Some said it couldn’t be conquered, not so fast anyway, but Irish rider Ronan McLaughlin has broken the world record for the fastest ascent on a bicycle up the height of Mount Everest.
In the increasingly popular global challenge known as Everesting, the 33 year-old McLaughlin returned to the famed Mamore Gap in his native Dongeal on Thursday afternoon, and completed the 8,848 metres, 29,029 feet in old money, that being the height of Mount Everest, in an astonishing seven hours and four minutes.
This bettered by more than 20 seconds the existing world record set earlier this month by former Spanish professional and seven-time Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador, who reached his 8,848m on the Navapelegrin climb north of Madrid in seven hours and 27 minutes.
McLaughlin’s effort also came just two and a half weeks after he took the Irish record down to eight hours and nine minutes, at that stage still a fair bit short of Contador’s effort, although still the fifth fastest on record according to the Hells 500 website, the official custodians of the Everesting concept, who ratified McLaughlin’s best mark on Friday morning.
This time McLaughlin focused on a shorter section of the Mamore climb, reducing his recovery time, but forcing the body into an increasing state of oxygen debt: riding up 80 and a bit times, this meant averaging uphill gradient of 14 per cent, cutting 35 km from the total distance, as he reached the 8,848m in a distance of 123km, compared to the 158km of his first attempt.
The former Irish international, who raced the 2012 Road World Championships alongside Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche, and rode for six years with the Continental-level An Post/Sean Kelly/Chain Reaction, is now based in Derry, where he works full-time in cycling coaching, while still racing in domestic events.
"I'm feeling quite good, so must be still running off some adrenaline," McLaughlin told The Irish Times on Friday morning. "The first attempt went far better than I could have imagined, I got through it a lot better than I thought I would, didn't have that dreaded on-your-knees at the end, and being just nine minutes off the eight hour mark, I suppose within 24 hours I was thinking what I could do better to go under eight hours.
“I hadn’t planned on going again so soon, I half-decided on the Wednesday evening, when the weather looked good, and decided for certain on Thursday morning. Much like the first time, the weather plays a big part, and if you miss an opportunity, you could be a long time waiting for the next. So I decided to take my chance, rather than sit at home looking out the window with no chance.”
Unlike the 7am start of his first attempt, he set off around 2.15pm on Thursday: “That was decided by the weather. There was torrential rain all morning, which was set to stop around 1pm, but it was still raining, then it stopped within an hour, and totally cleared up.
“Going for a steeper section, I’d nothing to lose, knowing I already had a good time, so I said let’s throw some caution to the wind. I had to do more laps, but cut the distance. Certainly, the first time, I was relatively comfortable for three-quarters, I started to feel it from the second hour on Thursday, with so little recovery time, the descent only being 40 seconds, then straight back into another five-minute climb. But whatever it is about me, I’m better at labouring over the steeper gradient, although it is much more painful.”
Toppling Contador’s record certainly brings McLaughlin into a new cycling realm: “I don’t think anyone on the planet ever expected that, our names written around a world record like that. It’s crazy, but looking at Contador’s time, I reckoned he left a few things on the table that I might to be able to make up, apply a bit more science to bike, and turns out it worked.”
Which must now make the seven-hour barrier look tempting? “I’m trying really hard not to think about that, and I’ve been writing down on paper just how horrible that was, so I’m not tempted to go again. I know it’s so close to six hours 59, and you think if the ascent had been dry the whole time, that could have shaved a few minutes off. Just maybe not five minutes. But I’ve just broken Alberto Contador’s record, no record last forever, and I’m just happy I’ve had it at some stage. Never say never, but I genuinely think that will be my last blast at it. Knowing when you’ve pushed it enough is sometimes a good thing.”
This virtual replica of riding a bicycle uphill for 8,848m, (maybe a little over just to be sure), preferably on a very steep mountain side, must be done in one reasonable effort and properly recorded on Strava to count as an Everesting, the term now given to any attempt to ride up what Edmund Hillary first climbed up back in May 1953.
At the time of writing, 9,813 riders, from 96 countries, including 66 from Ireland, have succeeded in their Everesting attempt. The rules are devilishly simple, and brutally hard: find a single hill, climb, and repeat until you've reached your summit of 8,848m in total elevation gain. Short recovery and toilet breaks are allowed, but no sleeping, no doping, and no real cheating either, except on yourself.
McLaughlin admitting he’d first been eying up the record since the lockdown as a way to stay motivated, and also raise some funds for the Community Rescue Service, a volunteer-run charitable search and rescue service operating across Northern Ireland. The target there is to reach £8,848.
Prior to McLaughlin’s first Everesting effort, Diarmuid Kavanagh broke the then existing Irish record, the Wicklow rider completing 36 ascents of the local climb at Slieve Mann, in 10 hours and 42 minutes, only that didn’t last 24 hours.
For now however McLaughlin is out there on his own: Contador's record beat the seven hours and 29 minutes set in June by Lachlan Morton, who rides professionally with the EF Pro Cycling, his time set on the short Rist Canyon climb outside Fort Collins, Colorado.
A new record is there to be conquered again.