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Dan McLay: A first time for everything

Josh Cunningham
19 Aug 2016

Dan McLay only turned pro last year, but found himself on the start line of the Tour de France. Cyclist followed his ups and downs.

‘If it sounds like I’m in pain, it’s because I am,’ says the wincing voice of Dan McLay between sharp, pursed-lipped inhalations of breath. He’s not, as it might sound, dragging himself up some fearsome Alpine Col, but is on the massage table after Stage 11 of the 2016 Tour de France.

It’s McLay’s first Tour, which he’s riding with modest French Pro-Continental team Fortuneo-Vital Concept as its designated sprinter, and his masseuse, Elodie, is trying her best to help the 24-year-old’s legs recover from the exertions of the day’s stage, not to mention the previous 10. 

We can of course grant the Leicestershire rider’s muscles a reason to be feeling the pinch after an exceptional opening week that included performances a Grand Tour veteran would have been proud of, let alone a rookie.

Dan McLay

After finishing ninth on the opening stage and ninth again on stage three, McLay then bagged himself an impressive seventh place on Stage 4 before taking a remarkable third place on Stage 6. 

‘I was feeling like I had more in the legs when I was getting the ninths and sevenths,’ reveals McLay, whose Twitter updates at the time were nothing but expressions of thanks to his teammates, and criticisms of himself. 

‘I was kind of there but getting stuck,’ he explains, ‘but I think I kind of confirmed that I was able to do more than just get through and hold a position. You’re happy afterwards, but also frustrated because you always think that there’s that little bit more that you could have done. But you’ve just got to get on with it. You can’t dwell or think about anything for too long because there’s always the next day.’

In some ways it’s the typical attitude of a born racer – not content with an already outstanding performance, he’s blinded by a desire for more. But despite this McLay does allow himself a small amount of exultation. 

‘Obviously I was really excited to feel like I had the legs to actually go and win something if everything went perfectly. It felt really good to do it when everyone was there – all the best guys.’ And with Cavendish, Kittel, Greipel and Sagan all being bested by McLay in the sprints at some stage or another, perhaps he himself is now one of ‘the best guys’.

Dan McLay

‘You still want to win, regardless of who you’re up against, but going for victory here feels different. It doesn’t actually sink in until you’re in the race, racing it,’ says McLay, clearly struggling to articulate just what it feels like to be at the Tour. 

‘I think it hit me that I was at the Tour at some point during the first stage, when I realised just how hard everyone was fighting for their place. No one was giving way whatsoever. You’ve got riders fighting for position everywhere, and also braking really early and heavily because none of them want to crash.’

On tour

Between the racing there is a lot of time to fill on a three-week Grand Tour, with teams spending the best part of a month on the road, moving from hotel to hotel on a daily basis. But during this time, McLay says, it’s up to him to make sure he does as little as possible in his daily routine. 

‘I’m not very good at sleeping in, to be honest, but I wake up as late as possible and then go and have breakfast. You basically have to eat as much as you can when you can because you really lose your appetite when you’re tired. 

‘After that I’ll jump on the bus and we’ll get driven to the start, then I like to get myself signed on and have a coffee in the start village before getting back to the bus. There’s not too much going on in the village really, unless you want to get your hair cut, of course,’ he says in recognition of the infamous barber’s tent that’s available for riders to use, should they wish.

Dan McLay

‘I don’t think I could be bothered with that, though – you’d just wait until the Tour’s over, wouldn’t you?’

Once racing, McLay spends a lot of time in the bunch talking to Shane Archbold [a Kiwi on the Bora–Argon 18 team]. ‘Or whoever’s around, really,’ he adds. ‘If it’s not too hectic I’ll have a good chat with Yatesy, but it’s often quite stressful in the bunch so he doesn’t spend too much time chatting away.’

McLay and ‘Yatesy’ – Adam Yates – have been racing together since they were juniors, and with both going to live and race abroad as amateurs in Belgium and France respectively, their routes to the pro ranks have been remarkably similar. 

‘I think when you’ve been racing together as kids, then one day you’re both here at the Tour de France doing the same thing but just in a bigger race, it really helps in not getting overawed by it all. The difference now is he goes uphill a lot faster.’

Survival mode

Dan McLay

Being a sprinter, McLay was always going to enjoy the first week of the Tour, with its flatter sprinter-friendly stages more than he would the mountains, self-described as ‘unknown territory’ for him. Indeed, prior to the Tour de France the longest races McLay had participated in were the Tour of Turkey and La Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon, both of which consist of eight stages. 

‘I guess I found out [the hard way] that it hurts,’ he says about the Tour’s extra 13 stages of racing. ‘I struggled quite a bit on some of those climbing days – a bit more than expected – and suffered in the heat a lot too.

‘It was a funny feeling. Some days I would be a bit groggy but I would generally wake up feeling all right. But then on the bike,’ he continues with a pause, ‘sometimes I just couldn’t make it go forward. The legs just hurt from the start and I could only ride at my own pace – nothing more and nothing less.’

McLay found himself alone off the back of the grupetto (the group of riders at the back of the race whose only aim is to finish the stage within the time limit) on a number of occasions. As a result he crossed the finish line alone on several stages, having had to make a significant solo effort just to keep himself in the race.

‘The two days when I was by myself for a long time I had no idea whether I was going to make it or not, but you’re not really worried because all you can do is plug away and climb as fast as you can,’ he admits. 

Dan McLay

‘In the second half of the race I’d lost the ability to go into the red for just that little bit longer and keep in contact. I felt like I’d gone past the point where I could hurt myself like I can when I’m fresh. It had just become a really different sensation – a lot like hunger knock, as your muscles are too damaged to store any glycogen and you’re just running on fumes. I learned a new level of suffering.’

Second wind

In the rain of Stage 20, however, McLay found his legs again and managed to ride to the finish in the safety of the grupetto, cruising past Cyclist on the slopes of the Col du Joux-Plane as if it were a Sunday bunch ride.

‘By that point I was just wanting it to end, but then after feeling OK again I found myself getting hopeful of another chance for a stage win. Every sprinter had lost that ability to really tolerate being in the red, but on the Champs Élysées I was just too far back,’ he says of the final sprint in Paris. ‘The experience of having done it once now should help in the future, though.’

Even then, the Tour was not quite done, with obligatory post-race sponsor schmoozing still to get through. ‘First of all we had to go to the headquarters of the bank that sponsors the team and do all of that sort of stuff, but we were still in our kit, which was pretty disgusting. 

Dan McLay

‘After that we had a team dinner with all the staff and sponsors, which we didn’t start eating until about 10pm, and we were waiting for dessert until gone midnight. After that it just turned into a massive lash-up, as you’d expect.

‘I think both my body and head were ready for it to be over,’ McLay says, presumably in reference to the Tour rather than the booze-fest. 

‘It will all stand me in good stead for the future though, having gone that deep.’

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