Cadel Evans was out riding when he heard Simon Clarke was racing in a breakaway on stage five of the Tour de France.
The 153.7-kilometre trek through the flat landscape of northern France included 11 spaced-out cobblestone sectors that caked the riders in dirt and reduced visibility as they powered over the jarring, uneven surfaces, creating clouds of sand-coloured dust.
There was nothing necessarily remarkable about Clarke being in the breakaway, especially given that there the Australian was safe from the crashes and chaos that unfolded behind him and his fellow escapees.
During his previous six Tours de France, Clarke has sacrificed his own chances to diligently support a teammate vying for victory.
On occasions where that teammate has failed, or the squad hasn’t had a clear leader, he’s ridden as an opportunist.
In that capacity, it’s not unusual to see Clarke amid the escapees up the road, all calculating their chances of winning against each other and the peloton, which is sometimes seconds and sometimes minutes behind.
Despite his best efforts, however, none at the Tour had ever stuck.
However, Evans, who went for a spin with the 35-year-old the day before he left for the Tour with things on his mind, took note when he stopped by a bike shop on his ride.
“I saw he was in the break, so I raced home to watch the finish,” Evans told ABC.
In the approach to the finish, Clarke bided his time as he, Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen (TotalEnergies), American Neilson Powless (EF Education- EasyPost) and Dutchman Taco van der Hoorn (Intermache-Wanty-Gobert) powered toward the line.
Powless attacked first with one kilometre remaining and believed he’d won the stage until Boasson Hagen, with Clarke and van der Hoorn on his wheel, chased him down.
Boasson Hagen had his mind on taking the yellow jersey, with the race leader Wout van Aert behind him in the peloton, looking after his Jumbo-Visma teammate and title favourite Jonas Vingegaard, who went into damage control after losing ground due to a mechanical.
Clarke soon after launched the bike throw of his life as he and van der Hoorn came together in a photo finish.
“I was actually thinking that Boasson Hagen would be faster in the finish but Simon — always being the cunning, smart guy to get the best out of himself — was the hope and he did exactly that,” Evans said.
Initially, past the finish line, the swarm of photographers and TV camera crews that every day immediately surround the winner like bees at a hive, followed the latter, indicating he’d won.
Clarke, further down the road, found a spot to sit on the kerbside, burying his head into his arms as one of his Israel-Premier Tech team carers consoled him.
“I was pretty sure I didn’t win actually,” Clarke said.
“I was still quite a long way behind, even with 10 to 15 metres to go, and I just said to myself I’m going to have to do the biggest throw of my bike I’ve ever done. But when you throw properly your head is between your legs so you can’t actually see.”
The photo finish shows Clarke with his arms fully extended, head between his legs, chest resting on the seat, and his backside hanging over the back wheel.
“So, I had no idea how it went on the line but, to be honest, I didn’t think I’d get there. It was more a throw of hope than anything.”
‘He was the one guy who stuck by me’
Evans first met Clarke in 2009 when they roomed together at the UCI Road World Championships.
He credits his former national teammate, who is 10 years his junior, with almost single-handedly helping him win the gold medal in the men’s road race that year.
“He was pretty much my whole team at the 2009 world championships,” Evans said.
“I have him to thank for that victory there.
Since then, the pair have been friends and their paths have crossed multiple times.
Clarke is godfather to Evans’s second-oldest son. And Evans, Australia’s only Tour de France champion, has been known to motor pace Clarke in training sessions.
“He was one I’d say who believed in me, and I suppose he finds himself in that situation now where not many believed in him, but he still believed in himself, and he’s gone and showed everyone,” Evans said.
Adding to the significance of Clarke’s maiden Tour stage win was where he’d come from to get it.
He joined Qhubeka-NextHash in 2021, but the team folded at the end of the season through want of a sponsor.
Cycling’s transfer window officially opens in August, and everything is sorted usually by October. Clarke on Christmas Day was still without a squad, without a job.
“He was training as though he had a contract but didn’t have a contract, and by the first of January you’re pretty sure you’re not going to get signed, aren’t you?” Evans said.
“But he still was training, and he got a contract with Israel and look what’s happened; it’s probably Israel’s best result as a team to date I’d say.”
Israel-Premier Tech announced it had signed Clarke on a one-year deal in early January.
As Evans notes, it was not the first time Clarke had faced such a scenario, recalling that when the meticulous, clean-cut Victorian turned pro in 2009, the squad he signed with also folded the same season.
“He’s been at it for so long and he’s just had such a rough run to get there but he never gave up and he was just always trying, trying, trying,” Evans said.
Clarke attributes his consistent results this season, and now the biggest victory of his career, partly to that experience.
“It’s been a reality check. Don’t take anything for granted and make the most of every opportunity because you don’t know when it’s your last, you know?” Clarke said.
“I’ve kind of approached this season with that mentality and tried to cross all the Ts and dot all the Is and make sure I’m really doing everything I can to make the most of this opportunity.”
Normally a Tour-stage win is the end of the story, cycling’s equivalent of a fairytale ending, they all lived happily ever after.
But Evans knows better.
Clarke — despite finding a lifeline and repaying that faith with consistency, even finishing on the podium himself a handful of times — had a lot on his mind in the lead-up to the Grand Depart in Denmark last week.
“I rode with him the day before he left to go to the Tour, and he was pretty down,” Evans said.
“The team had put him in a difficult situation … I didn’t envy him at all. All I could say was go and do your best and that’s what he really did. For him to come through like that has paid him so many dividends.”
Speaking before stage six on Thursday morning (French time), Clarke was still buzzing from his victory. But when asked about his morale in the lead-up to the Tour, he was frank.
His battle to realise a dream he described as 20 years in the making was won. But sport is a business and Clarke is pragmatic in a year that he and his partner are expecting another child.
Evans, for one, is backing his friend.
“I see a rider who is as dedicated and professional as anyone,” he said.
“His results on stage five prove what he’s capable of
“I’d say, ‘Teams, look at that and take an experienced rider to help guide your younger guys because you can’t do it all with young talent.'”