Simon Clarke took his first professional win in his Grand Tour debut on the fourth stage of the Vuelta a España. Having eyed the stage ever since he reviewed the route, Clarke set himself up perfectly for his career-changing result atop the Valdezcaray summit finish.
"I had always had a bit of a circle around this stage," said an ecstatic Clarke. "Yesterday was a hard day, and it presented a chance to lose some time and move off the general classification, so I did that intentionally. I thought Movistar might allow the breakaway to go today as long as no one in the move was a threat to the race leader."
Simon Clarke leading Stage 4. Photo Credits : Graham Watson
Clarke joined Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Assan Bazayev (Astana), Jesus Rosendo (Andalucia) and Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis) in a five-rider escape group during the opening hour of racing. The quartet built up a maximum lead of more than 13 minutes.
"Although we had such a huge gap, I never thought it was assured that we would stay away," admitted Clarke. "There was so much wind, and I know what can happen in these conditions. When the field gets going, they can easily sit on 60 kilometers/hour, and the break can be caught out going more slowly. Even with 13 minutes, I wasn't convinced that we were going to stay away."
Thirty kilometers from the finish crosswinds and a crash split the field into four distinct groups. The first, headed by Team Sky, set a ferocious pace that would distance the riders that had missed out on the move and more than halve the gap to Clarke's breakaway before the base of the summit finish.
"I was getting a bit of information while I was in the break," explained Clarke. "I didn't know about the crash, but I did know the Sky had attacked in the wind and the pace had picked up. I started to get nervous about that. Being out front for so long, it's not easy to decide to suddenly go ten kilometers/hour faster. We sat out there and kept doing what we had been doing, hoping we would have enough time for the finish."
Simon Clarke on the way to win. Photo Credits : Graham Watson
Only Martin could match Clarke's pace as they pressed on towards the foot of the Valdezcaray. The duo had a four minute advantage as they began the nine kilometer climb to the finish.
"Luckily, Tony was feeling strong, and we were able to work well together until we reached the top," said Clarke. "I really backed myself in the sprint finish. I was confident I could beat Tony in a sprint, so I had to be careful that he didn't attack me in a moment of lost concentration in the closing kilometers. At the same time, I was a bit worried about Bazayev, who was only about 20 seconds behind us. I knew he wasn't far off our pace, and he's a fast finisher. I didn't want to go to the line with him."
Clarke and Martin held off all of their pursuers. The stage win came down to a two-up sprint.
"I wanted Tony to lead out the sprint, and I knew I needed to wait long enough to come around him," explained Clarke. "With a hilltop finish, you don't have a 400 meter sprint left in your legs, so it's important to wait. In the end, Tony was the one to go too early. I followed him and waited. I made sure I saw the 200 meter sign before I started my sprint. From there, I went for it and it worked out."
The monumental win has yet to sink in for the 26-year-old. Photo Credits : Graham Watson
The monumental win has yet to sink in for the 26-year-old.
"I have been a professional for four years, and this is only my first professional win," Clarke said. "It's been a long time coming, and I never imagined it would come in such a big way for me and the team. I couldn't be any happier."