Dwars door Vlaanderen saw the re-birth of Nick Nuyens (Belgium & Saxo Bank) as winner; for those who know their Spring Classics it branded him as a potential Ronde winner – and so it proved. But it was also further confirmation that the first big win for Geraint Thomas (Sky & GB) is not far away as the Welshman took second behind the wily Belgian in Dwars Door. However, on the same day on similar roads, the Under 23 version of the race, the ‘GP Waregem’ saw another young Briton take an important step up the ladder with an excellent win over the cream of Flanders’ young cycling talent. Since that win, Dan McLay has gone from strength to strength with a second place in Meer-Hoogstraten and back to back wins in Zele and Niel.
McLay was a British champion before his 14th birthday – winning the Omnium in 2006.
The following year he was winning under 16 races in Belgium and Holland; picking up more medals on the track and was winning cyclo-crosses to boot.
In 2008 the trend continued; road wins, track wins, including the British junior scratch champs – and a medal in the British junior cyclo-cross champs.
The following year followed a similar pattern with perhaps the hi-lite being bronze in the European madison championship with Sam Harrison.
But it was last year that the really serious results came – world junior madison champion with Simon Yates and second in the junior Paris-Roubaix.
For 2011 McLay has struck out along the same path as countryman Adam Blythe, joining Lotto feeder team, Davo.
You were born in New Zealand but race for GB, Dan?
“My dad is a Kiwi and my mum is English; when I was one year-old we moved to England and I’ve lived there since, so it’s normal for me.”
You won a lot on the track as a schoolboy and junior – why go to the road?
“As a schoolboy, if you can win in one discipline you can win in any; I just raced everything and I won on the road, track and cyclo-cross – but with most on the road.
“In terms of ‘why road ?’ ahead of the others, I think there is just more to it and it’s the real heart of the sport.”
And you rode the ‘cross Worlds – unusual for a track man!
“Yeah, I guess so.
“I never really saw myself as a track man though, more of a road sprinter, but you can do well in both.
“I’ve done ‘cross since I was very young, though – and I love the technical side of it. It helps with your bike handling and the efforts are pretty similar to something like the points or madison on the track.”
You were second in the junior Paris-Roubaix in 2010 – tell us about that, please.
“Well, it was a tough day out!
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to win, so deep down I was disappointed with the result. In the race I did a lot of things right – my positioning, displaying patience…
“But I made one big mistake – I missed my musette and didn’t drop back to the car for a bottle. I thought; “it’s cold and not really much left to go” so I didn’t go back.
“With hindsight, cramp, caused by dehydration cost me a shot at the win – I was pretty gutted.
“For now, second isn’t bad, but next time round it’ll be different.”
And national junior gold in the road race and silver in the time trial.
“I’m pretty proud of being national rr champion, I think I was written off before the race because there were a few lumps in the parcours.
“When it came down to the last climb with 15 K to go there was a break of about eight away with two minutes; so I knew we had to go. I rode at 95% up the climb and over the top there were about six of us in front of the bunch – two of them were team mates – we had 1:30 to close.
“I just made sure we rode full gas to catch them before the finish and in the sprint it wasn’t an option to lose.
“The TT wasn’t so good for me; whilst I’m not really a guy for a proper TT I can do a good short TT in the Nations Cup and races like that.
“So really I should have been good enough to win, but on that day I wasn’t good enough and there’s nothing you can do about that.”
World junior madison champion 2010 – what’s your favourite discipline?
“The road races, really; I like a good bunch sprint, the cross winds, cobbles, descents – even the climbs, despite not being so good up them.
“There’s more drama and unpredictability on the road. But on the track the madison is my favourite, for sure.”
Did you ride many UIV’s (under 23 six day races) off the back of the Worlds?
“I rode Ghent and Berlin; I didn’t really want to ride more that two as it would have cost me time for road miles and rest.
“As it worked out, Ghent stopped me having to ride in the snow for a few days and Berlin gave me a little speed before moving to Belgium – it was perfect.”
