A few of my favourite things 2023: Ronan Mc Laughlin

Performance and a hint of practicality.

Ronan Mc Laughlin
by Ronan Mc Laughlin 15.12.2023 Photography by
Ronan Mc Laughlin and Toby Watson
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It’s a good thing our favourite things lists are not gift guides because apart from a comparatively cheap track crankset (which may, but more likely may not be of any use to the cyclist in your life), and a hi-viz vest hack, most of my list is going to fall well, well, well outside any Secret Santa budget cap. 

My list is a mix of high-performance and, unfortunately, mostly expensive stuff, but, oh my, did I love it all this year. There are three bikes, an indoor trainer which, on paper at least, is a downgrade in almost every way to most of the direct drive offerings, and a whole category of four-figure price tag wheel sets. 

That said, there is one gift idea chucked in right at the end, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better gift for that cyclist in your life this year. 

The photo shows Ronan Mc Laughlin cornering on a Domane SLR in a road race.

Trek Domane SLR Gen 3

Believe it or not, first up is a aero- and weight-compromised endurance bike. Not exactly in keeping with my modus operandi, but in the past 18 months, this Gen 3 Domane has been everything from a road race bike in Belgian Kermesse and elite Irish racing, to a gravel bike, to a winter bike. In fact, the only thing it hasn’t been for me is an endurance bike. However, a friend did ride the Challenge Roubaix Sportif on it. 

Now, I’m not saying I absolutely loved it for each of those use cases, nor is it my first choice for any of those activities, but what I do love is its versatility. As mentioned several times, I am aware of the luxury position we tech writers enjoy. We get to ride and test countless bikes and kit. But if I could only have just one bike of all the bikes I’ve ridden over the past few years that had to see me through all my riding, I’d be hard-pressed to look past the Domane. 

It raced well (read: my legs let the bike down), it has clearance for 40 mm gravel rubber, it has proper mudguard eyelets, and it’s got a form of externally hidden and internal hose routing that allows for the various stem changes required to run those different setups without disconnecting re-bleeding brakes. Being a nerd, I especially love the hidden down tube storage and the box of tricks I can hide in there; I’m not wishing someone has a mechanical, but rather hoping to one day save someone from a taxi ride home if some version of “the worst” should happen. 

It’s currently set up as a “winter bike” complete with full-length mudguards, yet still offers clearance for 35 mm tyres, and ‘wide” 42 cm 3T Ergonova bars (drag = reduced speed = decreased wind chill in winter). But come the weekend, it could be ready to roll as a gravel bike. 

That said, I am keen to swap the Red AXS groupset for a Rival AXS equivalent; Irish winters and salted roads are just too harsh to justify the most premium components. 

Of course, it’s not the lightest nor nimblest bike in the fleet right now, and the IsoSpeed decouplers in the head tube have proven a pain on more than one occasion, but I still love you, Domane. I especially love the 80 mm bottom bracket drop, something I hope (but don’t expect) we will see more of in the future as rider-selected crank lengths trend down. 

I’ve thought long and hard about whether I’d like to upgrade to the Gen 4 Domane and/or the RSL  geometry. It’s lighter, but it drops the IsoSpeed decouplers. Yes, they’ve been a pain, but they do also work. Undoubtedly, the RSL geometry speaks to my racing soul, but it loses the down tube storage and fender eyelets, not to mention a chunk of the tyre clearance. Truth be told, I’m still not sure. What I am sure of is that there is no “quiver killer”, or “one-bike-to-rule-them-all” – there is always a compromise. Compromises accepted, this “old” Domane does a damn fine job.  

Price – US $3,719 / £4,150 / €3,800 / AU $NA (frame and fork)

The photo shows the new BMC TeamMachine R

BMC Teammachine R 01 LTD

On the theme of speaking to my racing soul, the new BMC Teammachine R sits at the opposite end of the versatility spectrum to the Domane. The ‘R is a thoroughbred race bike, designed to race and go fast with zero compromises for any added versatility. It was, without doubt, my race bike of the year in 2023 and a bike reflective of what is possible in this day and age: lightweight and aero-optimised, rather than a blend of each compromising both. 

To be clear, the R is not a weight-weenie sub-6 kg special, but it is as light as many of the “aero-lite,” do-it-all bikes of recent times, and also ticks many of the aero boxes where most of those bikes usually miss at least one, such as the deep and narrow head tube, narrow bars, hidden dropouts, deep bottom bracket, and profiled, rear wheel-hugging seat tube to name but a few.

It’s not all perfect; I’m not a huge fan of drop flare that also flares the levers (although, perhaps it does now make more sense in light of recent UCI rule updates), I do wish BMC had made the front derailleur mount removable, the tyre clearance and PF bottom bracket will prove stumbling blocks for some, and oh boy, that pricing! (It starts at $9,200 complete.) But it’s otherwise close enough to perfect for me to live with those few issues. I’m still hoping Santa squeezes one down the chimney, and, truth be told, I’ve spent way too much time thinking about having my wicked optimising way with the new TeamMachine chassis. 

