The world-class sprinter is riding for UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling, the best team on the national criterium circuit. They’ll run the maximum six riders in tonight’s men’s pro race in downtown Anniston.
Clarke is the son of former Olympic velodrome racer Hilton Clarke, who also happens to be Australia’s national coach of the year two years running.
The younger Hilton Clarke also is doing something this year he hasn’t done in a while.
“The last few years, I’ve sort of concentrated on sort of splitting these criteriums and doing some sort of stage racing in staged tours,” he said. “This year, at least through the start of the year, I’m just a hundred percent focused on these crits.
“There are three or four of us that are doing the same, and we’ve really put in a lot of time and thought into these races, and it’s really paying off right now.”
UnitedHealthcare riders have won all four National Criterium Calendar events this year, and Clarke, the team’s top sprinter, has won three of them. He leads the NCC and USA Crit Series points comfortably headed into today’s races.
The Sunny King Criterium, which anchors the annual Noble Street Festival, gets started with amateur-level races at 10 a.m. today in Anniston and culminates in the women’s and men’s pro races, set for 6:20 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., respectively.
The Sunny King Criterium is the first leg of the area’s annual cycling weekend, which has grown into one of the state’s top tourism events. The Foothills Classic Road Race and Cheaha Challenge go off Sunday morning in Piedmont.
With his dad watching the live stream on computer in back home in Australia, Hilton Clarke will go for his second Sunny King victory, the last coming in 2008. He didn’t race here in 2012.
“I’m happy to come back, because, last year, I sort of got pushed off my program,” he said. “I was doing another race in Turkey, doing the Tour of Turkey, so it was a little bit disappointing to miss it last year.”
This year, it’s all crits, and Clarke has 375 NCC points. Teammate Luke Keough is second with 190, and third-place rider Carlos Alzate (158) rides for UnitedHealthcare, which holds a near-500-point lead in team standings.
The core group of United racers has been together for four years. This year, add the Keough, younger brother to teammate Jake Keough.
Luke Keough helped pull Clarke to the front and victory in the Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium last Saturday in Charlotte, N.C.
“The team has really been on fire,” Clarke said. “We feel very confident going in.”
The 33-year-old Clarke has the focus, team and pedigree for confidence.
His dad raced in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, finishing 14th in the men’s 1,000-meter time trial in 1:06.45. He’s become one of the top developers of youth cycling talent in Australia, serving as elite team coach for the Carnegie-Caulfield Cycling Club.
The younger Clarke began learning the sport at 9. The elder Clarke started his son on the track, which includes timed and mass-start races, similar to criteriums.
“He already, when I was about 10, was coaching world champions on the velodrome,” he said of his dad. “To me, I sort of moved quickly to road cycling, but I think a lot of things that I really studied on the velodrome I sort of implement on the sort of short criterium courses.
“I guess it’s just one of my strengths that I really can race well in these sort of small circuits.”
The small circuit in downtown Anniston will welcome back lots of past winners today. The women’s pro field will include Erica Allar (2012), local favorite and Mellow Mushroom rider Laura Van Gilder (2007) and two-time winner Tina Pic (2006 and 2008), who has come out of retirement.
The men’s pro field, besides Clarke, will feature United teammate Karl Menzies (2009), Isaac Howe (2012) and Frank Travieso (2007).
“Some of the people have been saying we’ve been making it look easy,” Clarke said. “Not one of the races has been easy so far. We really have our work cut out for us to keep this winning streak going because the field is very, very good.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.