When Alberto Contador broke the Everesting record, few saw the Tour de France champion’s mark falling so quickly, not least to an amateur cyclist. Yet Ronan McLaughlin produced a remarkable ride to take more than 20 minutes off Contador’s record within three weeks.
Having previously completed an Everesting attempt in early July – the fifth-fastest time on record – McLaughlin set his sights on Contador’s record, riding the ascent of Mamore Gap in northwest Ireland 62.5 times in 07:04:41 to climb the equivalent height of Everest, as reported by CyclingTips.
McLaughlin, who rode for the An Post team between 2009 and 2013, pored over every last detail in the build-up to Thursday’s record-breaking ride, modifying his Specialized Tarmac SL6 to make every possible gain.
That included turning his Campagnolo Record EPS groupset into a 3-speed drivetrain, cutting the drops off his handlebar, the careful consideration of components, and testing a range of tyres – and tyre pressures – to find the perfect Everesting setup.
The result is a bike you’d more likely see raced over mere minutes during the UK hill-climb season, rather than over seven hours on a ride that required 8,848m of climbing. (Regular readers will know how seriously we take hill-climb season here at BikeRadar)
“I’m fanatical about hill climbs,” McLaughlin told BikeRadar. “I don’t get to do as many as I’d like but, much like time trials, I love the couple of weeks before doing all the geeky tech work on the bike, trying to find wee gains here and there.”
McLaughlin’s tinkering saw the bike drop in weight from 7.4kg to 6.2kg between his first and second Everesting rides. That’s not especially light by true hill-climb standards (it would be possible to go considerably lighter with increasingly exotic – and expensive – parts, not to mention drillium treatment), but impressive for a build capable of lasting the distance of an Everesting ride and pieced together on a relative budget.
BikeRadar caught up with McLaughlin on the morning after his record ride to delve into the fascinating details of his Everesting bike.
Specialized Tarmac SL6 frame
The basis of McLaughlin’s Everesting bike is a Specialized Tarmac SL6. McLaughlin removed the front derailleur and ran a single-ring drivetrain for his first Everesting ride, which he completed in 8 hours and 9 minutes, but otherwise ran a conventional setup.
“The first time I did it, I had no idea I’d go so quick,” said McLaughlin, a former Irish and Ulster hill-climb champion. “Almost immediately after I started thinking about where I could get those ten minutes from to get myself under eight hours. Then the more I started looking at it the more I thought, ‘This is possible here’.”
McLaughlin’s initial ride set off a whirlwind of research, experimentation and preparation, with his eyes set on a record attempt. The Tarmac SL6 frame remained at the heart of McLaughlin’s build for his second ride (bottle cages and bolts removed, of course) but almost every detail changed, not least the gearing.
Three-speed Campagnolo Record EPS
McLaughlin says he is a “huge Campagnolo fan” and, having completed the first ride on a 1×11-speed Record EPS electronic drivetrain, set about fine-tuning his gearing setup for round two.
“I wanted the Campag levers, that was never in doubt, but I initially wanted to run a singlespeed setup, so I could take off both derailleurs, the battery, interface, everything,” he said.
McLaughlin bought a selection of singlespeed sprockets and spacers but soon realised he’d lose too much time on the dead-turn at the bottom of the climb with just one gear. “I’d definitely need a couple of gear choices,” he said, “and because I’d run the electronic groupset on the first ride, I had all the data from exactly what gears I was using.
“Until I started to fatigue, most of the time I was getting up in 39-28, so I worked out that if I had a 25-, 28- and a 32-tooth sprocket, I’d have plenty of options. It also meant the gear I’d use most often, the 28, would be ever so slightly central on the freehub than it would have been if I just used a single sprocket, so I’d gain a little efficiency as well.
“Had I been running a mechanical groupset I could have had those three sprockets completely centred on the freehub, but with the EPS groupset I didn’t want to risk confusing the electronics.”
McLaughlin stripped back his 11-32t cassette to three sprockets paired with a 39t chainring and 12-speed Record crank, soaked his chain overnight in drip lube, and borrowed the CeramicSpeed OSPW jockey wheels from his time-trial bike.
The gearing setup made no concession for descending but, with the Mamore Gap segment averaging 14 per cent, only a couple of turns of the pedals were required to get up to speed before McLaughlin disappeared into an aero tuck
“The descent becomes so fast, so quickly, that you don’t even have a chance to pedal on it,” he said. “You’re straight away up to 70, 80km/h – whatever gear I’d put on I was going to be freewheeling. It was just a case of how few could I get away with on the uphill.”
What is Everesting?
The Everesting challenge requires riders to pick a single climb and complete repeats of it in a single activity until they ascend 8,848m – the equivalent height of Mount Everest.
