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Aérogramme 2016

Aérogramme: Tomorrow’s Sprint Sensation

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July 16th, 2016 – “It’s my fault,” said a frustrated Dan McLay after the finish of stage 14 of this year’s Tour de France. The British rider, a Tour de France neophyte, was certainly hoping for better when he got boxed in while on Peter Sagan’s wheel in the final meters. Although unheralded coming into this year’s race, McLay had good reason to hope for more. After all, the 24 year old has been one of the quiet revelations in this year’s Tour with four top ten finishes, including an impressive third place finish on stage six behind established stars Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel.

Words & images: James Startt – European Associate to peloton

From: Villars-les-Dombes, France

But while McLay keeps largely to himself, he is riding without intimidation in his first Tour de France. “I’m getting a bit tired now, but I’m happy with the results in general and happy with the progress,” McLay said, while chatting before the start of stage 14 from Montélimar to Villars-Les-Dombes, a 208.5 kilometer stage tailor made for sprinters like himself.

McLay admits that he has been on a big learning curve in this year’s Tour de France, as has his team, who is doing their best to put together a sufficient lead-out train for him. “We’re just learning, me and the team. We’re doing a better job of staying up front in the sprints. We’re getting closer and closer to the finish with more guys. So hopefully we’ll keep improving. But I don’t mind fending for myself either. You know today, there isn’t any one sprint train that dominates.”

Aérogramme presented by Giordana #GiordanaCycling

While McLay grew up racing in today’s golden age of British cycling, he did not follow the typical path to the pros. Unlike so many of his countrymen, he did not follow the common path through the British Cycling Federation or with Team Sky. Instead he spent his under-23 years in rural Belgium, where he spent four years racing for the Lotto development team. As a result, he passed under the radar of many World Tour teams in 2014, when he set out searching for a pro contract in his final year in that category. Only the modest Bretagne-Séché (now Fortuneo–Vital Concept) showed any interest, offering him a three year contract. McLay did not hesitate.

“Last year he was pretty reserved, but now he is really finding his place and he’s really fitting in,” said longtime professional Sébastien Hinault, now sports director for Fortuneo. “He’s a great guy. He’s quiet, but he has a good dose of British humor, which I really like.”

“My path to the pros is like a lot of guys have done for generations, it’s just not the way most British riders have done in the last couple of years,” McLay said. “I just did my own thing. I don’t think I would have lasted four years being mothered to be honest. It’s not really about fending for yourself, it’s just about doing what everyone else does in normal life anyway. You grow up faster, sure, but it was nothing brutal. I wasn’t living in barns or anything.”

Although he won a stage in Gabon’s Tropicale Amissa Bongo in his first year as a pro, it’s really been this year where he’s made a strong impression in Europe. His sprinting prowess was never better illustrated than in the Grand Prix de Denain this spring, where his ability to pass at least 15 riders in the last 100 meters of a field sprint is nothing less than stupefying.

“He is amazingly strong, and he has a good nose for getting on the good wheel in the sprints,” says Hinault. “He’s completely at ease jostling for position.”

McLay did not have the same good fortune today on stage 14, when a late race wave took him into the barriers in the final meters. Although he was frustrated, McLay knows there will be other occasions. “It would be incredible to win a stage in the Tour this year. But if it doesn’t happen this year, I can wait. There is no pressure.”

Check back daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.