Three men hit the finish line together, and nobody raises their arms in celebration. Dan McLay turns around in the distance and slowly pedals back. He’s not smiling. He definitely doesn’t look like someone who has just won their first race as a professional cyclist.
That’s because he has no idea. Didn’t you win, Dan? “No, second. I was leading out ‘Huta’” – Bretagne-Séché Environnement team-mate Yauheni Hutarovich. “That was one long, messy sprint. It started with 400 metres to go. I only stopped pedalling with five metres left because I couldn’t see him. Then I saw him go past and was like ‘yeah, we won’,” McLay says.
The 156-kilometre third stage of the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, between Mounana and Koulamoutou, turned out to be deceptive in other ways.
“The road book was completely wrong, we came to the second climb and it was totally different, a bit of a surprise. That hurt. I planned to lead Hutarovich out all day long, assuming we both got over the climbs.”
The confusion continues. His soigneur interjects. “Are you sure you didn’t win, Dan?”
McLay rebuffs him. “Yes, didn’t Huta win? I stopped pedalling with five metres left.”
Then word starts coming round and his soigneur shakes his rider’s shoulder excitedly: “It’s you, Dan! It’s you, you are the winner.”
“What?” Now the press crowd around, firing questions at him in French. More confusion: new pro McLay has only been with the Breton team for a month and a half.
“I still can’t speak a word of French,” he told me on the eve of the race. “I just try and listen and pick it up. I noticed at the end of a week at San Luis, I understood more of what was going on.”
McLay had suffered badly in sweltering 38C temperatures – his first race as a pro, last month’s Tour de San Luis, was even hotter – on the opening stage, but his head for the heat came around. “Maybe we underestimated the first two stages, riding for a sprint in them,” he says. “The sprinters, me and Hutarovich, didn’t quite have the legs. I thought Huta won today, so it’s a pleasant surprise. We have to win the rest of the stages now and then it’s okay.”
The man from Cropston still looked a little dazed as he stood on the podium in front of the gathered Gabonese dignitaries. Surely he’s imagined taking that first win as a pro in idle moments – but never in his wildest dreams did he reckon it would take place in Koulamoutou, a sleepy central African team. McLay said in November: “I don’t think I’ve ever gone a season without winning a race – I wouldn’t want that to stop.” No worries on that score.
The low-key reaction and manner of victory befitted his personality. McLay is an undemonstrative hard worker – and so self-effacing that he’d initially deny himself a first victory as a pro, seemingly.
There are caveats too. The Tropicale Amissa Bongo is a professional race, but it lacks many top-calibre sprinters and teams. Of the mix of Pro Continental, Continental and African national outfits racing in Gabon, only Europcar, Bretagne-Séché and Wanty Groupe-Goubert are expected to feature in any WorldTour races this year.
That said, if McLay can win a bunch sprint after leading out from 400 metres, what could he do with more of the team at his disposal? Especially if he pedals all the way to the finish line…
That’s what Bretagne Séché-Environnement may be considering for the rest of the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, let alone the forthcoming European spring races.
Dan McLay may not be able to state his case for leadership clearly in French, but language is no barrier when you can finish with such speed and aplomb. When the next win comes, hopefully he’ll be more aware of it.