Simon Clarke (Australia) found himself in an unexpected position in the elite men’s road race at the Road World Championships on Sunday. He anticipated spending the last few laps of the circuit race around Florence looking after Cadel Evans (Australia). Instead, Clarke was thrust into the spotlight in pursuit of his own result after his team leaders crashed out of the race.
Sheets of rain pelted the peloton from the start of the race. Wet roads combined with a brutal course dictated a race that was decided by luck as much as tactics and strength. As the lead group lost riders to crashes, attrition and injection in pace, Clarke kept himself sheltered within the greatly reduced peloton.
The early breakaway had been reeled in by the time the 40 strong front group heard the bell for the start of the last lap. Denmark and Italy strung out the field, setting the scene for an attack from Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain) that would prove decisive. Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) joined Rodriguez up the road as the peloton shattered in response to the accelerations.
Eventually, Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Rui Costa (Portugal) and Rigoberto Uran (Colombia) bridged across to Rodriguez and Nibali. Clarke found himself between the five leaders and the main group of chasers that included pre-race favourites Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), Peter Sagan (Italy) and Philippe Gilbert (Belgium). Uran lost his wheel on a wet descent, leaving four men out front.
Rodriguez slipped away from the group. Nibali fought to close the gap with Costa and Valverde in his wake. When Nibali put the chasers within striking distance, Costa launched himself off Nibali’s wheel and bridged across to Rodriguez just past the flamme rouge. Costa narrowly beat out Rodriguez to give Portugal its first world title. Valverde bested Nibali for bronze.
Andriy Grivko (Ukraine) jumped away from the chase group for fifth place while Sagan won the sprint for sixth place, 34” behind Costa. Clarke slotted into seventh place behind Sagan. In his own words, Clarke reacts to the way his race unfolded.
Generally speaking, it was a bad day for Australia. We were so unfortunate with all the crashes. I think a lot of teams were. Cadel Evans, Dave Tanner and Michael Matthews were all on my wheel when they went down in a rather nasty pile-up. The difference between me being a part of that crash and not was only a couple of millimetres. I’m extremely lucky not to have been involved. When I heard the noise from behind, knowing where our guys were positioned, I was pretty sure that we had gone down. Soon after I got the message that those three were out. I knew it was my turn to step up and try to deliver a result for Australia. I did everything I could.
In any race, anything can happen but on a day like today, really anything can happen (I can’t emphasize that enough) – and anything did. My job today was to look after Cadel in the closing laps, so I knew I would be semi-protected for a good part of the race. I came out of the Vuelta well, and I had good form today. The idea was that I would use that form to support Cadel, but in the end, it allowed me to have a go myself. I felt awful for the guys that crashed out, and I really wanted to do a good result to make up for their misfortunate.
I ended up finishing with a group that I had been riding ahead of on the last lap. I stayed in front of them over both the long climb and the small climb. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite get across to the likes of Nibali, Valverde, Costa and Rodriguez, but I was just in that little no man’s land between those four and the group behind me. I ended up getting caught before the finish, and there was a group of 12 of us racing for fifth place.
I wanted to finish off with a good sprint to prove that it wasn’t a fluke that I had remained around the mark. I’m happy with seventh. Top ten is great. I wasn’t expecting anything like that going into the race. It’s not every day that all your leaders crash out and there’s an open door to ride your own race. I’m glad that I could make the most of the opportunity.
I’m happy to hear that everyone who crashed is mostly okay. It was brutal out there. It was hard to hear that so many of the guys ended their race at hospital, but I’m glad all their scans came back clear. It doesn’t sound like anyone is too broken or busted. They’re all in situations where they can bounce back pretty quickly.
Editor's note: Pieter Weening (Netherlands) was the only other ORICA-GreenEDGE starter to finish the race, slotting into 25th place at 1'59.