Thursday, May 2, 2013

How the Blue Train Helps Hilton Clarke Dominate the NCC

 by Gus Grissom

“Yes, we’re all getting a little older, but it’s still a lot of fun to race. When we (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team) have a plan and execute it’s a great feeling. It’s one of my favorite things.”
With this acknowledgement of the huge role his team plays in his own victories and appreciation of the sport, Hilton Clarke, the current points leader on the 2013 National Criterium Calendar (NCC) and last year’s NCC overall champion, makes it clear that even though he’s been racing hard on the American criterium scene for over a decade, the sport just keeps getting more exciting as the years go by and the UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team gets stronger.

But Clarke’s racing experience goes far beyond criterium events in America; it actually extends all the way back to his childhood in Australia where he says he spent many afternoons “hanging out over the rails on the side of the velodrome” where his father, who was an Olympic cyclist, regularly put on displays of racing – and winning – prowess, displays that clearly shaped the way Clarke himself learned to win. As he was watching the races, Clarke says, he was “really trying to break down how the guy who won managed to do it.” Winning, he says, is more than being the fastest, “it’s all about learning the craft” and knowing how to be in the right place at the right time.

When he first came to America, he admits, he “was very unfamiliar with the American style of racing and training: watts, power and all the data measurements.” But he was able to find success early by implementing the skills he had learned at the velodrome into criterium events. Though he had spent some time racing in Europe, he says, “It wasn’t until I came to America that I really found the passion for criterium racing. There is so much constant aggressive racing going on,” he says, that is was impossible not to feel passionate about it. “I found out quickly that I loved [this style of racing] because there is so much going on. The corners are always coming at you very quickly. You have to attack them constantly and there are so many guys who want to be in the same place that you have to think quickly and get to the right place first.”

But it’s not simply criterium events for which Clarke developed a passion: it’s American criterium events. Besides the significant prize lists – which Clarke is quick to admit he and his UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling teammates love! – the atmosphere is also easy to love. “At the major criterium events there are so many people and the courses are dark; it feels like you’re racing in the middle of the night.” The energy from the crowd, of course, feeds directly into the energy of the race. Clarke explains, “Everyone is on edge at the start. Then the gun goes and there’s total chaos and everyone goes as fast as they can through the darkness.”

But what is it about Clarke that makes him such a dominant “criterium specialist,” capable of winning on the most technical courses against the strongest riders week after week on the National Criterium Calendar? Clarke is quick to credit the strength of the teammates who keep him out of trouble during the race and put him in the perfect spot to win in the decisive moments. “Our team has a really strong core group that has been together for three or four years. So we have a lot of experience and know each other’s style completely. We have a system as a team and we try to execute it at every race. When all six guys execute that plan perfectly, it’s tough to beat. But it only works when we are riding together as one unit. Our team has developed its own instinct and that’s what makes it possible to win as often as we do.

“In addition, having great sponsors that are supportive makes a tremendous difference, especially UnitedHealthcare. Many of our sponsors are at the races. We do events and community-based activities for them. And when you spend time with them before and after races, you see and feel how excited and supportive they are of the team. That makes all the difference in the world,” he said.

Clarke goes on to explain that though he does not get to spend a lot of time with his teammates when they are not actually at the race venues, they stay caught up with each other electronically. “We have an app (WhatsApp), that we use to send messages to each other all the time. Sometimes before races we’re just joking around to lighten the mood and relieve the tension.” But, for the most part, the riders on “the crit squad,” as Clarke calls it, live and train separately from each other. “But we know each other really well. We’ve been together for a long time and every year we do Speed Week, which is really more like two weeks on the road together. So we have a good friendship going.” When asked if they ever “compete” during the off-periods to see who is training the hardest or putting in the most miles, Clarke says that no one on the team does that. “Well,” he admits, ”maybe the climbers do it a little…”

But Clarke also admits there are many riders who have helped him develop the ability to win races on the fast, technical courses that are the norm for these twilight criterium events. “When I first started racing in America,” he says, “guys like Graeme Miller would tell me ‘if you don’t touch your brakes, you will win.’” But he is quick to add that it’s not about being reckless. Instead, he explains, “it’s all about thinking ahead and putting yourself in a position where you don’t have to touch the brakes, where you won’t have to avoid any dangerous moves from other riders.” Thinking ahead allows Clarke to race very efficiently. “I think I’m known by my teammates as being the most efficient in the crits, especially in the corners. If you look at my power meter after the race, all of my numbers will generally be the lowest of my team.” This, he explains, is due to his experience as a crit specialist over the past decade and the lessons he’s learned along the way. “I do feel like I’m not as strong now as I was in my twenties, but I win more races now than I did back then. The experience I have now outweighs the youthful brashness and power I had back then.”

And so it is that Hilton Clarke and the whole UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team consistently find themselves at the front of the action and on the top step of the podium in criterium events all over America. With five wins already this season and a clear lead in both individual and team standings on the National Criterium Calendar, the Blue Train is clearly going to be hard to beat. Clarke admits that sometimes even he has a hard time hanging on to the runaway Blue Train in the closing laps. “Yeah, some of the most important communication we have as team is when we have to tell [Karl] Menzies to slow down a bit. Sometimes we are yelling ‘go easy!’ so I can hang on long enough for him to drop me off with about 200 meters to go. We have to temper all that power he has.” With a powerful team like this around him, there is little doubt why Hilton Clarke is considered one of the best criterium racers in the sport and why UnitedHealthCare Pro Cycling Team dominates the National Criterium Circuit.

Article Source: USA Cycling

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