by also telling yourself that it’s hurting everybody else just as much. It is a crucial barrier to break through, if you don’t then you also have to live with the regret. 

BA: When you find yourself in a race situation and you notice that the rider with you is showing signs of fatigue, or that they are stronger, how do you handle that mentally?

SC: It depends on how well you know the rider and the signs. But, at the end of the day if a rider is still with you, or vice versa, then you have to assume that you are at least as strong as each other and ride accordingly, that’s why they’re still there, and you need to give them that respect.

There are many reasons for a rider to keep getting out of the saddle, change gear and so on, and there can be an element of poker face too, which some are better at than others. But, at the end of the day you have to assume that you’re both in the same situation.

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Fulcrum Racing 5s are a good choice for the Helium.

Alex Edmondson

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