A SPLIT second. That’s all it takes for someone’s luck to change in bike racing. One moment, a rider can be top of the world; next they’re on the ground looking up. No-one knows just how quickly fortunes can shift than Mark McNally, writes Laurence Fryer-Taylor.
Last time we spoke to him, he had just come off the back of a disappointing run of bad luck at the Prudential London-Surrey and was preparing himself for a shot at the Tour of Britain.
‘Taking what he could get’ was the aim, but with the first stage set in his home-town of Liverpool, the backdrop was perfect for what would become an incredible few stages of bike racing.
Cheered on by a huge local crowd, which was bolstered by family, friends and members of Liverpool Century, alike, Mark staked his claim on the polka dot jersey by winning the King of The Mountains – a special moment for anyone involved in cycling in the North West.
He even confesses to surprising himself on stage two, beating his old friend Ian Bibby, from Madison-Genesis, on the first KOM of the day. Despite facing world-tour competition, the Crosby lad held on to the white and green jersey for the entirety of the race despite crashing on the final day – a moment that he calls a ‘stupid amateur mistake’.
After five years racing and living in Belgium with An Post, Mark has now moved furniture into his new home with his Belgian girlfriend, Pia. So while he was enjoying a break in the season, we caught up with him to chat about how the KOM jersey was won; end of season hangovers; his exciting new plans with Madison-Genesis and the transitional period he currently finds himself in.
LFT: First thing’s first, congratulations on the King of The Mountains win at the Tour of Britain. Having raced the Tour for the past few years now, it seems to keep attracting bigger teams and bigger names, particularly last year. Has the race itself got noticeably harder?
MMc: Erm, yeah. Last year was probably one of the hardest races that I’ve done. The stages were a lot longer and it was the best option for the big guys preparing for the World Championship – Kwiatkowski won and he rode the Tour of Britain – so for me, I think, it’s turned into a massive race in its own right.
LFT: Did that make the KOM jersey more rewarding? Knowing there were a lot of big world tour teams coming down for it?
MMc: I don’t know – I just think it was very enjoyable. They’re all special riders in their own way and you still work just as hard as anyone else in the peloton. Maybe to people looking in from the outside, there’s more prestige there but it is just a special race in itself.
LFT: What about getting the jersey in Liverpool? That must have been a special moment?
MMc: It was mad. All of my family were there; my girlfriend came up from Belgium; everyone from the club was out and about for me, too. It was surreal. We finished the day; did the press conference; went back to the hotel and you’re just there scratching your head thinking, what happened? But it was nice, for sure. The stage around town – I’ve never rode around there much – but it was where I grew up and I’ve had days out in town and that. A few of my friends live just off Sefton Park, as well, so it was special.
LFT: During our last interview, you mentioned that your start to the season had been difficult – the change to a new coach, getting ill – but if someone had said during that period that you’d be winning the KOM jersey at the Tour of Britain, would you have taken it?
MMc: Erm, I don’t know. I just think that’s life. Just because we’re professional bike riders doesn’t take us away from being normal people. I think normal people have good times and they have bad times, like. Everyone goes through bad times and then nine times out of 10, you’ll come out the other side just fine. So I don’t think it’s any different to someone having a bad day. Just because you have a bad day doesn’t make it a bad life, y’know?
LFT: That’s very modest of you. I have to ask though – and this might be embarrassing – when you went down on the final stage, what was going through your mind?
MMc: There were about five of us in the break and I think it was one of the young lads from Team GB who wanted to miss a turn. Because he wasn’t going to come through the line, there was a gap, which I was looking for, I turned round and Liam Holohan – who’s my team-mate this year – his wheel was drifting as I was looking behind. My front wheel caught his rear and I over-balanced. I thought to myself, ‘oh crap, this is gonna hurt’. I’ve crashed the same way before and it was a stupid, stupid amateur mistake. There was nothing over my shoulder and I wasn’t looking where I was going. After I went down, the first thing I did was stand up and make sure the bike was alright and got going again. It was more bruised pride than anything.
LFT: I can imagine. Luckily, the KOM was pretty secure by then. When you went into the tour, was there a plan to win the KOM jersey from the beginning or did things just fall into place?
MMc: Well, at An Post – especially for the Tour of Britain – we always planned to ride aggressively because we know that in a massive bunch sprint or on a big mountain – like the Tumble – we’re not going to win. We’ll try our luck in the break, and if the break sticks we’ve got a result, like. It was more that we were all doing our job in the team trying to get in the break and a few things fell into place on the first three days. I took a bit of confidence from the second day as well, beating my mate Ian Bibby up some of the climbs. I think we were on the first KOM, and I just pipped him to it. I remember turning to him laughing saying ‘I think that’s the first time I’ve beaten you up a hill, Bibbs’. Then the next day, the Saxo-Tinkoff lad sprinting with me for the points wasn’t so friendly – he beat me – but I held onto my lead. Then, after that, it was more about consolidation. I kept trying the breaks, but I think I used all my luck on the first few days.
LFT: Well congratulations again, it was great seeing you get the jersey in Liverpool. Looking forward to this season, how are you feeling about the move to Madison-Genesis?
MMc: Well, after five years at An Post, I decided that I wanted a change – I’m looking forward to it. I just needed a change of scenery. If An Post were a business, it’d be family run with Kurt the manager, then there’s Niko and the mechanic Freddie, who is like an uncle losing his mind, but would bend over backwards to help you. They’re a nice bunch of people, though, and sometimes the Belgian mentality can be quite hard. Kurt said to me that he’d love to keep me on the team, but for my own sake I needed to move. Even though I’ve done well for the team and he would have loved to keep me, Kurt had my best interests at heart. I’ve had a great five years there and I’m very grateful for the time spent at the team.