(Half of a) handlebar
Gearing aside, the handlebar – or lack of handlebar – is the most eye-catching feature of McLaughlin’s bike.
He swapped the stock Specialized Aerofly 2 handlebar from his first ride for a 40cm 3T Ergosum – “the lightest, cheapest bar that I had that I didn’t mind cutting” – and set about hacking off the drops.
We’re used to seeing similarly extreme setups on specialist hill-climb bikes, but McLaughlin’s Everesting ride required just as much descending as it did ascending and his top speed hit 86.5km/h.
“The one time I reached for the drops at 85km/h was pretty scary but it scared me enough to remind me to never try that again,” he said. “I suppose you could say it was a bit reckless to cut the drops off but I hadn’t really used them the first time. Why carry them if I wasn’t going to use them? I wanted to give this everything.”
McLaughlin paired the handlebar, which was completely devoid of tape, with his regular Deda Team Zero stem. The negative 17-degree stem put McLaughlin in his desired position but, as a bonus, could also house a Campagnolo EPS junction box.
The seatpost is the Tarmac’s stock unit. “I looked at a lighter seatpost, from a Spanish brand called Darimo, but I just couldn’t justify €350 to save 100g,” McLaughlin said. “Grams per pounds, it’s a tough one to weigh up. I was playing the Lotto plenty in the last few weeks…”
Nor was McLaughlin, who represented Ireland at the 2012 UCI Road World Championships, willing to sacrifice his favoured Specialized Arc Power saddle. If you’re riding for more than seven hours, comfort matters.
“It’s probably 100g heavier than it could be but out of everything the saddle was probably the only area I wasn’t willing to compromise on,” he said.
“I had actually been searching for an S-Works version of the same saddle because it would have saved me about 80g but in the end I didn’t want to go messing with my saddle the day before riding at 300 watts for seven-and-a-half hours.”
While McLaughlin was willing to sacrifice his handlebar drops, he kept both brakes on the bike for descending the 810m segment safely. “The other consideration for Everesting is that you have to come back down the hill,” he said. “You can’t go completely crazy.”
Removing the rear brake, as is common on hill-climb bikes, would have saved around 200g, he says, but any weight saving would have been negated out on the road. “I might have got away with one brake but, when you’re descending that fast, you’d be braking a lot earlier and it’d probably cost you more time on the descent than what it’d gain you on the ascent.”
One thing’s for sure, though, aerodynamics are important, even on a climbing challenge like Everesting.
The Tarmac SL6 may not be an aero bike per se – the Venge held that spot in Specialized’s range until the new Tarmac SL7 was released last week – but McLaughlin bought an aero-profiled TriRig Omega X brake to clean-up the front end of the bike, paired with the stock Campagnolo Record stopper for the rear.
The climb | Mamore Gap
McLaughlin chose the climb of Mamore Gap in County Donegal for his Everesting record. It’s a climb he describes as “probably up there in the top ten roads in the world that you could pick for Everesting.
“It’s pretty much perfectly straight and it’s pretty damn steep. It’s so steep that, as I was fatiguing later on in the ride, I still had to do the same watts to get up it without falling off.”
Having completed an initial Everesting ride in early July on the full climb, McLaughlin used a shorter, steeper section of the same ascent for his record attempt.
By doing so, he cut 35km from the total ride (130km), but was required to climb the 810m segment 62.5 times, at an average gradient of 14 per cent!
McLaughlin sought an aerodynamic advantage from his wheelset, too. He borrowed a set of shallow Shimano Dura-Ace C24 aluminium wheels from a friend for his first Everesting ride but opted for the deeper, carbon fibre Dura-Ace C35 tubulars for his record attempt.
“The C24s were great but with the C35s I wasn’t actually gaining any weight and they are slightly more aerodynamic as well, which obviously helped on the descent and wasn’t going to hurt me on the ascent,” said McLaughlin, head coach at Panache Coaching.
McLaughlin paid particular attention to tyre choice and pressure before settling on Vittoria Corsa Speed 2.0 tubs with 96psiin the back and 94psiin the front. “That might seem high but they were 23mm-wide,” said McLaughlin.
He added: “I spent pretty much all of lockdown, in the evenings after work, trying to work out the specifics of this challenge and the best way to get through it. I checked everything from the right tyres to actually going out to Mamore Gap and checking different tyre pressures for different wheels.”
McLaughlin also marked his spare wheels with the correct pressures, so his support team could check before changing wheels in the event of a puncture.
“With temperature increasing through the day, the pressure of the tyre would increase as well,” said McLaughlin, who was fastidious in his approach to the challenge. “I had all of that sort of stuff dialled down. The plan was that if I got a puncture I’d swap bikes until it was fixed then swap back, so I wouldn’t lose any time.”