Were you on the Academy with Max Sciandri In Italy?
“Italy is a nice place, but no, I’ve never been on it.
“I was on Olympic Development but I chose to go with Davo after that.”
Why Belgium and not Italy or France?
“Generally the races and terrain will suit me better and there are lots of races to ride – which is good for me or any sprinter type.
“The Academy aren’t going to Italy this year and for me Belgium is the place with the most opportunity to start a career.”
How did you get the ride with Davo?
“I sent an email to the staff at the team and the DS, Kurt van de Wouwer (ex-pro, 11th in the 1999 Tour) got back to me and we sorted it out from there.”
They must be pretty happy with how you’re going?
“Yeah they’re pretty happy but there are other good guys in the team getting results – like Tosh Vandersande (World Junior Points Champion on the track in 2008) he won two stages in the Triptyque des Monts et Chateau and the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.”
Do you get help with funding from BC?
“I didn’t apply for the Academy programme, so no.
“I get support from the Dave Rayner Fund, UK Sport/ASDA athletes programme and some from the team.
“It all adds up and as long as I get round to getting some prize money I should be OK.”
Where are you based in Belgium; and have you started to learn Flemish?
“I’m staying with Joscelin Ryan and Tim Harris (ex-British pro champion) in their house a little north from Aarschcot.
“I’ve had a bit of a go at the Dutch tapes and books but I’m struggling, I can understand a little of what’s going on but that’s about it so far.”
How’s 2011 been so far, results wise.
“Up until Waregem it was moderate, I’d shown in the mix but hadn’t taken a win. I had a third, a sixth, a seventh, a puncture and DNF in a 1.2.
“Since Waregem I’ve been coming in to good form with wins at Zele and Niel.”
The amateur fields are enormous in Belgium just now – we saw one of 300 plus.
“I’ve not seen any bigger than 200 or so yet; but really it doesn’t have much impact unless you have to ride through from the back for some reason because there’s always fighting to be in the first 20-50 guys.
“So whether it’s 100 or 200, it’s the same.”
“I have little problem when it comes to riding in the bunch normally – I don’t know what it is but normally can find my way through. It gets a little harder the closer you get to the finish in terms of position and there’s a little luck involved from time to time; but it still comes down to skill, instinct and experience.”
Have you settled into a good routine – training/resting/racing?
“Yeah, pretty good really. I don’t obey strict ‘out before 10:00’ policies or anything, but I get the training done and I’m resting the best I have ever done – its paying off.
“I train with whoever is around, there are a few English guys around here.
“We do group rides on Tuesdays and Thursdays; I don’t really do any specialist training but I’ll do sprints and maybe some big gear climbing during those rides.”
Do you think you’ll go back to race on the track?
“It’s possible and I’m not going to count it out but for now I need to focus on the road and having a career.
“I’d be interested in riding a six day or two in the winter, though.”
“I’ve been coached by a few different people and had input from loads more.
“First of all my dad told me to do the least work possible to win a race – and after I started to listen to him, that took me a long way!
“My first coach was Jenny Gretton and with her input I improved a lot.
“I’ve also learned a lot from Phil West at British Cycling. And I pick up snippets from Tim and Jos, who I stay with.
“Training wise though, now I look after myself – with a bit of advice from the people around me; I like it that way.”
What are the goals for the next few weeks?
“I have the Tour of Brittany and Olympia Tour of Holland coming up, I want to use those to get me in to the best condition for the U23 Paris-Roubaix; that’s a big objective.
“Those two races are perfect, the French race is over hard rolling roads and then the Dutch one has long, fast stages.
“I’m conscious at the minute that I don’t want to train too hard, I want to ride into my best form through those two races rather than peak too early.”
And the ultimate goal?
“To win a classic – Milan – Sanremo, Flanders or Roubaix.”
Thanks to Dan for the interview and wishing him all the best for the season ahead, and thanks to Joscelin Ryan for some of the images.