When Simon Clarke spoke with Cycling Weekly just days before Christmas, disclosing the pain he felt at the likelihood of having to retire imminently due to not having a team for the 2022 season, he promised to get back in touch within a few weeks, hopefully - by some miracle - bearing some good news.
It was a wish steeped in hope rather than expectation, but three weeks later the Australian rang once more, this time the dismay turned to joy and gratefulness, for partly thanks to that article the 35-year-old has been signed by Israel-Premier Tech on a one-year contract, with the intention of staying for a longer duration.
"It wasn't like that article definitely made it happen, but they contacted me pretty much directly after it got published, so putting two and two together I think it played a big part," Clarke tells Cycling Weekly from Milan, just hours after flying back from Melbourne and before taking a flight to Barcelona to join a team training camp in Girona, a whirlwind few days to cap off a quickly-put-together last-minute contract that will extend his professional career into its 14th year.
"Everyone knew I was in a sticky situation but it was in the back of people's minds," he continues. "It was only when I put it out there in the open, when I talked to you, the way I described it, that people thought 'ah, s**t, this is actually ridiculous'."
To recap, Clarke had been contracted to ride with Qhubeka-NextHash in 2022 but funding issues meant that the South African team will not be able to compete at WorldTour level in the forthcoming season, leaving the three-time Grand Tour stage winner on the brink of unwanted retirement.
He had planned to race the Australian domestic races in January to alert teams to his continued availability, but in the end his weekend appearance at the Bay Crits wasn't even necessary. The deal had been done by then.
"I was as confident as you were [that he'd get a new contract], but I do have a never give up attitude," he adds, admitting to his surprise. "I rode 17 stages of last year's Tour de France with a broken back - I'm not a person who gives up.
"If someone told me that into the second week of January a team would offer me a WorldTour contract, I wouldn't really have believed them.
"I feel like a bloody school kid again. I thought it was all over and I'm back in. I've just been in Bright for 10 days riding my arse off, doing a mini boot camp all on my own, so to have all this the day after I finished the camp... it feels like a reward, you know.
"Going up to the Australian Alps with no knowledge of what my future is going to be like, riding every day with no one else, caning myself, getting my head down, and then I come out of it with a contract."
Discussions with Israel-Premier Tech were quick to be completed because Clarke had spoken with them before agreeing to join Qhubeka-Assos for the 2021 season. He adds: "They knew me, I knew them, so it was kind of like 'let's just make it happen this time around'. It seems lucky at the end of the day, but perhaps it wasn't luck - maybe it was meant to be."
Clarke will be joining one of the peloton's more experienced teams that also has a number of young, promising riders coming through, head sports director Rik Verbrugghe telling CW in November of the team's ambitions to become the best performing outfit outside of the four so-called super-teams.
Infiltrating breakaways, riding for himself in one-day races like Strade-Bianche, and providing an experienced head in stage races will be Clarke's objectives for the season.
"I'm going into it with such an open mind," he reveals. "I think, as ridiculous as it sounds, in a way I am grateful for what I've been through in the last few months.
"It's made me appreciate all the fortunes I've had in my career and what a bad kick really does feel like. When your team folds in your face, it opens your eyes to appreciate what we really do, and maybe arguing about what race you want to do isn't really worth it. Maybe it's best just to be happy to be racing.
"I am going into this season with a different mentality, with a much more open mind than I ever have done before, and with the mindset of making the most of every opportunity, because the amount of opportunities I have left are potentially numbered.
"This is the start of a new, hopefully decent-sized chapter, and probably the last chapter of my career."
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