It is mid-afternoon when Ryan Mullen (An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles) crosses the threshold of a hotel in Calpe, southern Spain, and while the 20-year-old would struggle to look other than fresh, the toll taken by a 16-hour flight from Colombia and by the track World Cup in Cali appears to have taken its toll.
He offers a smile and a handshake, but advancing to his hotel room and bed is clearly top of his agenda. Notable, however, is that even in his jet-lagged state, Mullen looks entirely at home in a lobby populated with riders from professional cycling’s top tier. Even compared to the employees of Astana and Katusha, the Irish rider looks lean. Cycling’s laws of natural selection tend to favour the diminutive, but Mullen’s broad-shouldered athleticism might have offered him a choice of sports in which to excel.
A training camp in Calpe has been no holiday for Mullen, who arrived in southern Spain on a direct flight from Colombia and the Cali round of the track World Cup. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-CRC
There is little question that he is an exceptional talent. The espoir who last year became Irish road race champion as a teenager, and who was pipped by the narrowest of margins to the world U23 time trial title, is preparing for a second season with the highly-regarded UCI Continental squad run by Sean Kelly and Kurt Bogaerts. He will combine the biggest races in Britain with some of the more established events on the UCI EuropeTour calendar, as well as undertaking track assignments for Cycling Ireland, the next of which is the world championships in Paris.
Leading the life
“I go straight from the world championships to a training camp in Gran Canaria, and I’ve got two weeks there before coming back for the early season stuff with Kurt.” Mullen reels off his coming engagements in a matter of fact tone at odds with his compartive inexperience and youth. He is serious about his calling, rather than awed by it.
If the schedule of international competition and overseas training camps seems glamorous, then Mullen is under no illusion about the scale of the challenge faced by a young rider trying to reach the sport’s pinnacle, even now. The pathway offered to the young cyclist is now infinitely more structured than when the man at the head of Mullen’s team was summoned from rural Ireland to the sport’s top-tier, but the rider concedes that graduation to the highest level is a lottery. Fortune remains a significant part of the equation, and last year, he concedes, luck was on his side.
Mullen will try to do justice to the jersey of Irish road race champion, despite his relative inexperience. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-CRC
Mullen does not subscribe to a view shared by many of his competitors in Continental teams that he is already a professional cyclist. Cycling is his full-time job, but a hard one, and not well paid, even with backing from the Irish federation. No one dreams of becoming a Continental rider, he says, bluntly; no one dreams of racing in Belgium in the freezing February rain for scant financial reward.
He has lost contact with many of his school friends and off-season reunions in coffee shops sometimes promote incomprehension among those with whom he is still in touch. “You get into the whole cycling bubble where you really want to try and make it, and people think you’re weird because of that. Like when I go home, and I get asked to go to Costa or something, everyone’s there drinking hot chocolate and eating buns, and I’m drinking a green tea. And they ask, why are you doing that? You get a bit of stick for it, but you have a goal in your head that you want to achieve.”
Talking to Mullen, it is easy to forget that he is twenty. Many of his contemporaries are at university, a path he could have followed, were it not for the consuming ambition of becoming a professional cyclist. He had gained a place at the University of Central Lancashire to study business and marketing, but cycling offered greater appeal. “When the university course started, I was in Valkenburg for the 2012 worlds, and I thought, where would you rather be: in a lecture with a hangover, or on the start ramp of a junior ITT championships? Two months later I had a contract with IG-Sigma Sport for the 2013 season.”
After finishing second at the world junior time trial championships in Ponferrada last year, the expectation among many was that he would begin 2015 with a WorldTour team. The man who beat him to gold by less than half-a-second, Campbell Flakemore, is now riding for BMC Racing, and on the day Rouleur speaks to Mullen, has spent much of the second stage of the Tour Down Under in a breakaway with former winner Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Thomas de Gendt (Lotto Soudal).
Mullen is content to spend another season with An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles, and values the support and advice of Sean Kelly, manager Kurt Bogaerts and his team-mates. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-CRC
Mullen does not hide his ambition to move on, the raison d’etre of the Continental rider, but realizes that time is on his side and appreciates the support of his current employers. “It would have been pretty easy to lose my way: move on straight away, spend a year getting my arse kicked by the likes of Nibali on a climb, and not fulfill any potential that I hope I have.”
