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Peta Mullens has the Australian road champion’s jersey on her back, a deal with one of the top women’s road teams, Wiggle Honda, and enviable form on the road but that is not enough to make the determined 26-year-old Victorian turn her back on the obstacle-strewn path of mountain biking.
Mullens has delivered a swag of road results in the past three months, starting off with the Melbourne Kermesse Championships, where she beat a field peppered with some of Australia’s top riders even after rushing to the start line from a win at a mountain bike race that morning. She also took out a stage of the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic and second place in the criterium at the Mars Cycling Australia Road National Championships before winning the elite women’s road race.
The bulk of her competitors wrapped up racing at the Santos Women’s Tour on Tuesday. They soon move on to the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. But the summer of road racing is over for the Australian champion, who has shifted back to the winding dirt of the cross country mountain bike tracks. She is immensely proud of the road title, her sixth national title in cycling and fourth since she left the junior ranks, but her main aim is still a berth in the Rio Olympics mountain bike team next year. That means the green and gold stripes of the road champion’s jersey aren’t likely to be out on display in the peloton much this year.
“I think everybody just thought automatically that the road would be the clear pathway and perhaps winning an Australian title might be an indication that Rio on the road might be something for me,” Mullens told CyclingTips. “But at the end of the day, mountain biking is where my heart is and it is where my passion is.”
Mullens raced on the track and then road as a junior, but with her enjoyment waning she decided to take a break from the sport. That is when she developed her passion for mountain biking. Her commitment to the fat-tyred bikes grew, as did her skill, and she took out the Australian Cross Country Marathon Championships in 2012, the Australian Cross Country Championships in 2013 and won the national title in the short and punchy eliminator category in 2014.
Last year’s return to the road in Europe with the Wiggle Honda team wasn’t enough to push her mountain bike aspirations aside. Her dirt schedule still included the Commonwealth Games, World Cup rounds and the Mountain Bike World Championship. The hectic pace took its toll on her performance and health.
“I chose to take on the challenge of trying to do a road season and a mountain bike season combined and I learnt my lesson that it was just too much,” said Mullens. “I think even though winning this national title throws a spanner in the works. I just need to stick to my guns and do what I know is going to work for me.”
“I am certainly not going to push it and end up where I was last year, with glandular fever at the end of the season and come off the back of a bad Commonwealth Games. I’ll just take it step-by-step through the year and if I can fit in some road races, that’s great. If I can’t that’s just unfortunate, but I can still look back on this win for the rest of my life.”
Committing 100% of her time to road racing would be the easier path for Mullens, particularly with a national title and team structure to ease her way.
“There is just so much more support and funding and opportunities with the road team compared to the mountain biking,” said Mullens. She added that as there was no national funding scheme in mountain biking the vast majority of her travel this year would have to be self-funded, though the deal with Wiggle Honda would help ease the burden.
Mullen’s plan for 2015 is to take on the Australian, Oceanian and World Mountain Bike Championships, the Mountain Bike World Cup rounds and perhaps three road races. Mullens also wants to race the Road World Championships and keep the door open for selection on the Australian road team for the Rio Olympics, particularly since her form on the road this summer has shown that her mountain-bike-focused training programme can yield dividends off the dirt.
“I’m not one to ask for anything on a silver platter,” said Mullens. “I always expect the best athletes be selected for World Championships and Olympic Games…but there are four days between the mountain bike and the road at the Olympics and I believe I could do both.”
Mullens is not alone in aiming to represent her country at Rio both on the mountain bike and on the road. Her idol, world road champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, is also targeting a dual berth. Mullens, who was delighted to receive a message from Ferrand-Prevot congratulating on her national road title, would relish the opportunity to line-up alongside the French road, cyclocross and mountain bike champion in both events at Rio. However, it is an ambitious task as there is no easy path to either spot on the Australian team. In fact, even with the sacrifices Mullens is making to concentrate on the mountain bike, it is still going to be incredibly difficult to gain just that one spot.
Australia only qualified one competitor for the women’s cross country mountain bike race at the London Olympics. If that situation was repeated for Rio the reigning Australian cross country mountain bike champion, Rebecca Henderson, would currently have to be the odds on favourite for the single place. Only the top eight nations automatically gain the maximum of two places and Australia is currently in 20th position according to the UCI Olympic qualification ranking published on the UCI website last month. The UCI Olympic qualification ranking period for Rio runs for the two years to May 24, 2016.
“At the end of this year it will be a lot clearer in terms of mountain bike Olympic qualification, whether Australia will qualify one or two spots,” said Mullens. “If I get to that point and it is not looking rosy and I feel that maybe road is a better path, then possibly I may jump across and try that but at the moment I am just going 100% for the mountain bike.”