Pro cyclist interview: Johnny McEvoy on riding Paris-Roubaix

Merseysider on the "proper madness" of the Hell of the North

“It was great to get stuck in,” says Johnny McEvoy when he recalls his debut ride at Paris-Roubaix. “It’s what I watched on telly when I started cycling when I was 13 so to be doing it was fantastic.”

The Merseysider, riding for the UCI ProContinental-registered NetApp-Endura team, started his first Paris-Roubaix earlier this month and fulfilled a lifelong ambition by crossing one of the most famous finish lines in cycling – in the iconic Roubaix velodrome – in 93rd as part of a 22-rider group which finished nine minutes and 55 seconds behind solo winner Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).

Johnny McEvoy seeks out the smoothest line at Paris-Roubaix (Pic: Sirotti)

“It was brilliant,” McEvoy told RoadCyclingUK. “I might have thought differently if I was one of the riders who crashed, but while it was so dangerous, it was so brilliant. It was fantastic, all the crowds screaming. On the first sector all the bottles flew out the cages and one hit me on the head.”

It was a baptism of fire for McEvoy, having never previously ridden any of the race’s 28 pavé sectors. He lined up at the Hell of the North as part of a NetApp-Endura squad which, as one of seven wildcard entries, arrived with the ambition of getting a man in the breakaway. Andreas Schillinger succeeded in going up the road in an eight-man escape, leaving McEvoy to ride in support of NetApp-Endura’s two leaders, Jan Barta and Zak Dempster. Though in a race which has built its fierce reputation on the carnage which comes as a result of more than 50km of pavé, that’s easier said than done.

Paris-Roubaix was so brilliant. It was fantastic, all the crowds screaming. On the first sector all the bottles flew out the cages and one hit me on the head – Johnny McEvoy

“Unless you hit the sectors and you’re right there, then there’s so much fighting that it’s really hard to help someone,” said McEvoy. “It’s quite difficult in a race like that to really help someone like you would normally.

“The break went after about 30km and it settled down a little bit but then it was building up to the first sector and from then on it was flat out to the finish. You can never rest, you’re constantly fighting for position. To be at the front of that race like Geraint Thomas and Wiggins, you really appreciate how good a rider you have to be.”

Barta, who went into the race on the back of a tenth place finish at the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen stage race, crashed twice and rolled across the line in 131st, while Dempster fared better as NetApp-Endura’s best finisher in 56th.

McEvoy’s 93rd place finish represented a fine result for the 24-year-old, whose form, after a strong start to the season at Challenge Majorca and the Volta ao Algarve, has been “hit and miss” owing to an underlying illness. He will now travel to Girona – home of countless professional cyclists – to rejoin the 9-5 of training and to focus on a return to full fitness having.

“You’ve got to get stuck in at Paris-Roubaix,” he said. “I just thought, “if you crash then you crash, just get on with it”, because if I bottled it then I definitely wouldn’t get round. I eventually got dropped after about 200km.

“I’ve been struggling lately with my form, so I was happy to last for quite a while, especially on my first attempt. I just loved it.”

The Queen of the Classics is a race like no other, where the battle to finish is as intense as the battle to stand on the top step of the podium. The 2014 edition of Paris-Roubaix represented NetApp-Endura’s second successive appearance in the race but the team will make a significant debut later this year as one of three wildcards for the Tour de France.

“I got a text message [from the team manager] saying, “we’re in the Tour de France, thanks for your hard work”, and I didn’t have the number saved in my phone,” said McEvoy. “I was wondering who it was and whether it was a joke but it’s fantastic.

“From the start of the season that’s all I’ve been thinking about. Getting ill and struggling in races means I need to get myself right before I start thinking about the Tour but it’s always in the back of your mind.

“As it stands I won’t be in the team but if I get myself right then there’s nothing stopping me performing before the Tour and getting in the team, just like any other rider in the squad.”

McEvoy was one of eight riders – and four Brits – to graduate from the Continental-registered Endura Racing squad when it merged with the ProContinental NetApp team to become NetApp-Endura ahead of the 2013 season.

You’ve got to get stuck in at Paris-Roubaix. I just thought, ‘If you crash then you crash, just get on with it’, because if I bottled it then I definitely wouldn’t get round- Johnny McEvoy

A wildcard entry to the Tour de France is the most valuable example of the rewards on offer to teams – and riders – who make the step up and McEvoy says the standard of racing is significantly higher across the board.

“It’s on a much higher level,” said McEvoy. “I was doing the Tour Series – which I love – but every race that I do now is a big race. Every time something’s wrong now then it really shows in these races because there’s no hiding.”

McEvoy’s race calendar now sees him compete almost exclusively on the Continent and his next competitive outing is scheduled to be the Four Days of Dunkirk stage race in early May.

The 2013 edition of that race was won by sprinter Arnaud Démare, who also won the inaugural edition of the London-Surrey Cycle Classic last summer. McEvoy spent that race in a breakaway caught ahead of a bunch sprint in front of Buckingham Palace on The Mall and it’s an event which he expects to go from strength-to-strength.

“I got in the breakaway last year so had a good day out,” he said. “It was a fantastic race. I know I’m English but I’ve never really been to London so it was dead cool to ride through in a race. The crowds were fantastic and even the foreign riders couldn’t believe how big it was.”

Closer to home and the 2014 Tour of Britain will start in Liverpool, a short ride from McEvoy’s home town of St. Helens. McEvoy has ridden the national tour on four occasions, first with the British Cycling Academy in 2008, twice with Motorpoint (in 2010 and 2011) and then with Endura Racing in 2012, and hopes to return to a race which has gone from strength-to-strength in that time.

“It’s definitely got bigger every year,” said McEvoy. “It’s always been a good standard of racing but if [Bradley] Wiggins is targeting it as a race to win then it’s a big race. It starts in Liverpool this year and it’s effectively a home race for me.”

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