LFT: Are you excited about coming back to the UK then?
MMc: I’m looking forward to it, like. It’s going to be a big transition but I’m excited. It’s like they say, variety is the spice of life, so it’s time to get out of my comfort zone. People were starting to look at me like I was part of the woodwork at An Post, so I think you need to stand up and make yourself counted when that happens.
LFT: So have you got plans to race in the Pearl Izumi Tour Series?
MMc: Yeah, the Tour Series and there’s more UCI races this year – two 1.2’s, there’s the one day in Wales, RideLondon, the Yorkshire stage race and the Tour of Britain again, which should be all exciting.
LFT: What’s the set up like for Madison-Genesis next season?
MMc: My good friend Ian Bibby has left, Andy Tennant has left too, but they’ve kept a good core of riders as well as additions like me, Matt Cronshaw, Martyn Irvine and a few others. It should be good.
LFT: Have you pinpointed any that you’d like to do well in or are you going to take it as it comes?
MMc: I think that I need to look at the calendar and take some notes, but I just love racing – I’ll just take whatever I can get. Saying that, I think in this day and age, you need to really sit down and think about things. I really need to take some time with my new coach – Jon Sharples at Trainsharp – and go through it, I think. I worked with him for the second half of the year, including the Tour of Britain, and it seemed to work out,. Maybe I’ll make some more goals along those lines.
LFT: What about training, what’s it like at the moment? How are things going with Trainsharp?
MMc: Slow steady miles and turbo work in heavy gears to build strength at the moment. Jon sets me a weekly plan every week. With cycling, you have to be very self-disciplined and that’s what I was lacking in the summer. I was lacking that plan. When you get like that you become quite stale and have nothing to do. When you have a strategy, like I have at the moment, it becomes like a job – a proper 9-to-5 – especially if Jon has me doing a double day. Maybe it’s just me, but I find now that if anything changes with my plan I struggle to accommodate it, but for my own sanity I like to think that other elite athletes are like that too.
LFT: And how was the off-season? What plans did you have when the racing season was over?
MMc: Once the season finished, I went back to England for a few weeks to see mates and family, just to enjoy it, like. The season finishes and it’s always an anti-climax I find. Everyone looks forward to it, but then you go on one night out and have a terrible hangover the day after and you think, ‘what was the point in that?’. You spend too much money and end up with a sore head. Then after a while, I start missing my bike. I suppose it’s a sad obsession really but I enjoy it.
LFT: I think that’s something we can all relate to. How has the transfer back home from Belgium been?
MMc: It’s alright, moving anywhere is a bit of a stress, isn’t it? It’s still a process that’s stressing me out at the moment. At the moment, it feels very similar to what I knew before – coming home in the off-season – so I don’t think I’ll notice much of a change until the season starts anyway. One big change from Belgium is that someone smashed the windscreen of my car, which is never what you want really. Apart from that, it’s been alright.
LFT: I guess that doesn’t happen much in Belgium then?
MMc: Nah, but it was at my mum and dad’s house in Crosby – I don’t think it happens in Crosby much either. Apart from that, it’s been fine. With the move, we have everything stored at my aunt’s house, so it’s a slow process of moving everything to the new place. I think for me, with the way I work, I go through my training in my head – I’ll do this at that time and that at this time, and if anything changes, I can feel my head going ‘shit’ I was meant to do a turbo session this afternoon, but I’m stressing so much about getting everything moved today that it’s been pushed aside.
LFT: Are you still getting on well with training then, or has the move had an affect on your sessions?
MMc: I’m still getting the quality in, but sometimes real life takes over. I had to go to a funeral for one of the Liverpool Century guys, Ray Myers. He unfortunately had a crash and obviously that takes priority over everything. You have to show your respect for someone who you’ve grown up with in the Century, who was always cheering me on and giving me advice. When you have to do real world stuff like that, being a bike rider – thinking you’ve got a million things to do in a day when all you have to do is ride your bike – takes a back seat.
LFT: All of our thoughts are with Ray, his family and the Century at the moment. How is Pia – your girlfriend – finding the move?
MMc: She’s signed for Velosure-Starley-Primal and she’s adapting well. She was working full-time in Belgium and racing part-time, but now she’s full-time on the bike. She’s doing OK. Well, it seems that way to myself, but it’s also a culture shock. Pia’s gone from working 9-to-5 in Belgium to working with the team and Jon at Trainsharp. Plus it’s only her third year riding, so she still has a lot to learn about riding bikes. She’s beginning to understand the recovery needed and the amount of graft we put in to race bikes on a daily basis.
LFT: Do you guys train together or keep your riding lives separate?
MMc: I’m a control freak and these days everyone has set power zones and that, so sometimes we’ll just do an easy ride and head to the café. I think anyone who has worked with a spouse or girlfriend knows that you need that distance when you go to ‘work’ in inverted commas. She doesn’t mind riding with other people, but for me, if I’ve got proper training to do, I’ll just get on with it myself. It keeps me focused that way too, if we were to train more together it would blur the lines between working life and social life. Cycling was a passion before it was ever a job for me, a huge passion, but I like the fact I can come home to my girlfriend, put the bikes away and just be normal people together.
LFT: Cheers Mark. Best of luck with the move.
MMc: Nice one, take it easy.