Hilton Clarke has fond memories of B.C. Superweek, including a win at the historic Tour de Gastown in 2006 and a second place finish in 2008.
The Australian-born, California-based professional cyclist, who also won the 2006 Tour de Delta Ladner criterium, is hoping to make the return trip this year even more memorable.
Not only will Clarke be coming back with his brother and United Health Care Pro Cycling teammate, Jonathan, he will also celebrate his 33rd birthday on July 11, the same day B.C. Superweek celebrates pro cycling's return to Vancouver's cobblestones with the rebranded Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix.
And because North Vancouver's Andrew Pinfold, who won the last race in 2008, retired this season, Clarke is the closest thing to a defending champion. Clarke is proud to be part of a history that includes big wins by names like Lance Armstrong, Alex Stieda, Gord Fraser, Brian Walton and Allison Sydor.
And he's eager to get back in front of the crowds that helped make Gastown famous.
"Gastown not only has the history but also one of the most amazing crowds out of all the crits in North America," said Clarke, in his 13th year in North America. "Being a sprinter, it's not often I win a race solo, but in 2006 I was lucky enough to ride the last two laps off the front on my own, and I have a great memory taking the first corner on the last lap and looking to the right and noticing the [six-storey] car park to my right was so packed of people, it looked like a grandstand."
With a $15,000 first prize in this year's men's race at Gastown - the largest top prize in North America for a single criterium - Clarke will need to find the extra gear that has made him one of the best sprinters on the North American pro circuit for the past 12 years. He had 10 podiums and three wins last season, and another victory among three podiums already this season.
"A $15,000 cheque would be a lovely birthday present," Clarke said.
Competition will be tough throughout B.C. Superweek, with top North American and overseas teams signing up to compete for $105,000 over nine races.