McRae’s ‘break out’ result came in 1990 with third place in the hotly contested French stage race the Ruban Granitier – now the Tour of Brittany.
In 1992 he beat a certain Mr. Armstrong to the US amateur title but it was 1996 before he signed his first pro contract – with low budget Spanish squad Porcelana Santa Clara.
For 1997 he moved further north, to German and the Die Continentale team where he achieved solid results in Germany and the US – and an excellent sixth on GC in the mythical Peace Race.
He was with US team Saturn for 1998 and repeated his sixth place on the hard roads of Eastern Europe in the Peace race.
There was also a stage and second on GC – behind a certain Andreas Klцden – in the Niedersachsen Rundfahrt.
Chann flying the colors of Mapei.
The following year he joined one of the sport’s legendary teams – Mapei.
A top 20 on GC in the Vuelta and fifth in the World Elite Road Race Championships behind Oscar Freire confirmed that Mapei had made the right decision.
In 2000 he made the top 20 in the Giro, was fifth overall in the Tour of Romandie and eighth in the Worlds behind surprise winner Roman Vainsteins.
He was with the ill fated Mercury team at the beginning of 2001 but moved over to US Postal during the year.
His 2002 high light was the US Pro Championship ahead of Danny Pate and George Hincapie – and he was a member of the Postal squad which blasted to victory in the Tour of Catalunya TTT and shepherded Roberto Heras to GC victory.
And then it was over.
PEZ: You were third in the Ruban in 1990 but it was 1996 before you turned pro.
Chann McRae: The Ruban was my ‘coming out’ performance; it all gelled for me in that race, I remember it well.
We were riding under Chris Carmichael for the US team at the time, we amateurs but getting the equivalent of professional minimum wages – I guess I could have turned pro three years before I did, but physically I was a late developer.
PEZ: In 1992 you beat a guy named Lance to the US amateur title.
CM: I was in the break all day; we’d done about 80 K when he came across with Bob Mionske and Marty Jemison – I attacked with five to go and by the time they got organised, it was too late and I won by 20 seconds.
Lance and I had been out training together seven days before, doing five hours, he said; ‘one of us better win!’
I replied that whoever was strongest from the two of us should win it . . .
PEZ: Porcelana Santa Clara?
CM: For a first year pro it was tough, but having said that, those were some of the best days of my career.
It was a Spanish/Russian team, Jonathan Vaughters was there and helped me get on the team.
He said; ‘I know you wanna come, but the Russian guys are all really hard, the Spanish guys are chasing right after them, the DS is a tough guy, the apartment is out in the wheat fields in the middle of nowhere and the wind never stops blowing!’
It happened that I was riding the Tour of China for the US amateur team – and Santa Clara was riding it too.
On the stage with the climb up to the Great Wall I took seventh or eighth, just behind Bugno and they realised that I could ride a bike.
When my contract arrived in December, I was just so happy.
The team didn’t have a lot of money but one of the DS’s had been a pro with Banesto and had great contacts – he got us into all these big races.
There I was in the Tour of Valencia with Lance and Laurent Jalabert – we rode the Setmana Catalan, the Pays Basque and all these really top races.
PEZ: Spain to Germany and Die Continentale – that’s quite a jump?
CM: It was quite a jump; but Santa Clara ended when the owner was imprisoned for smuggling cocaine into Spain – he’s probably still in prison!
We were in the Vuelta, riding as hard as we could when the team went under; they were selling the cars and trucks – some of the staff just went home.
A friend helped me out and got me on to Die Continentale and I joined them at their training camp in Majorca.
PEZ: The Peace Race, you were sixth twice, could you have made the podium with a stronger team?
CM: I actually transferred from Die Continentale to Saturn in May of ’97 and we were a solid team – with a decent budget and good riders.
Rene Wenzel was the DS at Saturn and he was like; ‘OK, what have you got?’ before the race – but I was killing them from the start, I was just so keen to go and prove myself.
There were some good teams there – Telekom for example; and like you said, some of the roads weren’t the best and neither was the accommodation, but when you’re on a good team with a decent contract you shut all that out and get on with the racing.
Chann also spent some time with the ill-fated Mercury team.
PEZ: Mapei – a legendary team.
CM: In ’99 they were number one team in the world; you were riding alongside Grand Tour and Classic winners.
Mapei were moving in to the US market, Freddie Rodriguez was on the team and their philosophy was that a rider should have a countryman on the squad too, to room with and hang out with.
Patrick Lefevere asked Freddie who would be a good fit and he suggested me.
I’d had an offer from Postal but decided to go to Mapei – you were around some of the best riders in the world.
But not just that, you had the use of the Mapei Institute of Sport facilities with the late Aldo Sassi – of whom I can’t speak too highly.
