Aussie Clarke looks for fourth straight NCC win at Sunny King Criterium

Australian and UnitedHealthcare rider reconfigured his season to focus more on criteriums

Photo: Peter Kraiker

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Following three straight National Criterium Calendar (NCC) victories, Australian cyclist Hilton Clarke is well on track to taking his second consecutive title in that arena and complete the mission set out for him by his UnitedHealthcare team.

“At the end of last season we figured out that I was spending half my time doing stage races and half my time doing crits,” Clarke said. “And I ended up with a bunch of second places because of things like jet lag. But now I have a program of pretty much just crits for the first half of the year. I haven’t really needed to concentrate on climbing or anything like that. I’ve really just been focused in on these shorter efforts, so I tailored my [winter] training to that.”

For 2012, Clarke’s season where his results were solid yet mixed, Clarke walked away with a number of tough second-place finishes and retired from the Tour of Utah during the stage 5 ride to the Snowbird Ski Area and Summer Resort. As a consequence, the veteran has decided to shift his focus early on this season to where Clarke can be most successful.

“Last year I did ride Utah, but right now some things are less open to me,” Clarke said about his stage racing prospects. “I’m really focused on the crits. We have a lot of guys putting their hands up for those stage races. But I’m not really too concerned. Myself and the team have really just been happy with trying to change more of my podium places to wins this year.”

Clarke’s most recent victory at the Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium in Charlotte, North Carolina last weekend, where his squad seized control of the race with five laps to go, demonstrated once again that UnitedHealthcare has a seemingly unassailable hold on U.S. crit racing — even on a tough course.

“The years keep mounting up and a lot of us have been together … the same guys … and we’ve hit the ground running so far this year,” Clarke said in Charlotte. “It’s not just individual riders doing instinctive things. It’s the whole team. Every course has a different style [to it] and we as a team have to react differently to them. Tampa was me lapping the field and Delray was a field sprint. So a lot of times it’s the course that all of us riders are adapting to.”

Going into Saturday’s Sunny King Criterium in Anniston, Alabama, the next stop on the NCC schedule, the field will once again face the uphill drag out of the final corner and up to the line. But Clarke, along with teammate Karl Menzies, has triumphed there in the past under different scenarios.

“Like every one of these crits, you have to adapt to the course,” Clarke said. “Me personally, I’d rather it’d be flat but everyone has to tackle it.”

This year may be the last time Sunny King is produced by the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association (NEABA) in cooperation with the City of Anniston and 40 other local public and private partners. According to race organizer Mike Poe, however, the strain on the volunteers that have put the event together over the past 11 years is certainly being felt.

“We have no paid staff,” Poe said. “The same team has produced this event over its 11-year history. As does the rest of our volunteers, I have a full time job [as a financial advisor]. Combine that with two teenage daughters and being president of my local elected school board and bike club and time becomes scarce.”

As a result, the race has checked into the possibility of working with Atlanta-based Medalist Sports regarding the production of the event at some point in the future.

“While no decisions have been made, we have had preliminary discussions with Jim and Chris at Medalist Sports,” Poe said this week. “As we look to the future, our vision is to partner with a high-quality, well-respected, highly ethical and proven team. We believe that partnership will help us continue to grow in the right direction.”

For live coverage of the Sunny King Criterium, tune into starting at 1 p.m. ET.

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