Price – US $15,000 / £NA / €15,000 / AU $NA

The photo shows Elite's Nero Smart Rollers

Elite Nero Smart Rollers

I’ve a love-hate relationship with indoor training. Most of the time I hate it, but I often find myself growing to love its efficiency during bad-weather periods of prolonged (and enforced) indoor riding. It’ll take me a few days to accept I need to head indoors, but a few structured sessions later, I’ll be struggling to find the motivation to deal with the challenges of structured training on the open roads when the weather does improve. Evidently, I am a habitual creature: if I’ve been training outdoors, I’ll tend more towards outdoors and vice versa. 

One thing I’ve been loving for those indoor rides this year is these interactive/smart rollers from Elite. Having been around for a few years, the rollers are not new. They offer interactive resistance control from your indoor training app of choice in the traditional, concentration-requiring, skill-developing, and unrestricted movement that only rollers can offer. Truth be told, if you want to do truly full-gas sprints or even just have an accurate power meter these rollers are probably not for you. But if you want to add a skill-based element to your indoor training and maintain or develop your fitness, leg speed, pedalling fluidity, bike handling skills, and power production in unison, without building a velodrome in the back yard, then rollers are unequivocally the answer. The Nero rollers combine that with ERG mode and interactive resistance with a built-in flywheel capable of simulating gradients up to 7%. 

Better yet, they’ve two bands driving the front drum for smoother and more durable transfer from the rear, Elite has also included its “floating system” offering some back-and-forth movement, especially when out of the saddle, and of course, there’s none of the rear wheel-replacing or trainer-mounting faff of a direct drive setup. Still, though, it’s the skill demand I think is the biggest value. 

That said, they are not perfect. Again, I wouldn’t put much faith in the power meter, but I only ever use an on-bike power meter for indoor workouts anyway. They are not the quietest, the step is too low and too far forward to be of much use getting on and off, and they can prove a little choppy when using the smaller gears and lower intensity on steeper virtual climbs. 

Nevertheless, in an age when training is almost entirely physiology-based, and racing ability is all too often decided on an acid test of “what’s your w:kg?” I dare say riders, coaches, selectors, and governing bodies could benefit from the added stresses and skills from riding the rollers. Heck, I’d go as far as to suggest top-tier virtual racing could benefit and probably prove a much better spectacle with visibly identifiable skills if it was all on smart rollers. 

Rollers for the win! 

Price – £749 (available in other territories by distributor)

The photo shows Miche Pistard Air cranks with a Pyramid Cycle Design chainring.

Miche Pistard Air crankset and Pyramid Cycle Design chainrings 

These cranks are heavy! That, plus the narrower chain line and a 144 BCD, mean they are not exactly road bike-friendly. But what they lack in road compatibility, I’m going to guess they more than make up in aero gains. Combined with the supremely stiff and excellent chain retention characteristics of the Pyramid Cycle Design chainring, not to mention the claimed aero gain from a better chain-to-chainring transition, and you have a setup that will have many riders beat on the start line. 

The crank and chainring combo was, without a doubt, my favourite aspect of the optimised Cannondale SuperSix build we published last week. Yes, running this setup was only made possible by the Classified Powershift two-speed hub, and as such, the Classified very nearly made it onto this list for this specific use case (and also for making a race-ready TT setup much more training compatible), but ultimately, the Pistard Air cranks have seen much more use. From that Ras bike, to my end-to-end record to local time trials, the cranks were my go-to aero setup. I might yet try them with a smaller chainring on that Domane for an aero gravel setup (compatibility-dependent). Best of all, at the £225 I paid for these cranks, I could theoretically have two or three sets of these for the price of one Shimano or SRAM crank and still have change left over.  

Price – US $NA / €266 / AU $NA

The photo shows a group of deep rim carbon wheelsets.
Family photo – Christmas 2023

Deep wheels 

Less of a product and more a category, deep wheels may be disappearing at the World Tour level, but they’ve remained a firm favourite of mine in 2023. In fact, with some top-tier offerings now tipping into the sub-1,300 gram claimed weight category and cross-wind stability improving all the time, there could be a sudden about-turn in the deeper rims representation within the pro peloton.  

Personally, I’ve had the luxury of trying quite a few 60+ mm rims this year. Zipp 858 NSWs, Parcours Chrono 68/75, DT Swiss ARC 1100 62, Hunt 60 Limitless, Craft Racing Works (CRW) 5060, and the new benchmark in my book, the Syncros Capital SL Aero. 

The CRWs and the Syncros are very late additions to this list, with just a couple of rides on each wheel set so far, but both have already won my love. The Capital SL’s stats are just mind-boggling, with 60 mm-deep front and rear rims with 23 and 25 mm internal widths and 32 and 33 mm external widths, all coming in at a claimed 1,290 grams.  