PEZ: You were twice top ten in the Worlds.
CM: One of the reasons I was still good for the autumn was that I didn’t put all of my mental energy into the Tour de France.
I liked to ride the Giro then have a break before riding the Vuelta and late season Italian races to prepare for the Worlds.
You’d line up for the Worlds and you could see that a lot of the guys were done – used up.
In the finale at Verona in ’99 Freire timed it to perfection, he attacked right after me.
I went with three kilometres to go but Camenzind saw me go and almost took me into the barriers, I lost a lot of momentum because of that – Casagrande and Ulrich brought me back and then Freire went – his attack was clean, crisp and he went clear to win.
PEZ: You rode all three Grand Tours – which was your favourite?
CM: It would be between the Giro and the Vuelta, it’s hard to say but the Giro always had great hotels and food – and Italy is such a beautiful country.
My body always functioned best in the spring and fall, I can’t explain it, it’s just the way it was – in July I was kinda lethargic.
PEZ: You rode the Giro and Tour in the same season, isn’t that too much?
CM: When I look back, I made a couple of mistakes – I had good form out of the Giro but then I flew back to the US and the travelling takes a lot out of you.
With Mapei it was down to me and Tafi for the Tour spot but I won a hard kermis in Belgium off my Giro form two weeks before the Tour and that got me the spot.
I came out of the Giro flying but two or three kilos lighter than when I went in to the race – and I went into the Tour at that weight.
The Tour was ‘on’ from the start for Mapei, we were working for Steels and Zanini – and I don’t mean just in the last few kilometres, chasing breaks from 50 K out.
By stages 12 and 13 I was toast due to a combination of fatigue and crashes.
The USPS team with Chann included driving it hard in the crosswinds at the Vuelta in 2001.
PEZ: You were in the winning Postal TTT in Catalonia 2002.
CM: That was every bit as hard and fast as you think it would be!
There was Christian Vande Velde, Michael Barry, Tom Boonen, Victor Pena – and George Hincapie, who’s just so good at that discipline.
And we ran out eventual GC winners with Heras.
PEZ: You were very near the top, why quit when you did?
CM: I wanted to end my career by winning the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii and you can’t tackle that unless you’re at your peak as an athlete – I could have done another three or four years as a pro but I wanted to go into triathlon.
I never did win it but I gave it my best shot.
It’s a whole different bio-mechanics ball game from pro bike racing, you don’t have those periods of high intensity, it’s a steady tempo but for a long duration.
PEZ: Are you happy to have been a pro in that era, or would you rather be one now?
CM: There haven’t been giant differences, but I think it’s much more serious now in terms of diet and training.
I’m not saying we weren’t serious back then but if you take diet – the top guys now will look at every single thing they eat, it wasn’t as rigid back then.
And there’s much more emphasis on power and less ‘junk’ mileage these days.
Back in ‘96 we might have done five hours, now you’re more likely to do three-and-a-half hours but with periods at a specific power output.
I check all of my riders work load every day, if they go for a run instead of doing a session on the bike, I’ll call them and say; ‘why are you out running and not on the bike?’
PEZ: Which ride are you most proud of?
CM: That fifth place in the Worlds, if you look at the composition of that break it was made up of Classic and Grand Tour winners – it was great to be right there battling with them.
Fifth place at Worlds in Verona – impressive to say the least.
PEZ: What’s your curren role with Garmin?
CM: I run the Chipotle Development Team – Chipotle is a dream sponsor, they’ve supported our programme so well.
We have 15 riders with a 60 day race programme which includes 1.1 and 1.2 one day races and 2.2 stage races; my job is to move riders from the development team to the World Tour team.
We’ve won National championships and stages in UCi races, this year.
PEZ: What do you miss about the pro life?
CM: Living a fast paced life in Italy, focussing 100% on the bike, enjoying the lifestyle in Europe – there’s no finer life for a young lad to live.
CM: I wouldn’t say I have many – but it would have been nice to be on a team which rode a good Tour.
I was on the Mapei team which won the team prize in the Giro but it would have been nice to be one of those guys who were involved in an awesome Tour de France.
PEZ: Who are the US stars of the future, Chann?
CM: Robbie Squires, he won the US U23 road race championship and Rob Bush who won a stage in Beauce as well as the U23 criterium championship – both those guys are gonna be good.
PEZ: We couldn’t help but notice that they both ride for the Chipotle Development Team – with thanks to Chann for giving so generously of his time.
And the final word ges to his former Saturn soigneur; ‘He was probably my favourite rider to work with, so professional and always with a plan to achieve his objectives.
He treated everyone as an equal – Mapei didn’t realise what a good rider they were getting…