"I need to start winning when I'm not going so well," is how British sprinter Dan McLay (Fortuneo-Oscaro) sums up his current attitude to the 2018 season. It will be his fourth as a pro, his first with Team EF-Drapac, and the one where he hopes for a notable step up in his strike rate – or, as he puts it, “to go from two wins a year to a handful."
McLay is part of a whole slab of new intakes at Jonathan Vaughters' squad, which will see nine riders join and 11 leave, out of an expected total 2018 roster of 25.
The British sprinter joked in his transfer communiqué from his new team that it was time for him "to perform before the grey hairs start to appear". At 25 going on 26, it may take a while yet for him to really get worried about being 'follicly challenged', but after the promise of four top-10 places at the 2016 Tour de France, his first ever Grand Tour, melded into the frustration of another four top-10s's but no wins in the same race in 2017, McLay is the first to recognise that he needs to convert a steady series of near misses into a steady series of hits.
"It's taken a while to find my seat," McLay tells Cyclingnews. "I've got a few results here or there, but I haven't found my rhythm yet, winning or hitting an exact formula for doing so. It's about finding that consistency, because physically I've got the ability to win a lot more than I have been.
"Hopefully I can make it click. But that's easy to say and hard to do."
McLay said in the same press release that his victory in the Trofeo Palma this spring was his best to date, although some fans might say his most memorable was when he skillfully maneuvered at high speed past his rivals to triumph in the GP de Denain in 2016, his biggest victory so far. Either way, this season McLay had clearly hit the ground running in January in Mallorca, only for him to do so in a much more literal and painful sense when his victory salute in the Spanish one-day race was immediately followed by a head-on collision with a poorly positioned finish-line photographer.
McLay then crashed again in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and what had been a suspected broken rib from Mallorca became a definitive fracture, effectively wrecking his Classics season – or, as he puts it, "everything just fell to pieces a little bit".
"Hopefully in 2018 I can win as early or nearly as early as I did, then roll into the other races, ideally with a couple of wins early on. I think you can target and peak for certain races, but as a sprinter I need to start winning when I'm not so good as well and be more consistent in the hunt for the win," he says.
"Last year  I had this run of always being in the pile-up or just behind it, or knowing in the last three kilometres I was not going to make it. I just need to find that rhythm of always being in the right place at the right time, having the right mindset. In sprinting the mind and the legs definitely go together. If I get that good rhythm going with myself and the team, as well as learning the ropes, I'll be able to play off that in the finales."
New team, new races
He's yet to have an official team get-together with the soon-to-be-rebaptised Team EF-Drapac, but as he gets deeper into pre-season training McLay says he's found a good side to that lack of contact.
"Things are going well with my training. I've been feeling a bit tired but I'll get used to that. I'm looking forward to next year, it feels like I've come through the off-season not too overweight, which is good," he says.
"We've not had a team meeting or official training camp yet and we won't until January. I went into the service course for a strength and condition assessment and to try on some kit, but that's been it. I'll pick up a bike at some point, but it's actually quite nice to have your own space at this point in the year."
His program has yet to be discussed in detail, although he knows a few important points, such as he's not doing the Tour Down Under, and therefore "anticipating a February start". One reason for switching to a WorldTour team was the prospect of an improved race program.
"I'll maybe miss out on the biggest of the big races, but hopefully through the year I'll be able to do a WorldTour race every month or couple of months, and regularly getting in those top races will make a difference.
"Next year I’d say doing the Tour is out of the question with Rigo [Uran, the team leader and GC rider], but that's not really a big problem. I would like to do another Grand Tour, either the Giro or the Vuelta, even though that one [the Vuelta] is not a massive race for the sprinters. But we'll see."
The Belgian Classics will be writ large, he hopes, on his program, where he'll likely be in a support role. "Ideally I'll be injury free and able to do them, learn from guys like [Sebastian] Langeveld and [Sep] Vanmarcke, guys who really know these races. That's the way to learn - do a good job for everyone else, and hopefully in the next few years I can be developing, be involved."
He knows a few future teammates from being based in Girona and "little chats" he's had in the peloton. "I've run into Hugh [Carthy] a few times, and he seems like an interesting guy, so it'll be good to get to know another Brit on the team, and it'll be nice to get an English speaking environment generally. I don't know a lot of the EF guys, I know Tom Scully and I'm looking forward to racing with him, he's a good guy."
When Carthy moved from the Pro Continental Caja Rural-Seguros RGA squad to Cannondale-Drapac he said he wanted to join a team that was WorldTour but not so big as to risk losing his way, and McLay says there is something of that in his team switch, too. "I wanted a step up but I didn't want to fall into a 100 per cent lead-out role. It's worked out pretty well and I should get some of my own chances, but making a step up was a big factor."
He does not feel that he will have to make a choice - yet - between focussing on specializing the Classics or stage racing, a dilemma that sometimes affects sprinters. "It depends. That point might come where I have to go 'ok, one or the other' but I feel like I'm getting better at both. I've not come onto the scene with a spectacular start as some guys have, so it's more a case of plugging away and hopefully, step by step, getting there.
"Hopefully next year instead of two wins, it's a handful. I'll keep chipping away. I don't know if it'll be next year or the year after that, but I've got it in my legs to win races. It's just a case of getting it done and that's up to me to do that."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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