Roll back to Jack’s early youth and you find a remarkable story. As a child he was seriously overweight, the product of a sedentary life spent playing computer games and eating poorly. At 12 years old his weight peaked at almost 15 stone (210lbs.) and with his mother running a pub, junk food was always readily available. Jack admits, “it happened during the summer holidays, which I spent eating and playing on my Playstation.” “I wasn’t event any good at it, despite the time I spent on it!” he laughs, at the recollection.
Jack’s response was to join the Air Cadets, the Royal Air Force’s equivalent of the Boy Scouts. Here he was introduced to the joys of the outdoor life, with adventure weekends spent in remote parts of the country taking part in hiking, kayaking and mountain biking. The cycling, in particular appealed and Jack was soon riding the six miles to and from Air Cadet meetings on his bike. Though he admits that “sometimes on the way home I was so tired I’d stop at my Grandma’s and sleep the night there!”
Still, he persevered and slowly cycling became an increasingly important part of his life. When encouraged to find a work experience placement by his school, he pestered the local cycle shop into offering him a job and soon found himself joining the shop’s cycling club. At first his weight meant that Jack was at the back on club rides and he vividly remembers the humiliation of being left behind on climbs by ten-year-olds.
But cycling had chimed with something inside him. He felt better for the exercise and his self-esteem benefited over the next couple of years as the weight began to drop off him. All the time, the volume of his riding increased and Jack’s growing love of cycling meant that he was soon cycling everywhere and beginning to put in a serious mileage as he simply enjoyed riding his bike.
Encouraged to try racing, by his boss, Mark Rushby, a former top ’cross rider himself, Jack made his Cyclo-Cross debut in a local event in 2009, when he was, in his own words, “still a bit chubby.” A fall resulted in a broken wrist, which meant that his second race had to wait a couple more months, but he was soon hooked and less than six months later, at the end of his first winter ’cross season he was not only looking distinctly lean, but had progressed enough to finish 12th in the National Junior Championships.
Jack went on to impress observers at his local ’cross scene by winning the highly competitive Yorkshire Summer League in 2010, before embarking on that successful second season as a Junior. The transformation from seriously overweight child to national standard racer had happened in less than three years.
For many, Jack’s emergence as a top class rider in 2010-11 was nothing out of the ordinary. Many young riders develop rapidly in their Junior years and to them Jack was just another outstanding emerging talent. But to those who knew him well, the transformation had been almost miraculous. Not only was Jack clearly a talented athlete, he was also a remarkable young man confident enough to lead club rides, looking after and motivating men three times his age.
To go from overweight cycling novice to racing national level ’cross races in such a short pace of time meant that Jack had to fast-track the acquisition of many of the necessary skills. A natural runner, dismounts were soon mastered, but dealing with the infinite range of surfaces, cambers and textures encountered in racing and mastering the skills to deal with them cannot be done overnight.
Jack admits that technically he has been playing catch-up and a brief foray into XC mountain biking was not a success. Wisely, Jack has concentrated on ’cross and for all that he initially had a tendency to crash and looked awkward at times on more technical courses, he has overcome his lack of experience with a combination of commitment and talent. His limitations have been imposed upon him by the rushed timescale of his cycling life, but he clearly has the natural talent to overcome them.
And so, this weekend will see Jack once again pitting himself against the world’s top riders. His ambition is currently limited to a top twenty finish and avoiding being lapped. But he is aware that, at an age when many riders are reaching full maturity, he is still far from the finished article.
Push him and he’ll admit that his long term goal is to wear the national champion’s jersey. He also wants to ride more frequently in Europe, though the demands of a 42 hour a week job and fitting in the training necessary to compete with full time riders means that he is constantly juggling work commitments, holidays and some pretty tight financial constraints.
The delayed start to his cycling career has placed Jack on an unfamiliar developmental trajectory and we can say with some certainty that we have yet to see the best of him as a bike racer. In the meantime, watch out for a rider who is living a life that, as a 15 stone thirteen year-old, he could never have dreamed of.
Jack Clarkson will be called up 26th in Tabor on Sunday morning as the second-ranked British U23 racer.