As Oscar Clark of UnitedHealthcare prepares for the upcoming Terrapin Twilight Criterium, Saturday evening in Athens Georgia, he’s mostly focused on staying at the top of the USA CRITS Championship Series standings despite the intense competition that routinely shows up for the 32 year-old event. But just a couple weeks ago, this was not something he was even considering.
On April 14 a large payday awaited the field at the finish line of the 2012 Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium, in Charlotte North Carolina. The final moments of the were getting tense, and in the middle of the pack, 23 year-old Clark was aware that things were getting fairly dicey – but he had no idea he would end the day on top of the series standings.
“It got pretty bunched up before the last set of left turns.” Clark said of those final moments. “I’m not exactly a big field sprinter that’s going to fight for a position, so I definitely lost some spots there.”
As it turned out, a group of riders would go down during the final turn. Clark was able to avoid the wreck and got ready to put what he had left into the closing stretch.
“I had some gas left, so I was trying to move up. I was 10th or 12th wheel and then was pretty much on my own from there to the finish.”
Clark would only be able to manage a 7th place finish, but although completely unaware, the young hometown rider had amassed enough points to move himself into the lead of series.
“I wasn’t really paying attention to it, and then after the race one of my buddies figured out that I was in the lead. I’m not really a crit racer, so that’s not the thing that was on my mind.”
Yet the Atlanta native suddenly found himself standing on top of the podium wearing the orange jersey of the overall leader, with Colin Jaskiewicz (Champion System-Stan’s NoTubes) and 2011 USA CRITS champion Luke Keough (Mountain Khakis-SmartStop) second and third overall respectively.
Clark, who began taking his cycling a little more seriously around the age of 15, didn’t grow up with much awareness of the professional end of the sport. He continued to see how far he could take his enthusiasm, however, through his years as an Economics major at Georgia State University. Since then he’s raced track (placing 3rd at the 2011 USA Cycling Collegiate Track Nationals in the individual pursuit) and got 12th at last year’s U23 Elite road nationals. He also managed to get a top-15 spot at last year’s USA Cycling Professional Road Championships in Greenville. When asked if he was at all on edge racing against some of the well-known heavy hitters of the pro ranks, Clark sounded relatively unphased.
“I know they’re good, but it wasn’t really intimidating.” Clark said calmly. “It was pretty hard. I was in the group that was racing for fifth and I didn’t feel like sprinting for it, so I went early and got caught about 500 meters from the line.”
He’s also raced Twilight twice before, once back in 2008 and again last year as a member of the Realcyclist.com team in support of 2007 USA CRITS champion Frank Travieso. As a local resident he feels a special affinity for the race.
“I think it’s pretty much the best crit around as far as an overall event goes; It’s pretty much unrivaled, and the atmosphere that night is incredible,” Clark said. “As far as the course goes, it’s probably not quite as hard as people make it out to be, but it’s really easy to get psyched out by all the crowds.”
He views the 1km course as fairly fast despite the long hill that tempers most riders’ legs on the backstretch.
“The whole course is just like two sprints where you sprint up that hill, and then you sprint out of that last turn to get back up to speed through the start/finish. The course is also really good for a breakaway, so I think for our team we just need to be represented in any breaks that have big teams in them and try to conserve as much as we can for the field sprint.”
Even if Clark doesn’t get to place his stamp on Athens with a victory there, if he can maintain his points edge on Jaskiewicz and Keough he’d be able to take the orange jersey to the next stop at St. Louis’ Tour de Grove in mid-May.