Crunching the numbers
Data played a pivotal role in the preparation and execution of McLaughlin’s ride, from analysing his EPS data to determine the correct gearing setup, to pacing his effort on the day. McLaughlin used Favero Assioma’s Duo power meter pedals for both rides, sending data to a Garmin Edge 1030 computer.
“The Garmin isn’t the lightest by any means but the Wahoo Bolt I wanted to use had a dodgy clamp and I didn’t want to risk losing it halfway through,” said McLaughlin.
He primarily used heart rate and perceived exertion to measure his effort for the first attempt. “Power might have been what I was putting through the pedals but perceived exertion and HR was going to tell me what stress my body was actually feeling,” he added. “I was just trying to manage that. I didn’t know what I was getting into, seven, eight hours into the ride.”
Armed with the experience of his first Everesting ride, McLaughlin used power, heart rate and perceived exertion to judge the effort of his second ride, in conjunction with average lap time and VAM (average ascent speed) to ensure he stayed on recording-breaking pace.
“I knew that if I was doing, on average, 05:38 minute per lap then I was well on for world record pace,” said McLaughlin, who finished the ride with a normalised power of 299 watts. “The further I got into the ride, I was still way below 05:38 so the more confident I got. As it started getting tougher, I could tell myself, ‘You’re going really well, it’s supposed to hurt!’”
Fast bike, fast kit, fast rider
Getting the bike right was only one part of the equation for McLaughlin. He also tested a range of kit – jerseys, shorts and skinsuits – in the build-up to the ride before settling on Pactimo’s Ascent Flyte, a race-day skinsuit with pockets. He also used aero overshoes, removed partway through the ride, and aero socks.
Aerodynamic considerations also extended to helmet choice, with McLaughlin opting for the Kask Infinity with sliding vents. “I could open the vents for the ascent and let my head breathe, then close them at the top for the descent so it was more aerodynamic. There was very little left to chance.”
Ronan McLaughlin’s Everesting record in numbers
07:04:41 hours – Ronan McLaughlin’s Everesting record, beating Alberto Contador’s previous record of 07:27:20 hours by more than 20 minutes
130.78km – the total distance of the ride
810m – the length of the Mamore Gap segment
14 per cent – the average gradient of Mamore Gap
62.5 – the number of ascents completed by McLaughlin
299 watts – McLaughlin’s normalised power for the ride
6.2kg – the weight of his modified Specialized Tarmac SL6
Support team and weather windows
McLaughlin’s ride may have been a monumental solo feat of endurance but he also had the support of a team of friends, family and team-mates so he could focus solely on the effort required. “The support team on both days was absolutely incredible,” he said.
That team ensured McLaughlin was fed and watered throughout, warned the little traffic encountered on the remote road of a cyclist on the route, and even cut a baselayer from his back while riding when the weather warmed up after early rain.
On a ride lasting more than seven hours, nutrition played an important part in McLaughlin’s success. He developed a nutrition strategy that involved three different coloured bottles, each filled with either water, energy drink or an electrolyte formula.
“I’d shout to them the colour of the bottle,” he said. “They also had gels, energy bars, boiled potatoes. At one point they were handing me up espressos. I don’t think there would be anything I could have called for that they wouldn’t have been able to give me.”
McLaughlin may have planned and executed his ride to perfection, but he only decided to attempt his record ride with two hours notice, having waited for the perfect opportunity.
“I was waiting for the right day to do it,” he said. “A Thursday afternoon might seem odd but the forecast meant it was looking like the perfect afternoon [after early rain]. I had a tailwind and it was warm enough, but without direct sunshine because we had cloud cover. Try finding a warm day in Ireland with cloud cover and no rain, and it’s pretty much impossible.
“The atmospheric pressure was just right as well. There was enough oxygen in the air so I was absolutely incredibly lucky, both days that I’ve done it, that I’ve got the right weather conditions.”
Who can go sub-seven?
McLaughlin left no stone unturned in breaking the Everesting record and described taking the record from seven-time Grand Tour winner Contador as a “huge honour”. The question is, who will now attempt to beat his mark?
“I have no doubt that when an unknown amateur in the northwest of Ireland does 07:04, then there will be a lot of people out there thinking about going 06:59,” he said. “I’d be delighted to see that.
“It’s almost like the mid-’90s with the hour records from that era. There were countless attempts from that time and it seems to be that Everesting is 2020’s version of that. The more people that try it the better.
“I certainly don’t expect that record to last forever or even too long. I can’t wait to see who goes for it.”
Donate to the Community Rescue Service
Ronan McLaughlin’s Everesting ride was in support of the Community Rescue Service, a charitable search and rescue organisation operated by volunteers from communities across Northern Ireland.
He is aiming to raise £8,848 – equivalent to the height of Everest – and you can donate on his GoFundMe page.