McLaughlin despair after falling short
If there was ever any doubt that this can be the cruellest of sports, the sight of an inconsolable Ronan McLaughlin collapsing in tears at the end of stage 3 of the An Post Ras in Bundoran yesterday hammered home the point.
The 24-year-old An Post team member had been involved in one of the numerous crashes the previous day, but had ridden superbly to get himself back into contention only to later break his back wheel and lose over three minutes by Tuesday's finish.
Undeterred by this misfortune, the affable McLaughlin turned up at the start yesterday in an aerodynamic skinsuit, a helmet with all of the vents sealed and a pair of overshoes. It was clear he meant business and, armed with as much aerodynamic technology as possible, he set about attacking the race.
After a ferocious start to the day's proceedings, the peloton had already split in two by Castlebar, just 13km into the stage, and with incessant attacks going off the front only to be reeled in again, it took the youngster from Muff over 10 attempts before he finally went clear to build up a lead of 20 seconds by Tubbercurry after 66km.
"I got into maybe 10 or 12 moves in the first 50km or 60km and couldn't get away," said McLaughlin. "Then I got into a group with Peter Hawkins (Sigma Sport) and just as we were getting caught, I went again and got a gap. I told myself that if I had a minute at the first time check, I'd keep going. At the time check I had 40 seconds to two guys and I think two minutes to the bunch, so I thought: 'I have to give it everything here'."
Despite still having over halfway to go on the stage, McLaughlin stuck to the plan and made the most of the strong tailwind, hitting 75kph on some sections as he used the full width of the road to try and eke out every possible advantage on the chasers.
Although mountains leader Sondre Hurum of Norway and British rider Chris Jennings of Rapha Condor got to within 29 seconds of the An Post man, the duo eventually faded back towards the peloton, who were over two minutes in arrears by Ballinacarrow after 81km.
Almost 20km later in Sligo, a storming McLaughlin had opened up a gap of a minute on the two chasers, as Olympic hopeful Martyn Irvine (RTS Racing) tried to bridge across to the duo and the peloton lost further ground, drifting back to three minutes.
By Grange though, with around 25km left in the 135km stage, all of the chasers had been caught and McLaughlin found himself in a man-versus-peloton battle to stay away. In the final kilometres, everything went against him as he raced towards his family, who were at the finish in Bundoran.
The wind that had favoured him in the earlier part of the stage now blew in his face and with no shelter to be found on the open road, every small drag began to feel like a mountain as his almost 70km lone attack began to eat into his last reserves.
Behind him, the peloton were fresh, and with the sprinters smelling a last chance of stage victory before the race hits the mountains today, McLaughlin began to lose time hand over fist and it was touch and go as he entered the final kilometre with a lead of just 20 seconds as to whether he would take victory.
Alas, it was not to be. The heroic McLaughlin was caught with 100m to go and the stage victory went to the Dane Mark Pedersen.
"When I was 14, me and my family were travelling to Sligo and we had a really bad car crash on that road, just outside Grange," said McLaughlin, his face caked in salt and his eyes still tear-filled from a lifelong dream of a Ras stage victory shattered.
"Going past there today gave me extra motivation. I said to myself that if I could survive that, then I could survive to the finish. Coming in the road it was so hard to keep going. I kept convincing myself to sprint once more, attack once more. I did 10 of the hardest sprints I've ever done in my life in the final kilometre, but with 200m to go, I couldn't even get out of the saddle. I had nothing left."
As the crowd that had willed him home for the final 5km let out a collective gasp, McLaughlin could only watch as Pedersen and the rest of the peloton ripped stage victory out of his hands in the final metres. Dead on his bike, his momentum was enough to give him 10th on the stage before he fell to the ground, shattered, after the line.
As Pirmin Lang held on to yellow and Marcin Bialablocki, second on yesterday's stage, took over in the green jersey, McLaughlin received the loudest cheer of the day when he was awarded the most courageous rider award on the podium afterwards.
Although he is heading towards Buncrana tomorrow, the town where he went to school and where his father was born, McLaughlin knows it will take a few days to recover from his epic ride yesterday.
"The legs should be sore tomorrow, maybe by Friday they should be alright again," he said, his eyes welling up again. "I'll never give up trying, but I can't really accept that, being caught with 100m to go. That's going to take a long time to get over."