Bikes of the bunch: Northern Lights-inspired FiftyOne custom carbon build

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The legendarily aggressive and quirky An Post Rás is currently underway in Ireland and one of the most distinctive bikes in the peloton is that of Ronan McLaughlin. The Irishman previously raced with the An Post Chainreaction Sean Kelly team, and came within 200m of winning a stage the last time the event visited his home region of Donegal in 2012.

Irish company FiftyOne Bikes has made a custom carbon fibre frame for McLaughlin which it, and he, hopes will get him across the line first.

At the launch of the 2017 An Post Rás earlier this year I was speaking to another former Irish international, Aidan Duff. He’s got a company, FiftyOne Bikes, which does custom carbon frames. We decided that we were going to do something, to design a bike for me to use in the race.

Over the years I have ridden many different frames from an array of manufacturers. I’ve had Treks, Specializeds, a Look, a Litespeed, Planet Xs, Dolans, Principias, Vitus. Although I loved quite a few of them and still have them, there was always at least one characteristic I didn’t like. For example, too compact, too upright, not light enough, not stiff enough. In one case, nearly all of the above!

The bike I’ve used since 2015 has been a Pinarello F8. I really thought when buying it that this would grant all my wishes. To a certain extent it did; the F8 is a fantastic frame. It is light, stiff and aero but it still had one problem: much like all the other frames I had, I was stuck between sizes. The 56 would be short on the reach. I could go for the next size up, but that would have too much stack.

The FiftyOne gives me absolutely perfect reach and stack and I’m no longer having to compromise on my position. This was the main factor that tempted me to get a FiftyOne. Once I spoke with Aidan and he explained to me that not only could they produce a perfect fitting frame but also one that rode like a dream, I was sold.

When we sat down to go over all the details, he explained what exactly it was that FiftyOne Bikes offered and provided. We discussed everything from frame size, tube width, angle options, to frame weight. Also, exactly how stiff it would be and, of course, possible paint schemes. We discussed which frames I had used previously and what I had liked or disliked about them.

After talking for well over an hour we came up with an ideal that the frame should meet. I wanted the frame to be the stiffest and best-fitting I have ever owned. Also, that it would corner beautifully and accelerate like it had a rocket attached to it. It was a challenging goal to set, but Aidan and all the guys at FiftyOne were extremely confident it could be done.

I actually said to Aidan that I don’t care if it is super-light. I would rather have it stiff and ride well. But he said that a by-product of the way they make is that it is going to be super-stiff, but at the same time it is going to be very light. So I said, “Well, there is no point in making it heavy for no reason. If it is going to be light, happy days!”

In terms of paintjob, there are two main elements to it. The first is a local link to Donegal. When I was full time with the An Post Sean Kelly team, I always came home for my training camps.

I could have gone to Girona, I could have gone to France, I could have gone to Majorca, but I always came home just because I love Donegal so much. In particular Malin Head, which is Ireland’s most northerly point. It has probably featured in my training routes seven or eight times out of ten. It is just so unique. The next stop is either Iceland or America, once you cross the water. Anyway, several times a year you can see the Northern Lights from there.

There is a photographer from Donegal. His name is actually Ronan McLaughlin as well, and he is from my mother’s hometown. He has a photo of the Northern Lights above the castle in Malin Head. I’ve loved that picture for years. When I had the chance to custom-design a bike, I knew that had to be the inspiration.

That is where the real dark background comes from, with the vibrant colours. It appears fluorescent in the pictures, but it is really one of the colours from that Northern Lights picture in Malin Head.

The other element is having the names of many of Ireland’s winners of the An Post Rás on the frame. When Aidan and I were speaking at the launch of the An Post Rás this year, we wanted to have some connection to the race. I had originally thought about perhaps having the stage profiles for each of the stages shown on my bike, but it just wouldn’t have worked as well. And it would only have been relevant for this year.

Instead, Aidan came up with the idea of maybe adding to my inspiration for this year’s race by having the names of previous Irish Rás winners on there. There are really some legends in there. There is Brian Connaughton, there is Tommy Evans, there is Ciaran Power. David McCann. Stephen Gallagher. All the real legendary cycling names.

To be honest, when he first put the idea across I felt really uneasy about it. I thought that people might think that I am trying to join this list of previous Rás winners. I think that everybody knows that my goal for the Rás is a stage win, not the overall win.

It is not about me joining that list or thinking I am good enough to join that list. It is more about these stars. That really tied in as well … these stars of Irish cycling along with the stars of the Northern Lights. Okay, I know that the Lights are not stars, but the photo that inspired the idea has stars in it.

The net result between both of those elements, the Northern Lights and the names of the previous Rás winners, is that that bike gives me plenty of additional motivation. Many of these were people I looked up to when I was getting into the sport. When I first started in cycling, I ended up on a team with Tommy Evans. And Ciaran Power was at the height of his career. In fact, one of the first races I watched on TV was the Athens Olympics in 2004, where he was in the break all day and then finished 13th in the big sprint.

So to have his name on the bike now is pretty cool. And he is one of the nicest guys in Irish cycling as well. It is very motivating.

So how did it all turn out? It rides like a dream, just like Aidan promised it would. I was never the most gifted descender but this FiftyOne has given me back a cornering and bike-handling ability I had lost in recent years through lack of confidence in the bikes I was using.

Custom or handmade bikes are often described as made-to-measure/order or “made for me” but this bike feels like it is me. The only way I can describe it is that the frame is able to communicate to me what it is doing to smooth out the road below me. I have the feeling that the bike owns the piece of road it is rolling over, and that no matter what I throw at it, no matter what corner I throw it into, the frame comes back and asks me “Is that all you’ve got?”

It accelerates incredibly when I jump out of the saddle. It almost has me telling myself “Maybe I can sprint after all”.

And finally, the pride and pleasure it gives me to ride a bike with such an incredible paint job is unmeasurable. To know that not only is it a one-off paint job but it is also so fabulously done is something that I can’t help but tell everyone about. You can call me a show off, but I’m not ashamed to admit it when it comes to this beauty. It really is my pride and joy.

In fact, there’s only thing I’d change about all this if I could: to have got this frame last year instead of this year.


Frame: FiftyOne custom carbon frame
Fork: Columbus FEL fork
Groupset: SRAM Etap groupset
Stem: 3T
Handlebars: ENVE
Seat post: 3T
Wheelset: Enve SES
Saddle: Fizik Aliante

(Note: Ronan switched to a Campagnolo build for the An Post Rás)

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