Australian veteran Simon Clarke triumphs at the death in drama-strewn Tour de France stage
Australian cycling veteran Simon Clarke has earned a magnificent, last-ditch Tour de France triumph to crown 20 years of slog on Europe’s roads after a brutal, crash-strewn cobbled stage.
But while the 35-year-old Israel-Premier Tech rider was left in floods of joyous tears after edging a lung-bursting sprint to win the fifth stage in a photo-finish on Wednesday, it proved a calamitous day for Australia’s biggest hitters on the Tour.
Jack Haig, leader of Bahrain Victorious, abandoned the race after a crash while AG2R Citroën’s Ben O’Connor, Australia’s top hope to win the title, had a disastrous day after a mechanical failure, finishing more than three minutes down on race favourite, champion Tadej Pogačar.
And there was more grand tour misery for Australian star sprinter Caleb Ewan, who took a nasty tumble when running headlong into a protective hay bale which had come loose at the side of the road with 30km left.
Clarke’s career-defining triumph came after a chaotic 157km ride from Lille to Arenberg, featuring more than 19km of the “Hell of the North” cobbles around Roubaix, which had been expected to cause havoc – and most certainly did.
Belgian Wout van Aert was one of many to tumble off his bike but somehow came home unscathed to retain the overall lead.
Pogačar gained time over all his rivals including a huge chunk over his Slovenian friend and rival, Primož Roglič, one of the pre-race favourites, who also came down in the incident that floored Ewan.
Though Roglič dislocated his shoulder, then popped it back in himself and continued – he is already more than two and a quarter minutes behind fourth-placed Pogačar before the Tour has even reached the mountains.
It was the greatest day of Clarke’s 13-year pro career after the Melburnian, whose previous career highlights were winning two stages at the Vuelta a España and being part of a team time trial win in the 2013 Tour, pulled out all the stops to win by a hair’s breadth.
Sprinting out of the remnants of an early breakaway, the Australian timed his final fling perfectly in a thrilling four-man denouement, edging out Dutchman Taco van der Hoorn.
It was an amazing result for Clarke, who wondered if he had reached the end of his career last winter when he was left without a team.
“To have Israel ring me up and say, ‘We’ll give you that chance,’ just gives you such a reality check to make the most of every opportunity,” said Clarke.
“All year this season, I’ve come out in every race swinging.
“I still can’t believe I got it on the line there. Taco was well ahead of me with less than 50 metres to go. I was cramping in both legs and I just lined up the biggest throw I could possibly do and I just prayed it was enough.
“I need to watch the replay, I still don’t quite believe it!
“I moved to Europe when I was 16 – and I turn 36 on the second rest day [18 July]. That’s 20 years in Europe and the dream finally came true!”
Elsewhere, it was just misery for the Australians, with O’Connor now 67th overall, 4:34 behind Van Aert, who leads by 13 seconds from American Neilson Powless, 14 seconds from Boasson Hagen and 19 from Pogačar, who already looks well set to achieve his hat-trick.