Trial by fire: What it’s like to race against WorldTour pros as an amateur

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It’s a picture-perfect day in Geelong. A gentle breeze blows off Corio Bay, rustling beachside palm trees as it heads inland. It’s warm but not hot — this is Australian summer weather at its very finest.

Not that Dylan McKenna would know, judging by the toothy grimace he’s had etched on his face for the past 20 minutes. He’s an amateur racer, living the dream of racing against the pros, and on stage 2 of the 2019 Bay Crits he’s finding it every bit as tough as you might expect.

The pan-flat Ritchie Boulevard ‘hot dog’ circuit is not the friendliest terrain for a lightweight climber like McKenna. As the small peloton flies down the short straights, he’s mostly able to hold his spot in the bunch. But twice a lap the peloton slows for a 180º bend and McKenna is forced to sprint out of the corner in the desperate scramble for wheels.

“You’re basically sprinting full-gas every 25 seconds almost, and my sprint’s not my strong point,” McKenna admits later. “It’s essentially like doing the world’s hardest interval session with WorldTour guys whipping you, [saying] ‘come on mate’. It’s certainly brutal, that’s for sure.”

McKenna (right) behind Tristan Ward on stage 2 of the 2019 Bay Crits.

McKenna found the going tough on stage 1 as well. But that day, with the help of Katusha Sports team leader Nathan Haas, he managed to hold on and finish in the main field.

“About 20 minutes in I was hanging on for dear life and then Nathan actually came back and spoke to me a little bit and just coached me through getting back into a good position,” McKenna explains. “So that really made a massive difference — I think if it wasn’t for that I would have been off the back 20 minutes into the race.”

He isn’t as fortunate on stage 2. Twenty minutes into the hour-long crit he’s in the back third of a rapidly thinning peloton. Six minutes later he’s sitting down at the team tent alongside fellow amateur Tom Chapman with both having withdrawn from the race.

McKenna (left) and Chapman (right) watching the final stages of the race.

McKenna and Chapman are racing the Bay Crits as winners of a competition run by Katusha Sports, the clothing brand aligned with WorldTour team Katusha-Alpecin. It was a competition dreamt up by Laura Fletcher, the team’s PR officer, manager for the Bay Crits, and partner of Nathan Haas.

“Nathan mentioned a while back that he wanted to enter the Bay Crits and there was a possibility that some of his [European] teammates were going to come down [to Australia] early,” Fletcher tells CyclingTips. “And then we realised that we had three riders coming — we could have just asked a friend to ride for us but I said ‘it’s not a UCI race, why don’t we actually create an opportunity around getting some young riders in, letting them work with you guys?’

“It’s not a stagiaire position but it’s essentially the same sort of [thing].”

In late December the team put the call out for A-grade-level amateurs who could get their own way to Geelong on New Years Day. They received over 100 entries, then whittled the list down to a select few. The shortlisted riders’ Strava details were sent to Katusha-Alpecin coaching staff to ensure they could handle the pace of the Bay Crits, and then the WorldTour riders selected the teammates they wanted.

“Nathan happened to have been on a ride with Tom Chapman in Adelaide last week and was like ‘Oh, that guy. I want him.” And then we sort of saw, to be honest, @dylan_mckenna98 — I was like ‘he’s young, he’s barely not born in this millennia!’

The result was a five-rider team comprising McKenna, former Aussie U23 cyclocross champion Chapman, plus three pros from the Katusha-Alpecin WorldTour team: Haas, Alex Dowsett and Marco Haller.

“Absolutely insane”. That’s McKenna’s assessment of the pace on stage 2. He’s not wrong. As he sits on the grass in the infield, chatting with a smile, just 19 of the day’s 44 starters remain on course. The race is only halfway through.

McKenna’s WorldTour teammate Marco Haller is in yellow having won stage 1 from a breakaway. McKenna had hoped to help in Haller’s jersey defence, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

“The plan beforehand was for us to even try and be on the front, particularly Alex [Dowsett] and myself,” McKenna explains. “But I genuinely couldn’t even get there! I think I got to Alex’s wheel maybe once and then someone gave it a little squirt and I was just back scrambling for wheels again.”