The CRWs, with a 50 mm deep, 25 internal / 34 external-width front rim paired with a 60 mm deep, 21 internal / 29 external at the rear and tipping the scales at a claimed 1,290 grams and retailing at $1,680 are equally mind-boggling. I need more time and rides on these wheels to complete my review and comparisons, but I already don’t want to send them back. 

Better yet, experts suggest that not only are deeper rims better able to harness the sail effect, but the differences in aero properties are reduced with deeper rims, meaning that aside from a weight penalty, chances are that any modern and deep rim is going to get you much of the aero gain.

I find deep rims improve almost any bike. Throw on some deeper hoops, pop yourself into a tailwind, and just feel the smile come across your face.

N.B. I don’t mind deep rims in gusty conditions after “enjoying” my fair share of crosswind and echelon racing in Belgium and the Netherlands; your mileage may vary. 

The photo shows a Tern GSD cargo bike with a kid on the back and a kids bike strapped to the front rack.

Tern GSD S10 LR

So far my list has almost entirely been performance-focused, the one exception being that Domane, and part of what I liked about that was the performance option it hides within its “endurance” tag. 

The Tern GSD is about as far from a performance road bike as one can get on the tarmac, but in the single week I had the bike, it left a lasting impact on our household. This is the only bike, ever, that my five-year-old daughter was distraught to see leave; she still regularly asks, “When’s the big bike coming back, Daddy?” or “When can we get a big bike, Daddy?” 

I’d personally prefer a “bucket-bike” (cargo box at the front) and wasn’t really considering a small-wheeled long-tail cargo bike until I tried the Tern. That said, the GSD has proven the cargo bike concept in our house. The school run turned into something my daughter couldn’t wait to do, rather than the battle to get out the door it usually is every morning. Going to the shops became a fun experience for both of us rather than a chore, andlong- it carried us to football and other places also. 

The love here is much more about the fun and memorable times the Tern gave us that would otherwise have been a forgettable car journey than the actual bike. But the Tern’s sheltered and fun kids’ space at the rear has also left a long-term impression on my daughter. She’ll now regularly comment on how “there was no traffic jam on the big bike” as we sit, contributing to said traffic on the trips that, for that one week, we’d whizzed by on the Tern.

Price: from US $5,000 / £5,100 / €6,200 / AU $7,995

The image shows Albion's Visibility Cargo Vest

Albion Visibility Cargo Vest

Ok, this all started with a DIY hack attempt at improving the visibility of Assos’ black Johdah jacket. There wasn’t much to it. I love the Assos Johdah jacket, but its dark colours make me reluctant to use it on the roads given it’s usually pretty dark here when conditions are cold enough for the Johdah. In a bid to improve visibility while retaining the Johdah’s performance properties (read – I didn’t want to add a full hi-viz vest layer), I picked out my worst-fitting hi-viz vest, chopped it up, and safety pinned some of the reflective panels to the pockets of the Johdah. Voila! Performance maintained, visibility improved. 

Then, having posted my Johdah hack on Instagram, I was made aware of and eventually reviewed the Albion Visibility Cargo vest. I’ve used the vest on practically every ride since, and it has meant I get much more use out of many of the darker items in my kit collection that, previously, I wouldn’t have been confident wearing on the road.

But, to be clear, it’s not just the visibility I love about the Cargo vest. It’s equally the additional, easy-to-reach carrying capacity the pockets offer and the fact it’s barely not even noticeable when riding.

Price – US $170 / £125 / €180 / AU $270

Escape Collective members-only Discord

Ok, not specifically Discord, but the Escape Collective members-only Discord. In fact, I can’t profess to loving Discord all that much at all, but what I do love is the community of Escapees in our Escape Collective server. As I often say … “it’s like the internet without the sh1t.”

There are dedicated channels for all manner of things, from general racing to tech news and from learning Flemish/Dutch to dedicated Performance Process and Aero/TT channels where you’ll find like-minded and aero-curious riders aplenty, along with aerodynamicists, industry experts, even World Champions to answer those curiosities. And of course, myself probably creating more questions than I am answering. 

Ever get fed up with the crap on Twitter, or the snarky-sh1ty responses on forums? How about the general f#*k you tone that now occupies most of the internet? Our Discord channels are the opposite. You can ask questions or make a comment and get a genuine and considered response from a fellow cyclist in return. Heck, you can even find a how-to-guide on everything from homemade carbon fibre shoes to practically anything 3D printed and cycling related. 

I am not overstating it when I say there have been times after a ride full of particularly close passes or the latest wave of bullsh1t on the evening news that I feel our Discord has restored my faith in humanity. 

How does one access this cycling interweb nirvana? Well, it’s just one of the benefits of becoming an Insider-level member of Escape Collective, alongside full access to all our written and podcasting content, commenting rights, newsletters, and merch access. Still searching for that Christmas gift for a cyclist, give them the gift of escapism … but only if they are nice 🙂 

PS – your gift also helps keep the lights on over here so we can continue to bring you more Escape content the Escape way for years to come. 

Price: US $12 (monthly) / $99 (annual)

This is the last of our Favourite Things series for this year – head here to discover the others. Thanks for reading!

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