In years past, it was the kind of rite of passage that was all but obligatory for the aspiring young British rider but in the modern era, Dan McLay’s stint under his own steam in Belgium stands out as a rather atypical route to the professional peloton.
McLay lines up at the Tour de San Luis on Monday for his first race in the colours of Bretagne-Séché after an impressive three-year spell with Lotto’s development squad, capped by a fine stage victory at the Tour de l’Avenir last September.
He is not the only rider to thrive outside of British Cycling’s Academy system in recent years – Adam Blythe was dropped from the programme, while Adam Yates was overlooked altogether, for instance – but he is one of the few who sought a different path from the very outset, opting to sign with Lotto in 2012 rather than apply to his federation.
“I considered it but the first year out of juniors I didn’t apply because you only hear back in October whether you’re on it or not and by then everything else is decided,” McLay told Cyclingnews in San Luis. “There were a lot of things up in the air that year with what was happening in the Academy. I like racing in Belgium and I was able to have an arrangement set in stone in June or July with Lotto. I went for that because that way you know what you’re doing for the next year.”
Towards the end of his first year in Belgium, British Cycling made some overtures to bring McLay into the fold but a switch never materialised – “There was a bit of talk about doing some track stuff and things but it never came about, although I never approached them either,” he said – and he continued on his path with Lotto.
Ironically, with both Lotto and the British under-23 squad, McLay’s status meant that earning selection for major races was not always straightforward. His exposure to the one-day classics at Lotto was limited by rules which only allowed Belgian riders to score points for the team in the season-long rankings, while as a non-Academy rider, it often proved difficult to make the cut for the British team for the Nations Cup races or the World Championships.
“In the past there where years where I’d had good seasons, though not outstanding, but it still should have been good enough to get a place in the team,” he said. “But obviously they’re going to favour the guys in the programme. They reserved some races for the guys on the programme and the others were a selection. That’s a little bit difficult, when it’s a Nations Cup and you can’t ride it. But when I’ve needed them last year I had my chances, so I can’t complain really.”
McLay’s stand-out victory in 2014 came in British colours at the Tour de l’Avenir, when he claimed the bunch sprint on stage 3 to Paray-le-Monial, a win that was ultimately enough to convince Bretagne-Séché to sign the 23-year-old, who was born in New Zealand but grew up in Leicester. “They were keen and it suited me because I would get some of my own chances. It was really good to go to a team that was really interested in me as much as anything else,” he said.
A rapid finisher with a penchant for the cobbles, McLay’s future seems oriented in the direction of bunch sprints and the classics. His 2015 programme will feature a fair smattering of pavé early on – he is pencilled in for Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix – but initially, at least, he is more focused on landing a sprint win.
“In the last year or so, I sort of feel like sprints are where I can definitely be really good whereas I haven’t ridden so many classics-type races because in Belgium you need to be a Belgian to score points for the team,” he said. “I think I could go down the classics route and I think you can do both, but it obviously takes a bit more time to become really good in the classics. But I think the route I choose will come about naturally.”
ASO’s decision to award Bretagne-Séché a Tour de France wildcard last week means that McLay begins his season nurturing hopes of an early taste of La Grande Boucle, although he acknowledged that it might be a step too far in his first year.
“I’ve got it in mind but I don’t think you can focus on it,” he said. “It would be incredible to go there as a neo-pro but I’m not holding out too much hope. I just have to try to be good in every race I go to, pick a few early-season targets and then see what happens.”
For his first day as a professional on Monday, McLay’s duties are clear. His fellow new arrival Yauheni Hutarovich will look to contest the bunch finish against Mark Cavendish, Sacha Modolo et al, and McLay’s task will be to ensure the Belarusian is in the mix.
“I think I’ll be the last man for him, whether that means just pulling for him or putting him in a good wheel for the sprint,” McLay said. “It will be the first time we’ve raced together so we’ll try and work something out. Sometimes it takes a bit of time for things to come together but hopefully we can do something.
“It’s the first race with the new team and it will be interesting to see what comes. I’m a little bit nervous but mostly excited just to get started.”