There’s no shame in being outgunned by this Bay Crits field. Later, as Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) sprints to victory, just 15 finish the race. Among the DNFs are a bevy of big names, not least Adam Hansen, Luke Durbridge, Dowsett, Leigh Howard and Miles Scotson.

And besides, there’s no expectation on McKenna and Chapman to perform this week.

“It’s not like we’ve come here with the goal to be like ‘we’ve got to win this’,” Fletcher explains. “We’re not Mitchelton[-Scott] or an Australian team that has a huge amount of pressure to be racing in the Australian races.

“The goal is for them [McKenna and Chapman] to get a really good experience and like Nathan has said, to actually show them a bit that they’re not so far off. A lot of the young guys think that the step up to WorldTour is maybe unreachable and totally out there, but [we want to] actually show them that they can compete at this level and they can keep up with it, and that hard working can get them where they want to go.”

Sure, the Ritchie Boulevard experience mightn’t have done much for McKenna and Chapman’s confidence, but stage 1 should have (both finished in the main bunch). And besides, this is a learning experience; an opportunity to get a taste for a higher level of competition rather than excelling right away.

McKenna has ridden the Bay Crits support races before but, unsurprisingly, he’s found the main event to be considerably tougher. But it’s not just the speed he’s noticed — it’s how the pros move through the bunch.

“It almost looks effortless,” McKenna says. “In the support race, maybe to move up someone would jump out into the wind and then just use power to get up the side. Whereas the pro guys, they can pick a gap through the bunch and almost effortlessly squeeze their way through gaps that maybe I wouldn’t have even seen as being there. That’s pretty impressive as well and I’ve been trying to learn from that.

“So the guys have told me ‘just pick a wheel you like and follow that wheel’. Yesterday I chose Adam Hansen’s wheel and spent a fair bit of time following him around the bunch and learning how he moves and that was really good.”

Although just 20, McKenna has been racing bikes since he was 12. The Victorian split his 2018 season between racing for AMR Renault in Australia’s National Road Series [NRS] and racing for a small French team, UC Orleans. In 2019 he’s joined his first Continental team.

“I’ve just signed for a new Continental team X-Speed,” McKenna says. “They’re registered in Hong Kong but it’s an alliance between Australia, Canada and Hong Kong. So that’s a new start-up team and I think mostly I’ll be racing the UCI Asia Tour with them.”

McKenna hopes he can snag some solid results at UCI2.2 level this year as he continues to develop as a rider.

“Obviously the end goal is to be professional, so whether I’m with X-Speed another couple of years or whether I can take another step at the end of 2019, at this point I don’t really know,” he says. “But I’ve got Nationals coming up soon so that’s my first big goal and that’ll be a good indicator of how I’m travelling.”

Beyond that, McKenna is dreaming big. And why not?

“I mean it sounds pretty corny but obviously the Tour de France is the pinnacle, winning the Tour de France is the pinnacle of riding it,” he says of his ultimate goal. “That’s over a long term but I mean, even to just be making a living out of being a cyclist …”

It’s little surprise that Fletcher views Katusha Sports’ Bay Crits experiment as a success — at a bare minimum it’s generated a wealth of attention for the brand. And if she has her way, it won’t be the last time we see an initiative like this.

“I’d love to do it again,” she says. “We’re definitely looking for more races around the world that we can do this sort of thing because to us that’s what cycling is about — if you are at the top level of the sport it’s really finding ways to reach out to the bigger cycling community.”

And for McKenna and Chapman, there’s little doubting the value of the experience. For these aspiring pros, racing alongside WorldTour riders is a money-can’t-buy opportunity — the chance to learn what it takes to be a professional, off the bike as well as on.

“Probably learning from Nathan, Alex and Marco would be the biggest thing,” McKenna says of what he wants to get from the experience. “Nathan turned pro straight from the NRS so it’s sort of a pathway that I can see as being achievable and it’s something that I’m doing.”

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