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An interview with Mark Scanlon
Fulfilling his potential
Young Irishman Mark Scanlon shot to prominence after he won the world championship road race as a junior in 1998. The years following were a rollercoaster ride, with injury and bad luck dampening this prodigious talent, but a strong ride as stagiaire saw him at the hands of French team Ag2r.
So far, Scanlon has made a solid start to the season with some good team riding, leaping up the UCI rankings after a stage win and fifth overall in the Tour of Denmark and solid sixth at the GP Ouest France in Plouay. The hopes of a nation may be a heavy burden, but he is unquestionably Ireland's best rider for many, many years. Cyclingnews' Irish correspondent Shane Stokes caught up with the 22 year old to talk about his past, his present, and his future.
A couple of days before the Irish national road championships in June, Scanlon's coach Padraig Marrey spoke of his chances, expressing his hope that a good ride was in store, despite still feeling the effort of a hard block of racing. Scanlon had completed the 10 day Tour of Switzerland just four days before.
"Mark is very tired from all the racing he has been doing lately, but I am hoping he will recover in time and do well in the championships," said Marrey. "Winning the Irish title last year gave him a big boost in confidence and set him up for a very strong end of season. If he can do that again, I think it will really stand to him in the second half of this year."
Marrey got his wish. Scanlon felt sluggish for the early part of the tough 105 mile race, but towards the finale, the Sligoman was the strongest in the seven-man break. On the final lap he parried a series of attacks by Cidona Carrick rider Brian Kenneally before unleashing an impressive burst of speed four miles from the finish, hurtling clear of the other riders and crossing the line forty-two seconds clear of silver medallist Denis Lynch. The home victory ensured he kept his distinctive shamrock jersey for another year, but more importantly, acted as a catalyst for some impressive late-summer form.
Scanlon came back from his post-championship break raring to go. While the older members of his Ag2r team competed in the Tour de France, he trained during July with Lynch, Paidi O'Brien and other riders from the VC La Pomme team, colours he raced in as an amateur. Long rides in the Haute-Alpes region allowed him to recover from an arduous early-season schedule while also building good form, and when he returned to racing he wasted little time in making an impression. Scanlon finished sixth on the final stage and thirteenth overall in the Tour de la Region Wallonne. He then went on to fulfil a prediction by Marrey that a big win was in the pipeline, out sprinting Team fakta's Michael Skelde and Sebastian Lang of the Gerolsteiner team to land the opening stage of the Tour of Denmark.
The result was Scanlon's best since turning professional at the start of the season. More significantly, it was the biggest pro victory in Irish cycling since the days of Kelly and Roche, and one which confirmed his potential after his victory at the junior world championships five years ago.
"I was delighted", remembers Scanlon fondly. "To win a race like that was great. I got away with a group of 14 at the start of the stage. It broke up in the crosswind, and then with about three kilometres to go I went clear with two other guys and won the sprint."
"That victory took the pressure off me a bit. It was hard enough to get that first win, so I was happy to get it out of the way."
As maiden victories go, it was certainly a big one. Scanlon took the yellow jersey, the green, and some welcome world ranking points for his efforts. He led the 2.2 tour for two days, only conceding the points jersey on the final stage, and finished third in the best young rider standings and a fine fifth overall.
As might be expected from the no-nonsense lad, he didn't get carried away by what he had achieved. "It was just like any other race I have ridden, really," he says. "It didn't affect me that much. The only difference was as overall leader, I had to race at the front and had to stay in the first ten all day long. I couldn't risk getting dropped or being caught out in the crosswinds or anything like that... that was the only difference really. There was a bit more pressure that way."
"One change, though, was that the win and the jersey made me a bit more known to other directeurs sportifs. That said, a lot of them did already know me because of my win at the junior world championships."
Earning his place - and his keep
Scanlon earned his place with Ag2r after a good trial with them last Autumn. He came to their attention due to some good results with the VC La Pomme team, based in Marseille, and also because of the efforts of Stephen Roche, who helped line up the stagiaire contract. His good form vindicated the gesture of the 1987 Tour de France winner, with a string of strong rides confirming the initial interest of Vincent Lavenu and the rest of the team. Beginning his trial in early September, the Scanlon finished 15th in the Tour de Finistère, 26th in both the Coppa Placci and Giro di Romagna and then went on to take two podium places in both the GP Isbergues and the final stage of the Paris-Corrèze, where he finished 16th overall. He was also the best Elite 2 rider in France in 2002.
