The injustice of Simon Clarke’s position - without a contract, facing a retirement he doesn’t want to take - hit home to him just days before Christmas when a friend with limited cycling knowledge asked the Australian what his world ranking was.
“It’s not something I’ve ever looked at, but I thought I would this time and I’m ranked 219th in the world,” he tells Cycling Weekly. “When you consider that there are 600-odd pros [there are 2987 riders with at least one point on the UCI’s 2021 ranking - ed] and I’m ranked higher than 400 of them…well, you’d hope it would help me find a spot somewhere, that my ranking is appealing to a lot of teams.”
What Clarke - two-time a stage winner of the Vuelta a España - has found, however, is that it isn’t. He patiently waited for Qhubeka-NextHash to sort out their financial troubles, but a new sponsorship deal hasn’t come to fruition and now the 35-year-old is spending Christmas facing imminent unemployment.
“I want to get it out there that I don’t want to retire,” he insists. “I want to avoid coming across as a sore, whining little loser, but I want people to know I’m not ready to retire and I’m still looking for a team.
“But the fact is right now I am fairly high up the creek without a paddle. I have, on a daily basis, someone ringing me, saying they can’t believe a rider of my calibre doesn’t have a ride. My coach tells me daily he can’t figure out the situation I am in.
“I’ve had a few people approaching me with some very interesting opportunities for my post-cycling career - and I will stay in cycling after I finish - but I’m not done with pro cycling yet. I want to finish off this chapter properly.”
Clarke is one of five Qhubeka-NextHash riders who had contracts for the 2022 season but has had them cut short due to the team’s inability to find additional sponsors to renew their WorldTour licence. The team, however, wish to continue as a Continental outfit.
Rumours had been abound throughout the summer about the African team’s precarious finances, with NextHash coming on board on the eve of the Tour de France, in replacement of previous co-title sponsor Assos.
At the time it was announced that they had agreed a five-year deal, but riders had their August wages delayed and come the autumn they were told to look elsewhere.
Addressing NextHash’s involvement, Clarke assesses: “The team desperately needed funding and it was the only concrete solution that came to fruition. I know that Doug did his research and had people looking into NextHash so it wasn’t a blind-sighted agreement, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. I know that Doug did his research and had people looking into NextHash so it wasn’t a blind-sighted agreement, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.
“I think it’s also important to remember that NextHash was only a second name sponsor, and not having them for next year is not the reason the team will not be in the WorldTour.
“The team still needed additional funding to continue. We can’t sit here and say that because there were issues with NextHash the team's not where it wants to be. In terms of budget percentages, that wasn’t a massive sponsorship deal.”
Of the 27 riders who raced for the team during the 2022 season, only 13 have so far found a ride for the upcoming campaign, with just seven staying at WorldTour level.
Put to Clarke the benefit of speaking to the media earlier to alert people to one’s situation, the Australian agreed but insisted that he had “huge faith in Doug, a lot of us did. I would have loved to have had this conversation a few months ago but to be honest I was convinced it wouldn’t be necessary because Doug would sort something out for us out,” Clarke, a winner of six professional races in his 13-year pro career, adds.
“As the manager and the founder of this team, we believed in him. We were given regular updates and on multiple occasions we came close to securing sponsors that would secure the team for a number of years.
“We have got to the stage where we have been one meeting from confirming the deal. Sooner or later, a lot of us believed that one of the companies would commit, but ultimately we just ran out of time.”
In a press release after the team announced it would not feature at the WorldTour in 2022, Ryder wrote: "On Thursday I sent an internal message to our staff and riders to tell them the news. It was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done in my life. The responses have been so emotional and supportive.
"To all of our former, current and future partners I want to thank you for your faith and belief in what we want to achieve. One thing I can absolutely guarantee is that we’ve always given our absolute best, and you have our commitment to do so in the future. To all our staff and riders past and present thank you for your dedication and support, see you soon."
Clarke is back home in Melbourne and will be racing the Australian January races, including the Bay Crits, National Championships and the Tour Down Under (January 21-29), the latter of which will be run as a domestic-only event for the second year running due to the pandemic.
“It’s important I put ball to bat,” he adds. “Any racing opportunities I have, I’ve got to take. I’ve been training like I’ve got a full racing program for next year and I know I can deliver results.
“You’re only as good as your last result, but I know I can be a race winner and I can create opportunities, particularly in breakaway situations where I have quite a good record.
“This season just gone I was 8th at Strade-Bianche, I was in the front group at Paris-Roubaix until I crashed, I finished in the top-10 in another three races, and on more than one occasion this year I showed I can still ride at the front, that I can bring a certain value to a team in all WorldTour races.
“Hopefully whatever teams are out there will see this and will be minded to offer me something. I still believe I have a lot to offer.
“I’m not ready for a post-riding career yet, but if nothing comes off by the end of January then the Tour Down Under will be my last race. I’m grateful for the career I’ve had, but it would be unfortunate if it had to finish in this manner.”
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