Simon Clarke added a second Vuelta a España stage victory to his palamares in Roquetas de Mar on Wednesday. The Australian perfectly played a three-up sprint on stage five to deliver the win for EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale.
“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. “You’ve got to be willing to lose to win, and I was and I came out on top.”
“Four days we were in the breakaway, including today,” said sport director Fabrizio Guidi. “We needed to show that we could finish it, to win. We never gave up and finally. Today Simon was really smart and really strong. For the team it’s a great day.”
“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.”
Clarke was granted a reprisal from his usual Vuelta role on Wednesday. The 32-year-old is tasked, like much of the Vuelta squad, with looking after team leader Rigoberto Uran. Clarke, in particular, plays a key role in Uran’s general classification ambitions.
“I saw today as a breakaway stage before the Vuelta even started,” said Clarke. “I put a circle around this stage and stage seven. Today was definitely the priority of the two. I spoke to the team about having some freedom today, which they gave me, and I had to make that count.”
It was no easy feat getting into the stage five escape. The peloton covered 48 hilly kilometers in the opening hour of the race as attack after attack proved fruitless.
“Everyone knew it was a good breakaway day,” said Clarke. “We saw the breakaway go quite easily on the first four days, even yesterday, because the bunch didn’t think the breakaway could succeed. Normally Sky likes to keep the break under close control on the mountain stages, so yesterday was a bit of a surprise, but today was for sure a breakaway day.”
Clarke covered and initiated several attacks before finding the 25-rider strong move with staying power.
“When you have such a big group, you cannot for one minute be complacent,” Clarke said. “There’s never very good cooperation in such a good group. I kept telling myself I needed to stay as close to the front of the group as possible because otherwise guys get in front of you and you just can’t catch them.
“The way the breakaway went, it was on a climb, so the nature of the breakaway was that it had some very strong climbers,” added Clarke. “I wasn’t going to be able to attack them on the climbs to get to the front of the race.”
So Clarke attacked on the descents.
“Quite often on the descents, people relax and have something to eat and drink. Sometimes that’s an opportunity to get a bit of an advantage,” said Clarke. “On the first descent, I got away with a couple of other guys. We got brought back that time, but I saw it could work.”
It did work.
Clarke and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) accelerated away on the descent leading up to Alto El Marchal, the stage’s final climb. They had 1’30 and Alessandro De Marchi (BMC) for company by the time they reached the foot of the climb.
“I thought: ‘This is good. I need to commit now.’,” said Clarke. “Unfortunately we couldn’t put on a good show on the climb, attacking each other, because it was such a strong headwind. We realized we just needed to cooperate and get to the finish line.”
They time trialled to the finish line, pushing the pace on the descent to keep their chasers at bay, cooperating until the final six kilometers.
“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,” noted Clarke. “I didn’t think I was necessarily faster than De Marchi or Mollema because they’ve won big races in small group sprints. I wouldn’t necessarily have backed myself as the strongest guy because they’re such strong guys, but when they started attacking, it gave me confidence. Maybe they’re not feeling good for the sprint? I’m going to back myself for the sprint.”
“I was nervous watching it all,” said Vaughters. “But I was also confident. I know Simon knows how to play the game.”
Clarke’s gamesmanship skills were on full display in the final kilometer as he steadfastly sandwiched himself between De Marchi and Mollema despite the fast-closing chase threatening to bridge the gap. He opened his sprint late and hung on for the win.
“After I won my first stage in the Vuelta, I fell in love with the race,” said Clarke. “You fall in love with the races you can win in, and every year since I won my first stage, I’ve asked my teams if I can come back. Four times now I’ve done the Tour de France and every time I’ve come to the Vuelta after it. I don’t care how tired I am. I love the Vuelta.
“I’m so happy we were able to come away with the win,” said Clarke. “At the Tour, we had such a committed group, even throughout the whole year we’ve repeatedly shown a high level of commitment, and I don’t think our results have justified the quality of this team or how hard we’ve worked. I hope a stage win like this shows the effort, commitment and talent we have in this team.”