Twenty-year-old Dylan McKenna could hardly believe it when he discovered that he'd won the opportunity to ride with a trio of Katusha-Alpecin pro riders in a special Katusha Sports team at the 2019 Lexus Blackburn Bay Crits, running from January 1-3.
"I was at work on Christmas Eve, and found out on a group chat when someone said congratulations to me," McKenna tells Cyclingnews from Geelong, Victoria, ahead of the second race in the Bay Crits on Wednesday.
"I was a little bit shaky at work for the rest of the afternoon," he laughs. "I was, like, 'Hooley dooley!' It came out of the blue, and from there I've already done a couple of local newspaper interviews, but it's been really exciting."
McKenna, of Castlemaine in Victoria, was joined by fellow winner Tom Chapman of Adelaide, South Australia, on the five-man squad with Nathan Haas, Alex Dowsett and Marco Haller, who ordinarily ride for WorldTour team Katusha-Alpecin, but are racing the Australian criterium series as Katusha Sports in a special kit that Haas helped to design.
Ahead of the first race in Geelong on the evening of New Year's Day, McKenna was thrust into the life of a pro rider as part of an experience he says he won't forget in a hurry, but which is a long way from over, as he'll ride all three of the criterium races.
"From around 4pm onwards we were in full pro mode, doing media stuff, and that was totally different from anything I've done before," says McKenna. "In the past at the Bay Crits, I've just rolled up with my family and done my own warm-up, and then just ridden the race, but this time we had people trying to get photos beforehand, and I was just sitting with the pros, watching people chatting with them. You have to be really personable as well as trying to focus on the race ahead.
"Originally, I was just going to ride the support race, and do the first race [on Tuesday] and the last one [on Thursday], and so come to the national championships a little bit fresher," he continues. "But I'm in good shape at the moment, and not overly fatigued or anything, so given the opportunity that Katusha Sports has given us, yeah, it's sort of a no-brainer to ride all three and learn as much as I can."
The first race, on the Eastern Gardens circuit, was, says McKenna, "on from the beginning". The fact that his Katusha Sports teammate Haller eventually took the victory was about as good a start as he could have expected.
"We've been joking about that: as this team stands, we've got a 100 per cent win rate for 2019, which isn't a bad stat to start the year off with.
"When Marco got away in the break, it was pretty awesome for us. Nathan and Alex, more than me, were fantastic at following any moves that tried to get off the front. But, about 20 minutes in, I managed to follow a move, and ripped it seriously hard, although I put myself a little too far in the danger zone, and had a couple of laps when I was just clinging on for dear life at the back of the bunch," he laughs. "Then Nathan actually dropped back and told me to breathe and focus, and to start to move back up the bunch again, and I managed to do that, and actually felt quite good at the finish, and pulled just inside the top 20, which I was quite happy with, too.
"Having Nathan there, giving advice in the heat of the moment, was pretty awesome," McKenna says. "Even at lunch today, we sat and had a good half-an-hour chat with Nathan about diet and nutrition, and just trying to be a sponge and learning from these guys is probably the most exciting part."
Before Tuesday's Bay Crits elite race, McKenna says, the biggest races he'd done were the New Zealand Cycle Classic and the UCI 1.2-ranked Gravel and Tar Classic – also in New Zealand.
While riding in A-grade races in Australia and New Zealand has put McKenna in regular contact with some of the sport's bigger names at a relatively young age, it helps to have had a couple of mates in the Bay Crits bunch for his temporary move into a peloton packed with WorldTour and Pro Continental-level pros.
"I'm good mates with Brenton Jones [Delko Marseille Provence], as we had the same coach for a fair while," he tells Cyclingnews, "and then I sort of know Zak Dempster [Israel Cycling Academy], as he's from the same town as I am."
After the Bay Crits, McKenna will line up at the under-23 road race on Saturday at the Australian national championships in nearby Ballarat.
"I'll give the criterium championships on Friday a miss, and instead have a bit of a rest," he says, admitting that he's in no great hurry to step up to racing the elite national road race, rather than the U23 event.
However, McKenna is more than happy to admit that eventually turning pro is certainly the dream.
"If you didn't have a dream like that, you'd have to be pretty crazy to be training 25 hours a week," he says. "It's definitely the dream, but there's still a long way to go to get to that level. For now, just being able to race with the pros and to know that I'm not being blown out of the back of the bunch is pretty satisfying."