NEW ORLEANS — There is nothing flashy or pretentious about Australian cyclist Jay McCarthy. The former national junior-level triathlete, who turned to cycling at age 17, has spent the majority of his three previous seasons riding for a version of the Tinkoff team and flying under the radar — that was until his coming-out party at the Santos Tour Down Under in Adelaide in January.
At the TDU, McCarthy showed the same dogged tenacity that rode him onto the final podium on the last stage of the Tour of Turkey last year, by capturing his first professional win and battling fellow Aussie and eventual four-time race winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) for stage wins, valuable intermediate sprint time bonuses and the ochre leader’s jersey for the majority of the six-day WorldTour opener.
McCarthy shined during a week where the Australians dominated by claiming every stage. He joined well-known countrymen Gerrans, Richie Porte (BMC Racing), and Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) in the national spotlight.
“Could I have been happy with just the win on stage 2?” questioned McCarthy, who ultimately finished fourth on general classification just outside the final podium behind Gerrans, Porte, and Colombian Sergio Henao (Team Sky). “Perhaps, but my team was working really well for me and gave me the opportunity to go for it and I wanted to make sure I went down with a really good fight.
“I feel like I gave ‘Gerro’ [Simon Gerrans] a run for his money, but unfortunately I didn’t have my best day on Willunga Hill [stage 5], and that cost me time and a top-three result.”
During his brief career, there have been glimpses of the 23-year-old’s potential after taking third-place on stage 17 at the Giro d’Italia in 2014, as well as collecting a handful of results and a third-place GC in Turkey. However, for the most part, McCarthy has been unobtrusively playing his role and learning his craft while entering the fourth and final year of his contract with the Russian-registered WorldTour team whose future is now in question.
In fact, VeloNews asked retired Australian cycling legends Cadel Evans and Phil Anderson about McCarthy, and neither knew enough about the Queenslander to offer a comment — although both were admittedly impressed with his early season performances which included a fifth-place finish at the Australian road nationals in Ballarat, Victoria.
However, Tinkoff sport director Tristan Hoffman was more than happy to shed some light on the TDU’s best young rider jersey winner.
“When Jay came to the team he was one of the best talents coming out of Australia and we were happy to be able to get him on the team,” Hoffman told VeloNews. “He’s had his moments where he has shown he has a lot of potential, including the Giro and the Tour of Turkey, but I think he showed a lot in the Vuelta a España at the end of the season last year.
“He really did a fantastic job for Rafal Majka and for the other guys on the team, and he was really stepping up with his performance. He has proven we can give him some freedom to grow – which he is doing as person and as a pro cyclist.”
McCarthy, who grew up in a “happy and supportive” single-parent home in the small town of Maryborough, just two hours north of Brisbane, initially joined the Australian development team, Jayco-Skins, in 2011 and immediately won two stages at the Thüringen-Rundfahrt (U23) that same year.
Following two seasons on a roster that included eventual Orica-GreenEdge riders Luke Durbridge, Michael Hepburn, and Damien Howson, as well as BMC Racing’s Rohan Dennis along the way, McCarthy signed with Tinkoff and has never looked back.
“Some neo-pros come into the pro ranks and perform straight away, and I took a different approach and did a lot more work for the team,” McCarthy told VeloNews during an interview last May. “I’m starting to feel now that it’s taking benefit.
“You may not normally get as much notice for being a worker, but for me I feel my capabilities as a pro have improved greatly the last couple of years because of my working for the team.”
Fast-forward eight months and McCarthy is indeed starting to see his hard work paying dividends.
“I’ve grown a lot since Turkey,” claimed McCarthy. “I haven’t had a lot of big results since then, but I think it gave me the confidence to step up and play a productive role in the races since, and every day I think I’m taking another step in the right direction.”
At the moment, McCarthy’s next steps take him to Ruta Del Sol in February, with a return to the Giro already pencilled in as a mid-season goal in May. Although McCarthy still has an eye on a possible Olympic bid in August.
“I have to sit down and talk with the team,” said McCarthy. “I’ve had a few hints that there could be a couple of things changing with my calendar, but I’m not quite sure yet.
“As for Rio, I’d love to have the opportunity to go there, but I know it’s going to be a difficult selection with only five riders going from Australia,” he continued. “The race profile suits me, so if I can keep doing what I’m doing and the national selectors think I’m good enough then I am definitely not going to say no. After all, it’s every athlete’s dream to represent their country at the Olympics and for me it would most certainly be a dream come true.”
McCarthy is not yet concerned about pigeon-holing himself as a particular type of rider, either. The young Aussie firmly believes he has plenty of time to figure it all out. “Everyone asks me what kind of rider I am, and I tell them I think I’m an all-rounder who can get away with most things, but I’d love to focus on one-week tours and the Ardennes classics,” he said. “Short, sharp climbs are normally what suits me, but I’ve proved I can climb the long, steep ones as well.”
Hoffman agrees with McCarthy’s assessment, and said it is just too early to tell where McCarthy will fit in best, but that it is up to him to continue to find his way and create opportunities.
“It’s difficult to say how far Jay can go,” explained Hoffman. “He has already shown in the big tours he has good recovery. We can use him in almost every kind of race, and if can continue to show improvement in all areas then who knows how far he can develop as a rider.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.