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1st Doherty Hotel's Launceston Classic - NE
Launceston, Tasmania, December 27, 2002
How Clarke Jnr made 'em suffer in Australia's richest one-day crit
By Gerard Knapp in Launceston
There was a stellar field to contest the inaugural Doherty Hotels Cycling Classic in Launceston, Tasmania, said to be Australia's richest one-day criterium. One by one the visiting and returning riders were introduced to the start line and the depth of talent was impressive.
Interestingly, the first rider to be introduced was emerging Victorian speedster Hilton Clarke Jr (whose father Hilton Clarke Sr won the Latrobe Wheelrace in 1972). Then came visiting US track champion Jame Carney, US Postal Service rider Matt White, then Danny Clark, one of the world's greatest track cyclists and at 52 years old still as competitive as ever. A special moment for many Tasmanians was to have Mark Jamieson join Clark on the line. The current junior world pursuit champion, Jamieson was born some 10 years after Clark had won his silver medal at the 1972 Olympics - there are at least three generations of cycling separating the two Tasmanian riders.
A huge cheer greeted Six Day specialist Matthew Gilmore, who is still considered "Tasmanian" when he races in the island state, despite carrying a Belgian passport. Then came the who's who of Australian cycling, names such as McGee (FDJ), Evans (in his last-ever race in Mapei colours), O'Grady (Credit Agricole), McEwen (Lotto-Adecco), Matthew Hayman (Rabobank), Cooke (FDJ, Wilson (FDJ), Henk Vogels (Mercury), the South Australian brothers Jay and Corey Sweet, plus world record-breaking champions such as Luke Roberts, Mark Renshaw (FDJ) and fellow pursuiter Stephen Wooldridge and of course, Brett Aitken, the unassuming bald bloke who won the gold in the Madison at the Sydney Olympics (and is gradually regaining his race fitness).
It was a strong field, and only a handful of names were missing, like Aitken's Madison partner Scott McGrory, as well as Graeme Brown, Mick Rogers, Nathan O'Neill, David McKenzie, Jamie Drew and Nick Gates. Perhaps the absence of noted sprinters like Brown and McKenzie did not concern the other riders greatly, as the organisers had put together a strong field, good prize money and once the gun went, so did the field, with the first lap shelling half a dozen riders as they hit 60kph down the back straight into a headwind. Coming up the finishing straight on the first lap the pace was intense and visiting US pro Mike Tillman, wearing a Tasmanian Institute of Sport (TIS) jersey for the day (as did Carney) put in an attack, but the 400 metre hill on the 2.4km circuit dulled this and other early attacks.
The riders would have to ascend the short but sharp climb 30 times to complete the 72km crit and after 10 laps, a quality break went clear, including McEwen (unmistakeable in the Tour de France green points jersey), and O'Grady, Cooke, Hayman, White, Clarke Jr and Launceston powerhouse Karl Menzies. Only 10 metres off the back for half a lap was the veteran Clark, who gradually lost contact on the hill. (They should be thankful he didn't make contact). Also missing from this break were riders such as Evans, Vogels and McGee.
The leaders quickly built up a gap of over 30 seconds and then the main field began to react. A chasing group of four including McGee, Luke Roberts, Ben Brooks and TIS rider Caleb Manion began to chase, and then behind them came Tillman, Evans, Aitken, Rod McGee and Jay Sweet. One by one the latter chase group disintegrated and joined the main field, while the McGee quartet stayed in no man's land, unable to bridge to the leaders and comfortably clear of the main field.
At the front of the race, Hilton Clarke Jr put in a big attack but was covered by McEwen. But the attacks kept coming and finally Clarke Jr and Menzies got away with eight laps to go. This duo was then given much greater support by the arrival of Rabobank's Matt Hayman. The Holland-based professional knows how to race into a headwind and the powerful rider helped drive the break which began to eat into the reserves of the lead group.
But a field which includes McEwen, O'Grady, Cooke and White doesn't let 10 big ones go that easily, and White could be seen on the front of this group powering up the climb and working hard to close the gap. Their efforts were rewarded when Clarke, Menzies and Hayman were finally brought back with less than two to go, but by then the main lead group had worked themselves very hard.
The course offered little in the way of recovery. The short and slightly uphill finishing straight led into a sharp right-left combination of corners, then the course went uphill for the best part of 400 metres, then it was a sharp and technical descent before it was back into the stiff headwind for the long back straight, where riders were forced into the gutter and grovelled to hold the wheel in front.
The successful chase by the lead group actually gave hope to Clarke Jr. "I was never really committed to the attack (which started with eight to go), although we were all working to stay away," he said of Menzies and Hayman. "I knew we had to make them chase hard because I didn't want it to end up as an all-out sprint.
"When they came up to us, I looked at their faces and thought 'I'm in with a shot here, that looked like it hurt them'," he told Cyclingnews.
Hayman decided to help himself to the final sprint prime on offer for the night with two laps to go (as the main lead group caught the trio), and then the riders began jostling for final positions. With only 100 metres to the finish line from the exit of the last corner, the rider who leads into the straight would or should be unstoppable for the win.
