Professional cyclist, Le Tour de France rider and RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride ambassador Simon Clarke tells Melissa Heagney about his lifelong passion for the two wheels. Photographs: courtesy of Orica GreenEDGE
Name: Simon Clarke
Occupation: Professional cyclist
Bike: Scott Addict
For serious road cyclists, the tracks, trails and roads of the Dandenong Ranges have become the stuff of legend. Many great Aussie riders have taken them on; honing their skills, building their stamina. Simon Clarke, who grew up in the Dandenongs, is one of those riders. He used the ranges to practice his craft, though, when he first started riding, Clarke’s training ground was the dirt road near his home in Selby.
“I spent hours on end riding up and down that road, it was great fun, I did it for days on end,” Clarke reminisces.
Now 28, little has changed. Clarke still rides for hours on end but instead of the Dandenongs, he rides the mountains of Europe, training to compete in some of the most prestigious road races in the world. This includes Le Tour de France which he tackled for the first time last year as part of his professional cycling team Orica GreenEDGE.
Clarke’s professional journey started when he was still a student at Selby Primary School. He joined his father (who was part of the school’s parents and friends group) in an event that had nothing to do with speed or racing – the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride. It was during his second Great Vic, in 1998, that he met the man who would change his life.
“Back in the late ‘90s the Great Vic had this fantastic development program for students like me,” Clarke explains.
“A group of riders, including Dean Woods (Olympic track racing gold medallist) took every school for at least one day of the ride, and taught them the correct skills and techniques to ride a bike.”
“I met Dean on my second Great Vic ride in ‘98 because I was invited to join another school group for their ride.
“The school group consisted of students from high school in Year 9 and 10 – and then there was me who was still in primary school,” Clarke says.
“By the time we were about half way into the day’s ride the rest of the school students had fallen behind and it was only Dean and I left.
“He noticed that I was going well and that I was a lot younger than the other students so he recommended I join a club and start racing.”
The next year, as a talented 13-year-old, Clarke started to race with the Carnegie Caulfield Cycling Club, showing the skills which would earn him a spot as a national representative.
“My first really big win was the queen stage of the Tour of Cardinia which is a selection race for the Junior World Championships (when I was 16),” he says.
Clarke was selected for the Australian Junior Road Team the same year and experienced his first taste of competing internationally.
“This was my first experience of racing at the World stage,” Clarke says.
It opened his eyes to the professional racing scene.
“There was a huge difference in the level between the Australian domestic racing and the European racing,” Clarke says.
“I often make a reference to motor racing, Australian cycling is like racing in the V8 super cars and then going to race in Europe is like racing in F1, but with the same car.
“It takes a lot of getting used to and many more years of development.”
Part of his development came from a place at the Australian Institute of Sport – riding with the SouthAustralia.com-AIS team.
“Because cycling is a European sport their base is in Italy,” Clarke says.
“So at aged 17 I basically moved to Italy to start racing the European calendar and begin my development to professional cycling.
Clarke says there were many challenges to face, and most of them weren’t on the bike.
“The biggest challenge was that I just lived in a house with the other riders so we had to very quickly learn how to cook, wash, clean and completely look after ourselves in a different country where they don’t speak English,” he says.
“Although this was very challenging it is a key aspect to learn – when you turn ‘pro’ you are really out on your own living somewhere in Europe trying to be a professional cyclist.”
It wasn’t just the culture shock Clarke had to deal with he also had to finish his high school studies.
“I finished high school (Year 11 and 12) … while living in Italy. Then I got into Commerce at Deakin University because I’m really interested in business.”
Clarke completed two years of his Bachelor of Commerce by correspondence while living in Italy (he now lives in Varese) but said he has deferred his studies to focus on cycling.
While his studies are on hold, Clarke’s has seen some great success in his career. In 2012 he won stage four (and King of the Mountains jersey) at the Tour of Spain (Vuelta a Espana).
“My results at the Vuelta proved my capabilities at the top of World Cycling,” Clarke says.
He is also credited with helping Orica GreenEDGE teammate Simon Gerrans win stage four of Le Tour de France last year.
This year, Clarke was the Herald Sun Tour winner. Commentators and teammates call Clarke a tenacious competitor, one of Australia’s strongest all-rounders and a selfless rider. But look to his twitter account and he calls himself “a professional bum who rides a pushie for fun.”
It’s not just because Clarke likes to bum around and surf when he’s not on the bike, it’s also because he mostly lives out of a suitcase.
“The one positive (of being away from home so much) is I basically chase summer around the world. I haven’t seen a full winter since I was 16.”
Clarke recently celebrated his 28th birthday during Le Tour de France this year – but there was no time to stop for celebrations as he was heading to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow being chosen for the Australian Cycling Team.
“I’m really looking forward to competing in Glasgow, and then my goal is to be selected for the Olympics in Rio,” he says.
Later this year, he’ll be heading back to Australia – to the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride where he’ll be an ambassador. Clarke will be riding with students for a day in between his professional commitments giving some valuable advice to young riders. He may even have time to head back to the dirt road in Selby, where it all started.
Simon Clarke has ridden the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride four times:
“I rode in ‘97 on a mountain bike, then in ‘98 on a road bike, and then in ‘99 with my cycling club. So each year was a progression of my development. Then I decided that when I turned pro I would go back and do it again, so in 2008 I signed my first contract and went back and did the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride for a fourth time.”
Professional teams have included:
- Orica GreenEDGE (AUS) Pro Tour
- Pro Team Astana (KAZ) Pro Tour
- ISD-Neri (ITA) Pro-Continental
- Amica Chips- Knauf (ITA) Pro Continental
- com-AIS (AUS) Continental
- U23 National AIS- Mapei Road Team
His best advice:
“The main thing is that it is very important to look after yourself. Generally everything possible is already done on the bike. But focusing on eating well and getting massages and looking after your body is also a key to ensure high performance.”
Did you know?
Clarke has a dog named Selby in honour of his home suburb.
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