Multi-discipline cyclist Peta Mullens: Always avoiding the sheep line

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If the era of the female tri-discipline cyclist is on the wane, it seems no one told Peta Mullens. It’s been another year of switching bikes, squeezing in the discipline-specific preparation if there is time, and winging it if there isn’t.

The tail-end of this year, in particular, has to be one of Mullens’ most impressive cycling discipline juggles yet. For a second year she added cyclocross to her road and mountain bike racing. The difference this year was that she got the success in the muddy discipline she has been chasing.

Mullens came straight off four months of pulling podiums on the road crit circuit in the United States – 28 podiums to be exact – and made up for her unusually long absence from the dirt with gusto. Just a week after arriving home, in August Mullens pulled on the green and gold jersey of Australia’s national cyclocross champion, even though she’d only had the chance to ride her cyclocross bike twice since her short race stint last season.

Then, after adding the elite national championship jersey from a third cycling discipline to her collection, she launched back into racing the fat tyres in September. Mullens started with nothing less than a home country World Mountain Bike Championships on the technically challenging Cairns course.

It’s a hectic existence without doubt. It’s impressive to fit it all in, let alone with such success. Mullens has managed to earn at least one national title every year for six years in a row. Plus throw in the fact that even though women’s road cycling isn’t exactly the most lucrative career option, mountain biking is even less fiscally rewarding. That also means the 29-year-old needs to squeeze in some time working off the bike to make ends meet.

The first time I interviewed Mullens, just after she had won the Australian Road Championships in 2015, she was scheduling a time to chat around working night shift in a factory. This time, she was obligingly trying to squeeze in an interview on a day where she was spending three hours in the car driving from home in Bendigo to a race in Melbourne. But winning Australia’s first international cyclocross race that day wasn’t all that was on the agenda – she had to get back after the race to fit in some night time kitchen renovations as well. Additionally, Mullens is a cycling coach.

Even without the additional commitments, multi-discipline cyclists can have a habit of burning out. Both Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot have pulled back to two disciplines after taking time out with health problems. In fact, in previous years Mullens has suffered too, and is adamant that juggling three disciplines is just an impossible ask at the top world level. However, with careful management and support she can pull off being at or near the top in Australia, but it’s not easy.

So why keep up the hectic pace? Wouldn’t it be easier to pick one discipline and stick to it?

Mullens has tried it that way, beginning on the track and then working her way through a traditional road pathway with the Australian Institute of Sport.  The single-minded approach was one that left her falling out of love with cycling and walking away. It was only when she took up mountain biking that her passion was reignited. Then she set about finding her own path to a career as a cyclist rather than trying to take a well worn one.

“In mountain biking we would call it the sheep line,” Mullens told Ella CyclingTips. “It’s the most obvious line, it’s the most common line, but sometimes there’s a better line and a faster line that’s a little bit obscure.

“I think there are different pathways for everybody,” said Mullens, adding that it can take guts to deviate from the sheep line. “But you end up in the same place and sometimes you can end up in a better place.”

Peta Mullens after winning the 2015 Australian Road Championships.

The snog, marry, avoid of cycling disciplines

For Mullens that better place seems to be finding a mix that keeps her enjoyment up; that way motivation and results follow. But just because Mullens is revelling in, and delivering success across the disciplines, doesn’t mean they each have the same hold on her. She explains this by sharing a discussion she had with her Focus Attaquer cyclocross teammates, a conversation in which she was asked what her Snog, Marry, Avoid list would look like if she applied it to her cycling disciplines.

“I would probably have to marry road. It maybe is not as exciting, but it’s still my go-to. Mountain biking I would kiss — it once again comes back to the excitement factor. And then I would probably have to avoid cyclocross,” Mullens said with a shrug of the shoulders. “Because it’s the only other option.”

Fortunately for Aussie fans of the muddy winter sport, she’s not very good at avoiding. It’s unlikely she’ll head off to take on the sport’s top races in Europe though. She is rather frank about how much extra work she would need to put into her cyclocross-specific technical skills to compete at the top world level. She could rely on her phenomenal power, mountain biking skills and competitive spirit to capture the Australian national jersey but being competitive in Europe would require far more.

