Wanty’s Mark McNally Gets PEZ’d!
Rider Interview: Mark McNally has had the dream of riding the Cobbled Classics since he was young lad in Liverpool, his European season started on Sunday in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, but he has an eye on the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix later in April. Mark recently told us about his progress towards the ‘Hell of the North’.
Mark came through the British Cycling system on the track,taking Junior and under 23 European titles as part of the Team Pursuit, since then he has aimed his career on the road, progressing from the British Halfords team to the more international Belgian based Irish team; An Post. Five years with An Post and a change was needed and a successful season with Madison-Genesis landed him a place on the UCI ProContinental Wanty-Groupe Gobert team for 2016 and the chance of riding the Classics he has dreamed of.
PEZ: The first question to anyone from Liverpool has to be: Everton or Liverpool?
Mark McNally: Liverpool.
PEZ: How did the ride in Wanty-Groupe Gobert come about?
I think the team wanted an English rider because of some of the sponsors and Roger Hammond, my director from last year, rode a long time with Hilaire (van der Schueren, team manager) in his teams. So I think Hilaire sent a message to Roger saying he was looking for an English rider and did he know anyone. He suggested myself and a few of the lads he knew of and we did a bit of racing in Belgium before the Tour of Britain and I had a few decent results. I won a pro kermiss in Erpe-Mere and was 3rd behind Leukemans, who rode for Wanty, in the GP Jef Scherens a UCI 1.1 in Leuven. So that put me in good stead really. But it all progressed from Roger putting in a good word for me.
PEZ: Do you think your ride in the Jef Scherens made a difference? It’s a big race.
Yeah. We got away early in a big group and then every lap it got smaller and smaller and then on the last lap; there was myself, Marcato, Leukemans and Wout Van Aert, the cyclocross rider (now World cyclocross champion) and then the last time up the climb; Marcato lit it up and for a moment I thought I had them, but Leukemans just went over the top and… I ended up getting third, but it was a good week of racing there.
PEZ: Coming from the Madison-Genesis team to Wanty-Groupe Gobert, have you noticed a big difference?
There are more people around, it’s a different feel, but you know there is a good group of guys. Both teams have made a few changes this year. I was very comfortable with Madison, great bunch of guys, great people to be around and a very well organised team, but coming here…. Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of having the chance of riding Flanders and Roubaix. When an opportunity like this arrises, you have to take it. I have a lot of respect and gratitude for Madison and everything they have done for me and I still talk to a lot of the guys and the people in the company behind the team regularly. I like to say that it was a chance of a realisation of a dream I have had since I was eleven years old.
PEZ: When you were at An Post that must have been a stepping stone?
It’s strange because I spent all those years with those guys, getting results and doing well, sometimes you need a change, I had been there for five years and I had been very well looked after there. The manager sat me down and said, “I’d love to keep you, but I think for you to progress as a rider you need a change.” I thanked him for his honesty and I went to Madison and I think he made a good shout, and it was a fresh start, something new, new motivations and new environments and a different way of approaching things with Roger. At An Post the race program was always massive and I always thought you needed all those chances. With Rog he had less of a variety of a program, but before the Tour of Britain we had a training camp in the Pyrenees, which I was skeptical about in the beginning, the first ride was three and a half thousand meters of climbing and I was joking with two of the other guys, Erick Rowsell and Tom Scully, that I was going to get the first flight home. “I’m getting the next flight home, I’m going home, can’t hack ten days of this!” But we plugged away at it and then I had a good week in Belgium, then the Tour of Britain; myself and Tom Stewart were in contention for the mountains jersey, but unfortunately in the end it didn’t come off, but we had a good tilt at it. On the last day we put on a good show against the rivals to try and get it, but like I say, it didn’t come off, but we couldn’t have done anything different, we rolled the dice and it didn’t come off.
PEZ: So you would say you learnt a lot from Roger Hammond when you were at Madison?
Yeah. He had a different approach than from An Post, Roger was much calmer, he’s got a young family and if he has guys who want to race and are motivated, they’ll do it themselves. He didn’t need to keep pestering them, “are you training, are you training?” If you need him he was there to call, he didn’t leave you to it, but he gave you the freedom to do what you need to do and if you step out of line he would put you back in line and if he saw something that needed changing he would give you a subtle hint. There was a two-way respect, he respects you and you respect him for what a rider he was. He was someone you looked up to as a kid.
PEZ: And in this team, Hilaire; he might be old, but he’s seen it all.
Yeah, I think that is why we have such a strong program here, he knows everyone.
PEZ: Were you a bit nervous or excited when you signed?
Yes and no. At Post it was like a Belgian team, my girlfriend is Belgian and I’ve spent a lot of time in Belgium and I speak all right Flemish, so I’ll take it in my stride. There are a few French and French speaking Belgians, so I’ll try to learn a bit of French too. A lot of the sponsors are from the French speaking part also. In the first few days I’ve fitted in quite well and I’m trying to learn as much from the other guys as much as possible.