Scanlon's previous brush with professionalism came in 2001 when the Linda McCartney team signed him up to ride with them that year. However, the squad collapsed even before he had a chance to don their colours, sending him back into the amateur ranks. There were no such worries with Ag2r though, a well-established first division team led by Tour de France stage winners Jaan Kirsipuu and Laurent Brochard, with Scanlon settled into his two-year contract right away.
"The atmosphere on the team is great", he says with content. "Jan and Laurent are the leaders and while we normally ride for them, when they are not going well they have no problem helping me or the other guys on the team. They will do all that they can. I really saw that in Denmark when I had the yellow jersey - they were of great help. In Plouay, Laurent wasn't feeling the best so we were told to race how we felt. You can't really fault that... we are not stuck riding for the leaders just for the sake of riding for them. We only have to ride for them when they have the legs."
That cohesive team spirit was seen at the Tour Down Under, with the sprinting skills of Kirsipuu and Scanlon denying Stuart O'Grady sprint bonuses on the crucial final stage, paving the way to overall victory for Mikel Astarloza. A solid spring followed with top 20 placings in several races, and in June, Scanlon came fifth on the opening stage of the Tour of Germany. He then showed his versatility when he embarked on a 100 kilometre-plus breakaway with Quick.Step rider Jurgen Van Goolen on the second stage of the Tour of Switzerland; although reeled in before the finish, Scanlon underlined his aggression and ability to mix it with the established pros.
Oh la la at Ouest France
Psyched after his ride at the Tour of Denmark, Scanlon travelled to the GP Ouest France in Plouay. A strong performance there appears to have made a greater impact on him than his success in Denmark. Part of this may be down to the importance of the Breton race to his French team, but his sixth place also exorcised a ghost from the past. And that, you suspect, means a lot to him.
"The ride in Plouay was especially good for my confidence, because when I did the under 23 World's [in 2000], I got dropped two or three laps from the finish. That was only an eleven or twelve lap race whereas the other weekend was fourteen laps of a circuit which was even harder. The organisers put in a steeper hill than before, so it did my confidence a lot of good to ride well."
Scanlon had gone clear with team-mate Andy Flickinger in a small breakaway group during the 198 kilometre event. With Flickinger riding more strongly on the day, the Sligoman dedicated himself in the closing stages to Flickinger. When Joseba Albizu attacked in the final kilometre, it was Scanlon who made the effort to reel him in, and while that put paid to his chances of a podium placing, the selfless gesture ensured Flickinger took his biggest win to date, and earned Scanlon serious praise for his efforts.
"Half of my win is due to the sacrifice of Mark Scanlon," Flickinger told the media. "He's a great future rider for the classics and he did a fantastic job for me today."
For his part, Scanlon was delighted to ride so strongly on a tough circuit and equally pleased for his team-mate. "I was happy to ride for Flickinger," he says. "He was strongest on the day, so whoever is going best, that is who you ride for - you don't really have a choice! The team were delighted, they were very happy."
Next on the agenda
Next up is the Tour of Poland, the Grand Prix d'Isbergues, Paris-Corrèze, Paris-Tours, and then the World Championships in Hamilton, Canada. It is a hectic end of season schedule, but one which the Irishman hopes will work out well.
"I felt very tired in the races after Plouay," he admits. "The hardest thing about being a pro is that there is so much racing. After going well in the GP Ouest France, I had to get into the car and head down to Bordeaux for the Tour du Poitou Charentes and, after that, onto more races. I am feeling pretty worn out at the moment, but hopefully will get my strength back."
"The World's is a difficult one to call", says Scanlon about his chances. "From what I hear, it is an extremely difficult circuit - my objective from the outset will be to finish. If that doesn't happen, I won't be too disappointed; I am going for the experience really, more than anything else. I am happy enough with the season as it stands. I did what I expected to do, in that I got a decent win. Plouay was more than I expected, being the kind of circuit that it was, so I was happy with that."
In interviews, Scanlon habitually plays his cards close to his chest. The suspicion is that a Tour ride would mean a lot, but since winning the junior world title in 1998, he is reluctant to make grand predictions. Other riders may dream out loud; Scanlon does it in private. Such is the burden of expectation.
"My junior worlds win was very important to me and means a lot," he says. "But it was hard though - to go from living in Sligo and riding ordinary races to winning the junior world championships. It wasn't gradual; it all happened in one day. That brought a lot of media attention and pressure - everyone was going on about me and expecting a lot from me so at times it was a little difficult. I kind of had to live up to it all the time."
Since then, Scanlon has played down his chances when asked about his goals and aims. He is guarded in his responses, much like his countryman Sean Kelly. But like Kelly, he also has a strong appetite for success, big ambition and strong legs. And that combination, you suspect, will take him a long, long way.