He values the professionalism of An Post-CRC, that it is English-speaking, and that many of his team-mates are friends, as well as riders who share his ambition. He describes Kelly’s advice as “life coaching” and essential to learning how to live as a professional cyclist. Asked to describe the influence of team manager Bogaerts, and he is candid. “If it wasn’t for Kurt, I wouldn’t have won the nationals last year,” he admits. “He was the guy behind the tactics for the whole race.”
Victory in the Irish road race championships is the greatest of his career to date. The jersey, however, brings responsibility and expectation, as well as prestige. “When I won the jersey, I was so happy, and at the same time I was thinking, I’m now up there with the likes of Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche, and I can’t ride a bike like they can, so how am I going to justify wearing a national champion’s jersey in the Tour of Britain?”
Mullen did himself and the jersey proud at the British national tour, finishing seventh in the final stage time trial, one place behind Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step), who would be crowned world road race champion a week later, and one place ahead of Commonwealth Games TT champion, Alex Dowsett (Movistar). He is realistic, rather than self-effacing. He does not lack confidence, but is keenly aware of the struggle to reach the top, even for a rider so obviously gifted.
Learning the trade
There is nothing starry-eyed about Mullen’s outlook. He is an apprentice, learning a trade, one who makes mistakes and values opportunities to improve. The Tour of Britain was a week-long lesson, he admits; the WorldTour riders with whom he shared the road, his tutors. He noted chiefly their economy of effort, the skill which with they rationed their time at the head of the bunch.
Mullen receives instruction from sports director, Niko Eeckhout. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-CRC
Taken in this context, Mullen’s comments can be judged as sincere. The setting is important, too: we have just left a dining room shared with Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, and Joaquim Rodriguez in search of a quieter environment. “Probably, if I went looking for them, I could have moved on to a bigger team, but I’m in no rush. I only turned 20 in August.”
For another year at least, Mullen will divide his time between duties with An Post-CRC and Cycling Ireland. He was fourth at the world championships in the under-23 individual pursuit last year, and hopes to improve. The Irish federation is developing too, but there remains a significant gap to British Cycling, in Mullen's estimation. He has ridden the team pursuit since last summer; each member of the youthful squad sent by Team GB to Cali, having already qualified, would have ridden the event since they were 14, Mullen calculates. “They’re seven or eight years ahead of us and they were still the youngest team there.” Rio 2016 is a possibility for the Irish team, but Tokyo in 2020 is its main focus.
Japan is a long way from Calpe, and the Olympic Games and the infinitely controlled environment of the velodrome a far cry from the Nations Cups in which Mullen will attempt to show himself again this year. “Everyone wants to kill each other to win, because you know anyone who wins a Nations Cup will get a pro contract,” he says. “It’s just how it is. The Nations Cups are pretty much under-23 world championships every single race.” The vast differences in quality and experience between those at the head of the pack and those chasing back on make crashes an inevitability and the races a lottery.
The new season will bring the track World Championship with Ireland and UCI EuropeTour engagements with An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles for Mullen. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-CRC
If Mullen is to fulfill his potential, then this is the school in which he must continue to learn. Asked what type of rider he sees himself becoming, he remains realistic. “I don’t think I’m ever going to win the Tour de France, so I can scratch Grand Tour contender from my list,” he smiles. He is keen to retain his prowess in the time trials; the innate power of the ‘tester’ could be the bedrock on which he builds his career. He dreams of becoming a rider like Fabian Cancellara or Tony Martin (Grand Tour ITT winners have “rock star status”, he laughs) but offers Dylan Van Baarle (Cannondale-Garmin) as a more realistic yardstick: a strong all-rounder, tactically aware, and, at 22, already a winner of the Tour of Britain.
He does not discount joining a Pro Continental team as a means of advancement, citing the progression of former team-mate Sam Bennett to Bora-Argon 18 and IAM Cycling’s graduation to the WorldTour. For now, however, he will continue to ply his trade with a Continental team with a fine reputation for developing young talent and which has in recent years passed on the likes of Andy Fenn (Team Sky) to the top tier.
“I’ve got to step up my game a bit and do the jersey proud, if I can,” Mullen says. "That’s probably going to be a really tall order in some of the races I’m riding, but if I can do anything to show off the jersey before June, I’ll do my best.”
It is a garment that has gained him Tweets of congratulation from its previous owners and the time when Mullen is rolling out with the likes of Martin and Roche may not be far away. “Once you get to that level, everyone knows everybody,” he says of the tier in which he hopes to ply his trade. “Hopefully, one day I’ll be ringing up Dan [Martin] and asking if he wants to come training.”