After earning his path to the professional ranks via the school of hard knocks that is the Belgian amateur scene, the Briton was under no illusions as to what he was facing into, of course, but his first six months in the peloton provided some salutary lessons nonetheless.
“During the first half of last year, I learnt my lesson to try not to force it too much between races because I ended up getting pretty tired,” McLay told Cyclingnews at the Tour of Qatar last week, where he kicked off his second season at Fortuneo-Vital Concept.
“I learnt to make sure to focus on recovery a bit more because the races are that bit harder. You learn to stay a bit calmer in a race too, and I think those are the main things I picked up.”
McLay’s hectic spring campaign was something of a baptism of fire, and included debuts at Paris-Nice and Paris-Roubaix, but by the time the Tour de Picardie rolled around in May, there were sure signs that he was beginning to tread water. His season finished strongly, too, with solid outings at late season semi-classics Paris-Brussels and Paris-Bourges.
“The back end of the year I was definitely going a lot better. I never got on top of it in the first half of the year but then I took a rest and did a good training block and started racing, and from then I was just getting better every race,” McLay said. “Hopefully I’ve learned from that and can produce my form a bit earlier this year.”
When McLay turned professional last year after his stint with the Lotto under-23 team, opinion was divided as to whether he was a Classics star or a sprinter in the making – not least because machinations of Belgian amateur racing, where foreign riders cannot score points in the season-long rankings, had restricted his experience in the Classics to that point.
“I definitely feel like I can do something in the sprints if I get it right. It hasn’t clicked quite yet. But in the past too it’s taken me a bit of time, and then when it goes right, it goes right. So hopefully that will happen,” McLay said. “With the Classics it’s harder to tell, I think that just takes more time, but we’ll see what happens this Spring.”
McLay shares sprinting duties with Yauheni Hutarovich at Fortuneo-Vital Concept, and he laughs off the idea that there is any kind of an internal rivalry à la Cipollini-Baffi or Cavendish-Greipel. In Qatar this past week, as for much of last year, the hierarchy is established on the hoof.
“We share it quite a bit to be honest, it just depends on the race. At the back end of last year, I was getting to the finish in a lot better condition so I was doing the sprint. It’s different all the time,” McLay said.
“I think this year I’ll get more chances for myself but I quite like looking after him too. I think my characteristics mean I can look after someone in the sprint too. It’s not like either of us has been odds-on favourite to win this week, so we sort it ourselves.”
The 24-year-old McLay’s next outing will be the Belgian opening weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, while a return to Paris-Nice is also provisionally pencilled into his programme. Despite being among the fallers on each of the frantic opening two days of racing, he is hopeful that his first race in the Persian Gulf will prove a useful exercise with the Spring in mind.
“I definitely made some mistakes the first couple of days, having not done it before, but it was fairly as expected – hectic, and you had to race hard from start to finish,” McLay said.
“It’s different to the Belgian races but in terms of preparation it’s very good because it’s really raced hard from the beginning to the end of the race and you have to make lots of hard efforts to get into the front before the changes in direction, and that’s something you come across in the Classics.”