Dan McLay realised the scale of the task ahead on his very first training camp with the Lotto development team. Kurt Van de Wouwer, the man who had signed him, drifted alongside him on a climb, then left him for dead. Dropped - by the 39-year-old directeur sportif who hadn’t raced a bike in anger in years.
“It was all right when he passed the climbers’ group as well,” McLay says with a smile. “But it did make me nervous about the season. Gradually either I got better or his form declined, so it was less embarrassing."
His reputation as British national junior champion and a world junior Madison title mattered little in Belgium. No other place offers such opportunity, with dozens of races each weekend, but nowhere else throws up such competition or shreds dreams so ruthlessly either. Prove yourself among the hundreds of other hungry hopefuls and you can be a professional anywhere.
Dan McLay has followed a long road to a pro contract with Bretagne-Séché Environnement. pic: Jon Denham
McLay had just turned 19 when he packed his bags and left the Leicester outskirts, heading for Leuven to stay at Tim Harris’s house – ground zero for any British youngsters looking to make it in Belgium. He returned four years in a row, doggedly chasing his dream.
“Some guys really struggle. They live in these little villages with no way of getting anywhere; it’s raining, they get the greyness of Belgium and don’t enjoy it,” he says.
Instead, McLay felt the greatness of Belgium. From the devout way he talks about the Tour of Flanders to training round Overijse and driving for a coffee stop in Leuven, it seems he’s virtually a Flandrian. Dan Van McLay might be a more appropriate name. Not that immersion made it any easier.
“I probably thought the contract might come a bit sooner or easier than it did,” McLay reflects. He impressed in 2011, his first year as a senior, winning a host of races, including U23 Dwars door Vlaanderen, for which his prize was a giant cuddly horse. (“It’s stayed at Tim Harris’s house. I’m scared to take him home on the Eurotunnel in case it looks like I’m drugs trafficking. I’m afraid of him getting sliced open and all the stuffing coming out.”)
But as results plateaued the next two seasons, McLay worried about keeping his place. His saving grace was being able to salvage a win somewhere.
On the team, there were occasional personality clashes and bickerings over leadership or who didn’t take that pull. It’s inevitable: none of the riders are paid on the Lotto-Belisol development team, and all of them want that Golden Ticket to the professional ranks.
Strong performances at the 2014 Tour of Britain reassured McLay of his abilities against the world's best. pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com
For six months of the season, McLay survived on a monthly £375 stipend from the Dave Rayner Fund, plus prize money, travel expenses and the very occasional help from his parents. Sod’s law, he usually started the season penniless, when he needed all the kit, and ended it with money to burn come October.
McLay is quietly hard-headed, deflecting the slings and arrows of amateur life, but he admits to being irked by the lack of upward mobility in the team. “There didn’t seem to be a look-in for a stagiaire, and there didn’t seem to be a [WorldTour] contract [with Lotto-Belisol] because they wanted to take Belgian guys… That was completely frustrating… But they’ve given me a lot of opportunities, there’s not an amateur team out there with a better race programme,” he adds.
Into 2014 and his fourth year there, McLay might have felt time was running out. Just after he won a Tour de Normandie stage, he broke his collarbone in early April. Was he ever worried he had missed his chance?
“I started getting worried at times. But it never sunk into constantly being stressed because it makes you have something to look forward to and train for." He took bunch sprint stage wins at the Paris-Arras Tour and Tour de l’Avenir, but was still left waiting till early October. That four year-wait ended in a week. After his agent Paul de Geyter talked with Bretagne-Seché Environnement at the Tour de l’Eurométropole, the French Professional Continental team were quickly on board. In 2015, McLay will turn pro as a Briton on this Breton team.
McLay was junior world madison champion with Simon Yates in 2010. He hopes to emulate his former riding partner's success in the pro ranks. pic: Jon Denham
“I talked to Kurt Van de Wouwer, who said he was a very good rider, operational,” Bretagne-Seché team manager Emmanuel Hubert says. “We need someone who can do well in the sprints, who knows how to win and how to fight for position.”
Hubert then asks how he’s seen in England. He’s one of the top young talents, from the same generation as the Yates’ and Joshua Edmondson, I say, then mention it’s a surprise Team Sky didn’t snap him up. A runner-up at junior Roubaix, a former ODP member and a stage winner at the Tour de l’Avenir on Team GB: you’d think McLay would be an ideal signing.
“My agent approached them, but didn’t get very far,” McLay explains. “I think there’s times where Team Sky have missed out on quite a few good young British guys in the past. On Simon and Adam [Yates], on [Andy] Fenn… he’s coming back in 2015 but they missed out on him when he was a cheap neo-pro… but at the same time, they’ve got a team built around the Grand Tour riders, maybe they don’t have that much room to take a young unknown.”
Though his nose will be buried in French language books for the next few months, McLay is happy to be at Bretagne Seché, where he’s sure to get opportunities he’d miss in the WorldTour. There is the potential to race Paris-Nice, Het-Nieuwsblad, Paris-Roubaix and even the Tour de France if the team receives wild cards, as they did for those events in 2014.
McLay has embraced all aspects of Belgian cycling culture. pic: Jon Denham
New boss Hubert was struck by his speed when he won the stage in Normandie, and McLay is likely to get his chance in the sprints too. The man from Cropston can only recall one occasion this season where he feels someone has moved away from him in a sprint.
The 22-year-old is most engaged when talking about the process of pre-sprint positioning. “The stage I won in Tour de l’Avenir this year was a bit of a mess. [GB team-mate] Jake Kelly was behind me, and said later he couldn’t believe some of the gaps I went through. But in hindsight, I couldn’t think of a moment where anything was close or I wouldn’t have done it again. I suppose that’s the instinct… Sometimes there’s mad stuff happening [around you] but you feel pretty calm.”
His season wound down after the Tour of Britain, where he finished seventh twice. “That first stage in Liverpool was one of the few times I did my old thing of waiting, ducking and diving, not actually sprinting in the end, because I was so nervous about how fast these guys were gonna be.” It turned out to be good for his confidence when he saw that Kittel and company weren’t moving away for him.
Off the radar racing in Belgium and not the arrogant type to go around talking himself up, he’s not worried about reputation. “I’ve probably not been one of those guys who has made a big name for himself here [in the UK], but it’s not what I set out to do. I don’t really worry myself with too much of that stuff.”
Gone, but not forgotten: McLay has remained on British Cycling's radar throughout his four-year sojourn in Belgium. pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com
Reputation comes with results. Seeing the likes of Josh Edmondson, Jasper Stuyven and the Yates brothers – all riders he beat in the junior ranks - turning pro and getting results has only served as encouragement. "It was good for my head to see how straight away [the Yates brothers] went from being an amateur to a pro – and winning. You see the level’s not that difficult… you might go there and struggle every race, you might go there and win two or three times that year.”
That’s what his new boss Hubert hopes he can do. “I think he can win immediately, races like GP de Denain and GP de la Somme, ones in Brittany too.”
Time to start making a name for himself. “I don’t think I’ve ever gone a season without winning a race - I wouldn’t want that to stop,” McLay says.