PEZ: Your girlfriend is a racing cyclist also, does that work well?
Yes, she rides for a Belgian UCI women’s team, Lares-Waowdeals, we don’t train together. This is her first year on a UCI team, so she is learning a lot as well.
PEZ: So do you live in Belgium all year?
I’ve just moved in November, I lived back in Liverpool last year. She is from Antwerp originally and she lived in Lier, but we are about 15K outside of Lier, a place called Heist-op-den-Berg.
PEZ: Do you know which races you will ride after Qatar and Oman?
We don’t know yet, we’re waiting for some invites from RCS and ASO. We know we will be riding Flanders and Roubaix, so I want to do my best for them and, as much as possible, learn from the more experienced guys and learn from them and help the other guys when I can and take my chances when they arise. When you get to this level you have to understand sometimes that you have to make a sacrifice for them. You also have to understand that there comes a time when you need the results to keep your job the next year. To find a balance between the two, I want to strike that balance between the two.
PEZ: Did you know many of the guys in the team before you joined?
I knew a few of them from racing and a few of them in the past I’ve had some decent battles with and a few others I’ve come across in teams in the past. We had a meeting in Charleroi in November, we went pain balling and had a few drinks and everyone got a bit jolly. Yeah I know it was Charleroi, but it was all right.
PEZ: What are you looking forward to most this year?
Just getting racing, if I’m honest. I’ve ridden all the semi-Classics in Belgium before: Dwars Door, Het Volk, E3, De Panne, the Three Days of West Flanders, the bigger ones and all that, but when I say I’ve ridden them, it was like making up the numbers, so this year I’d like to play a part, whether its for one of the bigger guys in the team or for myself.
PEZ: What do you think of the circuit at the end of Flanders?
It’s not easy is it! But if you think of any bike race, none of them are easy. I think it makes for a good race, but on the other hand, compared to the old one which encouraged aggressiveness, I think everyone waits and waits and waits and let the parcour take its toll, the natural selection of it.
PEZ: Did you come through the British Cycling system?
Yeah as a junior, so from youth, junior, I was in the European Under 23 team pursuit champion team and junior European pursuit champ. I did my first year of Under 23, we lived in Manchester in the winter and Italy in the summer, but at the end of that season they let me go. At the time I was gutted, like any young lad would be and I was thinking “bollocks to ’em” and I would jack it all in, but I was offered a place in the Halfords team and that got me back on the road. It was good year, it was a small team, Keith Lambert ran it, with Rob Hayles, Ed Clancy and Ian Wilkinson, it was a good laugh and we had a bit of success. I won the best young rider’s jersey that year and Shane Sutton pit in a word for me with An Post, although I didn’t find that out till a few years later, in hind sight I’m really grateful for it. Five years in An Post and I went from the bright eyed, bushy tailed 20-year old in An Post to a grumpy old man…. No, it was good, I’ve got a lot of good memories and learnt a lot.
PEZ: But it shows riders don’t have to be in the system to succeed, riders like Dan MacLay and Adam Blythe did it their own way.
Yeah, Blythe was in the system to begin with, but they couldn’t get him in the mould. He’s a good mate of mine and when he lived in Belgium we trained together, we had a good little group, but there is more than one way to skin a cat, shall we say. I think the way the Continental scene in the UK is progressing at the moment, it’s becoming so strong in its own right and it has its different awards than the European scene has. If they can establish a pathway from the Continental teams in the UK to a pro team, if you look at Belgium there is an entire system of this Continental team connected to that ProContinental team and all the ProContinental teams are connected to the WorldTour teams. It’s not a closed circuit, but there is a logical system to it. I think like Madison, they have a structure in place to do something like that, specially with a guy like Roger. There is a lot of money in the UK, but there are only a few guys, like John Herety and Roger, who I would put my faith in knowing how to run a team and progress them to where they need to be. The UK has a strong scene. But if you look at Simon and Adam Yates, one went through the system and the other didn’t and look at them now, they are the next big thing. There you have, as close as you can get, two exact same humans on two different paths and they are both a success.
PEZ: Where do you think you will be next year?
I’ve always been of the philosophy of every year getting better and I want to grow as a rider as much as possible. In a round about way, I’ve done that every year. There was one year at post when I had a good year, it was either 2012 or 2011 my appendix burst and I had to have an emergency operation to have it removed and I was completely of the bike for a month and then I was back on for a month before riding the Tour of Belgium. The first day I was in the break and we got caught in the last 500 meters, five of us. I’ve had a lot of close shaves with big results, like in Yorkshire on the second stage. That’s bike racing, you roll the dice and I know, everyone knows, if you are in a break away, 9 times out of 10 it wont come off. Sometimes things fall into place and thats what I hope for this year.
Sadly Mark didn’t finish Kuurne, but then neither did 102 other riders. Good luck for Flanders and Roubaix.