Clarke Jr's team-mate from Melbourne's Swim-Bike-Run, Robert Tighello, had maintained his presence in the group for the duration of the break (as did fellow-SBR rider David Tanner) and "did a great job of taking me up to the front by the time we go to the second last corner", Clark Jr explained.
Coming out of the final corner, Clarke Jr had to dig deep as right behind him were McEwen, O'Grady and Hayman, but he held them off for the final 100 metres to the line.
"Just to line up next to these guys is a great feeling," said a jubilant Clarke Jr after the race, "but to beat them is amazing."
Next year Clarke, who this year rode for Schroeder Iron in the USA, will join the new South African-based Division 3 outfit Team Barloworld. He heads to SA in early 2003 for a month of racing, before relocating to France where the Circuit de Mines is his first scheduled race in Europe.
As for the Launceston race, the principal sponsors apparently have committed to another two years support for the event.
(Also see: Feature on background to the Launceston Classic.)
Other post-race comments:
After the race, Matt Gilmore told the local newspaper, The Examiner, that "It was a great race ... it was a European race here in the streets of Tasmania. The crowd were great, they supported everyone, even the last guy who crossed the line. The course was selective enough and the people got to see the cream of Australian cycling."
Mark Renshaw: "It was a pretty good course. It was a bit technical and ... it wasn't easy by any means. The noise that was coming out the crowd towards the end of the race was just unbelievable. When they (organisers) said beforehand that there would be five to ten thousand people here I thought 'no way'."
Danny Clark: "I thought it was great for Launceston and I am really proud of the Launceston people who came out and supported it like they did. It is a great event and if these guys come back next year it will be fantastic. I'm going to train next year; I have only done six weeks for this so I just missed the break by 10 metres. I may be 52 but I am going to have a go."
Clarke edges out McEwen in exciting battle
By Rod Morris in Launceston
Hilton Clarke jnr turned in a monster of a performance in the inaugural Doherty Hotels Launceston $20,000 Classic. Held on the second day of the Telstra Country Wide Tasmanian Christmas Carnivals Series, the 72 km criterium attracted one of the best ever fields assembled in an Australian one day race. Even Clarke would be the first to admit, he would not rate among the high profile riders in the event, but his end performance was first class.
Consider this blue riband field: Robbie McEwen, Stuart O'Grady, Baden Cooke, Brad McGee, Matthew Gilmore, Brett Aitken, Jame Carney, Cadel Evans, Danny Clark, Henk Vogels, Mark Renshaw, Stephen Wooldridge, Luke Roberts...and the list goes on. They were just some of the riders Clarke had to contend with.
The race tempo was a cracker, with laps of the 2.4 km street circuit averaging around 3.10 minutes. Riders showed they were fair dinkum from the very outset and the original starting field of 75 soon broke up. Victorian Nic Sanderson and Clarke were the early breakaways before Lee De Luca and Matt Hayman bridged the gap and formed a solid group of four. It wasn't long however before they were reeled in and the attacks started again.
This time Clarke - who was gaining sound support from his regular teammates David Tanner and controversial Victorian rider Robert Tighello - had help from big Tasmanian Karl Menzies and Hayman. The first of the intermediate sprints went to Tour de France star Robbie McEwen, but his early attack was also curtailed by a suspicious peloton.
As the race progressed, Wooldridge, Hayman, Tighello, Clarke and Menzies made the most of the lucrative intermediate lap prizes, including a special prime of $500 at 2-laps to go won by Hayman. A group of 12 breakaways had autographed their signature on the race, leaving the main bunch to fight out the minor placings.
In a desperate finish, Clarke held on to win from ace sprinter McEwen and O'Grady.
The first Tasmanian home was Sean Sullivan, who edged out the luckless Menzies, who was by far the biggest surprise packet of the front group.
With the race being privately funded by Launceston based sporting medico Dr Stan Seijka, co-sponsors, Doherty Hotels, were so impressed with the organisation of the event, the superb quality of the field and the response from the Tasmanian sporting public, that a commitment for the next two years was made before this race had even finished.
Images by Gerard Knapp/Cyclingnews.com
1 Hilton Clarke (Victoria) 1.38.07 2 Robbie McEwen (Queensland) 3 Stuart O'Grady (South Australia) 4 Brett Dawson (NSW) 5 Sean Sullivan (Tasmania) 6 David Tanner 7 Matt White (NSW) 8 Baden Cooke (Vitoria) 9 Matt Hayman (ACT) 10 Karl Menzies (NSW) 11 Robert Tighello (Victoria) 12 Mark Renshaw (NSW) 13 Ben Brooks (NSW) 14 Caleb Manion (Tasmania) 15 Luke Roberts (South Australia) 16 Brad McGee (NSW) 17 Jai Crawford 18 Nic Sanderson (Tasmania) 19 Mark Jamieson (Tasmania) 20 Henk Vogels (Western Australia) 21 Corey Sweet (South Australia) 22 Matt Wilson (Victoria) 23 Craig Price 24 Lee De Luca