He’s lined up alongside Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Fabian Cancellara and Lance Armstrong in the peloton so when Foyle Cycling star Ronan McLaughlin says he’s aiming to see the Derry club compete in An Post Rás, you tend to listen.
McLaughlin, 29, spent six years as a professional with An Post, competing against some of the biggest names in the sport. During that time he raced at the 2012 Elite World Championships and came within seconds of qualifying for the London Olympics.
The two of them were in that World Championship race, albeit working for another rider, but I still like to say I beat both Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.Ronan McLaughlin
Since returning to the “real world” - as the Muff native describes it - at the end of 2013, McLaughlin has combined full-time work with coaching cyclists across the world and supplying custom clothing for local clubs.
Not a man for wasting time, he believes his ambition of seeing Foyle line out in Ireland’s premier road race is not as lofty as some might think.
“I want to keep racing as long as I can,” explained McLaughlin, “Every season I go into it with the Rás as the main event and winning a stage there is my ultimate goal for a season.
“Cycling has really taken off over recent years and there is some great talent in Derry and across the north west. Marcus (Christie) is flying at the moment and you have Ryan Reilly, who is a real talent. Maybe if we can talk Marcus into coming to Foyle, along with the young riders coming through, we might get a really good team together over the next couple of years.
“For myself, getting a Foyle team into the Rás would be a big ambition and it’s realistic. At the moment we have three very good riders and a team only takes five. You realistically need to start the season with seven or eight because or injuries etc, but we have a very strong core of riders there and it’s something to build on for the future.”
It’s all a long way from a Crana College student who only took up the sport at 16 after his father bought him a road racing bike as reward for summer work. To this day, he’s still not sure what kicked off his obsession.
“One summer Dad asked me what I wanted as payment. For some reason, I said a road racing bike; no idea why, but that was what I wanted and that started me off.”
McLaughlin’s natural ability didn’t take long to shine and by 2008 he had signed professionally with Belgium based Irish team An post with whom he spent six years.
“From the second I got that bike I knew I wanted to try and be professional and cycle at the highest possible level. I did that for six years. Probably not the highest level as I never made it to the Tour de France but everything up to that point I managed.
“The Elite World Championships in 2012 were definitely the highlight of my professional career. The same year I very nearly qualified for the Olympics. I came within a couple of seconds of qualifying but I personally don’t believe I was at that standard at the time. I think there were riders who were better than me but because of the system Cycling Ireland were using, there was a stage of the Rás into Bundoran and had I won, I would have qualified.
“I’m not overly disappointed though because I genuinely believe the boys that went were better than me. To come that close to qualifying, it was disappointing not to get there, but in the same year I was selected to go to the Worlds as part of a three-man team alongside Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche.”
And there was more than a few familiar faces for McLaughlin to test himself against at the event in Valkenburg in the Netherlands.
“It was about five or six weeks after Bradley Wiggins won the Tour and Chris Froome finished second.
“The two of them were in that World Championship race, albeit working for another rider, but I still like to say I beat both Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
“You can see from television that they are lean, powerful athletes but you don’t just comprehend how lean and powerful they are until you see them in the flesh. When you are racing they’re just another rider you were racing against but those two did stand out.
“Probably in the six years of racing there were only three that really stood out for me. Those two and then (Swiss rider) Fabian Cancellara who recently won the Olympic time trial. If there was ever a man that looked like he was meant to ride a bike at 40mph for an hour, it was him. He looked like he was born to do it. In all the years racing those were the three that stood out.”
And of course there was the now infamous Lance Armstrong.
“I raced against him at the Tour of Ireland in 2009,” adds McLaughlin, “There is a particular photo we enjoy as a family because it shows Armstrong going round a corner with the eyes of the whole crowd on him except for my dad who is standing in the middle staring the opposite direction to everyone watching to see where I am.”
There were great times for the local cyclists but 2012 was to be the apex of McLaughlin’s stint as a pro.
“I was never making great money but I always said that as long as I was progressing I would continue. it is like the lower leagues compared to the Premier League.
“In 2012, I had had my best season but in 2013 I took a step backwards. Once I took that step back, it was always going to be hard to come back and at the end of 2013 I had to make the hard decision.”
With hindsight McLaughlin puts his stuggles down to a desire to do well.
“I’d had such a good year in 2012 and came so close to winning a stage of the Ras; so close to the Olympics. When I was training for 2013, I kept thinking that had I trained harder maybe I would have won those races.
“I went to Spain for the whole winter in preparation for 2013 but I trained too hard. I was flying for the first couple of weeks and was top 10 in two big professional races in Belguim. I was going well but within a month I was burned out and that was me for the rest of the season. I probably wanted it too much if anything.”
Not that McLaughlin had any intentions of slowing down once out of the professional ranks.
“The biggest challenge I always had was making me the best cyclist I could be. That has paid off because I was always researching the best ways to train; the best equipment to use and I have been able to transfer that into coaching.
“Even when I was full-time I realised training 20 and 30 hours a week does nothing other than make you really tired so it helped me concentrate on getting the most out of less time.
“I’m coaching people all over the world now. It’s not like football coaching if you imagine the typical football coach being out on the field. It’s more online based. I’m prescribing and tailoring individual training sessions rather than standing on the side of a road cracking the whip. It’s more about the physiology of the sport than the skills.”
And he hasn’t forgotten how to race as his display at the Tour de Hokkaido in Japan proves, where McLaughlin finished as top rider on the Spin 11.com Irish selection.
“I finished 32nd out of more than 100 starters so by no means is it anything worth shouting about but I was proud of it based on what I’ve been doing this year. I performed well in the Ras and have been up there in most of the local races.
“Every race I go these days, I want to enjoy. I spent six years going to races with a job to do and now I’m able to enjoy it a bit more.”
Enoy? Yes. Slow down? No and given some of the mountainous terrain he’s scaled in his career, getting the local club into An Post Rás might not be that far out of reach.