By Ciaran O’Donnell
On reflection, he has mixed views on how it all unfolded. On Sunday afternoon, after the last of the eight grueling stages, Ronan McLaughlin, riding for the Westmeath Viner-Caremark – Pactimo team, crossed the finish line of Rás Tailteann for a ninth time. He placed 18th in overall classification and 57 seconds behind the winner. It was his highest ever finish since he first took on the big race as a 20-year-old back 2007.
If he’d been offered what he ended up with two weeks ago, he’d have been happy enough. Yet, in retrospect, he finds himself pondering in the what-might-have-been bubble. That’s what those at the best in the business tend to do when the thought process goes into rewind. Ronan is no exception. And while the searching of the soul never changes the outcome, there’s always solace of sorts to be found when the thinker delves into that most private of places.
It’s exactly 48 hours since the Muff native climbed off in Skerries, having completed 1,180 kilometres in soaring temperatures over some of the toughest terrain. Despite going to the deepest reserve point, he looks remarkably fresh.
“On Saturday morning I was sitting in eighth place overall and leading county rider. Having done so well all week and feeling so good, I was confident I would have held on to those two positions. To lose those leaves a wee bit of a sour taste. But I’ve done by best Rás, so I can’t really complain that much,” he says.
For the first six days, everything went like clockwork. He felt better and better as the days went on.
“The temperatures were through the roof and I was coping well with the heat which I wouldn’t always do – it can be hit or miss for me. I was feeling so good and wasn’t having to wait for the alarm clock to wake me which is a good sign.”
It was on the Shay Elliot Climb in Wicklow on the penultimate stage when the curved ball was hurled in the form of a puncture. Despite the setback which cost him crucial seconds – he hit a pothole at 50 miles per hour with just 10k to go – stage seven wasn’t without its positives.
“I did my best ever five minutes, my best ever ten minutes and best ever 90 minutes, my second best ever 60 minutes and my best 20 minutes of the year,” he reveals.
Day seven was when the big guns got into the big gears and pushed for power all the way. Given his superb stats, he certainly wasn’t found wanting.
It’s eleven years since Ronan first became a “Man of the Rás”. He didn’t take part in 2008, 2009 and 2010, but has been a constant since 2011. He was part of the An Post Chain Reaction Sean Kelly Team a decade ago, but wasn’t included in any of the five-man squads in the three successive years he didn’t compete.
“In 2008 and 2009 I was at a level where I was good enough to ride the Rás, but I wasn’t at the level where I was good enough to be on the Kelly team. In 2010 I was definitely going well enough and came close to leaving that year because I wasn’t selected. I thought maybe I needed to move on to further myself, but in the end I stayed put and that was a good decision,” he comments.
To compound things in 2010, Ronan crashed in the Tour of Belgium later in the season and sustained a broken arm and a broken elbow.
Ronan spent January past on honeymoon after marrying Rachel Concannon from Derry at the end of December. They headed to Australia and saw a lot of the continent.
He knuckled down in February and got into a routine of hard graft. It was early to bed and the same to rise. An hour before breakfast was the norm with a session in the evening. An average week comprised 13-15 hours on the bike – 400 to 500 kms in distance terms.
When he started out in the sport, the Tour de Fance was the ultimate goal.
“I suppose that was a pretty lofty ambition,” he opines.
“In Cycling Ireland alone you have 25,000 members. World-wide, God knows how many have racing licences. Yet each year there are only 180 who ride the Tour de France. Even to get to the level where you are on a team that would be selected for the Tour de France became my goal. Ultimately, I didn’t achieve that.
“I always beat myself up about it. I have a lot of friends at that level. All of them would say that I was at a level to do a job for one of those teams. But the problem is the boys they bring in to do the job on a team like that are capable of winning at my level,” he says.
“For example, if you take Philip Deignan at amateur level, he was one of the best in France. Year on year, he was winning races left, right and centre. When he rides for himself in the pro ranks, he can win races as well. So Team Sky pay him just to do a job. So the way the pro team look at it is ‘we can pay this guy who’s good enough to win, so why should we pay someone who’s just good enough to do a job’.”
Still in his prime, Ronan has amassed a wealth of wisdom and experience.
“I think it was only last year I realised that sitting up until midnight the night before a race to add something to my bike is probably going to save you one second. But it’s going to cost you two minutes in tiredness,” he says.
Ronan is currently employed with Sustrans – the charity that make it easier for people to cycle. His role as active travel officer sees him going around the schools in the North West region of Northern Ireland encouraging children to cycle, walk or scoot to school, rather than take the bus or car.
“I’m in the job 15 months and I’m really enjoying it,” adds Ronan, who is Foyle Cycling Club Chairman and keen to give something back to the sport he’s got so much from. He’s also coaching a number of cyclists and that’s something he wants to do more of.
And yet there are still a few boxes he wants to tick himself in the saddle. He’s entered in the Irish road race championships over 100 miles, an event he hasn’t competed in since 2013 because he didn’t think he was in the right shape.
“That’s the goal over the next four weeks. Realistically with the likes of Philip (Deignan), Dan Martin, Nicholas Roche and Eddie Dunbar coming to compete, a top ten would be a pretty big result.”
Ronan is also planning to set a new record for the famous Malin to Mizen route. His aim is to cycle the distance of 565 km in less that 19 hours. Given that he clocked a time of 19 hours and 45 minutes for the Donegal Wild Atlantic Ultra Cycle over 555 km last year, which has many more steep climbs, his target time is doable.
But first things first, and an opportunity for him to pitch himself once more against the best of the Irish at the nationals, where more excitement and drama will surely unfold. One suspects Ronan McLaughlin won’t be far away from either when the starter drops his flag in Sligo on the first Sunday in July.
This space is worth the watching.