Plus Mullens isn’t a fan of the wintery weather that goes hand-in-hand with cyclocross, which was well and truly on display when she spoke to Ella CyclingTips on the sidelines of the Melbourne Grand Prix of Cyclocross. We sat huddled under a marquee hoping the hail experienced in the early races wouldn’t return.

Most importantly the discipline just hasn’t captured her imagination, not for the moment anyway. “I haven’t completely fallen in love with the sport yet but I definitely have fallen in love with the people and the atmosphere. So we’ll see where that takes me.”

On the way to wining Australia’s first international CX race, The Airport Toyota Melbourne Grand Prix of Cyclocross. Photo: Ernesto Arriagada

Commonwealth Games

It’s no surprise that Mullens named mountain biking as her “snog” discipline. It is what helped bring her back to cycling and in past years she’s spent plenty of time overseas on the World Cup circuit.

“I adore the mountain bike,” said Mullens, speaking of how good it was to get back on the fat tyres after five months racing on the road in the US. “I was sore from smiling because I was so excited. I could never give it away – it’s not necessarily the racing side of mountain biking that I’m holding on to, it is more the enjoyment side.”

It’s also the discipline that holds her big aim for 2018 – the Commonwealth Games in Queensland in April. Mullens missed selection for the Rio Olympics, as Australia only qualified for one spot and Rebecca Henderson was unquestionably Australia’s strongest female mountain biker last year in the Olympic cross country (XCO) category. For the Commonwealth Games, however, two spots are available. Mullens, as Australia’s second highest finisher in the World Championships this year and highest in 2016, seems a logical choice for that second position.

After the Commonwealth Games, Mullens plans to switch to the road again. In previous years, much of the season has been spent chasing the Mountain Bike World Cup circuit, but after enjoying a short stint in the United States racing crits 2016 she decided to make a bigger commitment to that in 2017. She took on a four month block racing on the road with Hagens Berman Supermint.

Mullens said one of the reasons she made the decision to forgo the World Cups was because her bank account couldn’t stand the drain of another year on the mountain bike circuit. The XCO mountain bike discipline receives little government funding as it isn’t likely to take podiums at either World Championships or Olympics. Commercial sponsorship dollars are also thin on the ground.

The World Cup circuit is off the schedule again for 2018 and the U.S. crit circuit is on it for another year. Whether its for as long or not is still to be determined, as Mullens would also like to spend some time on the road in Europe over the next couple of years. The Victorian is eyeing the Spring Classics — the hope is that if she could deliver some results there, it just may give her a chance of working her way into an Australian team for a Road World Championships.

Road Worlds hopes

One big drawback of being a multi-discipline athlete is that it can make it harder to get a spot in national teams. Selection criteria lean toward those who are focussed on one discipline. Nevertheless she has represented Australia many times at Mountain Bike World Championships and at a Commonwealth Games. No doubt she would have a Cyclocross World Championships berth if she wanted it, but road has proven a tougher nut to crack.

As Mullens has discovered, even having the Australian road champion’s jersey on your back isn’t necessarily enough to give you an in. “The Road World Championships is still something that I’ve never raced and its something I would like to race before I retire,” said Mullens. “I feel like I’m good enough and I just never tick the right boxes in the right years to do it.

“This year in Norway was a really good course for me I thought, but I had not come close to satisfying the selection criteria, especially racing in America,” Mullens explained.

The 2018 climbers course in Austria isn’t one she would target as the mountainous terrain isn’t her thing, but the 2019 Road Worlds course is a different matter. “They’re scheduled to be in Yorkshire and I really like the look of the terrain there. That’s the two-year goal.”

And Mullens is fully aware it won’t be an easy one to achieve.

“I mean, for that to happen I would have to get to Europe and post some results there. So number one would be finding a team that’s flexible enough to take me to Europe. And two would be being able to be in a team where I can be a leader to get results that I need for those races. It’s really tough.”

So tough that a rider that isn’t so used to avoiding the “sheep line” might conclude that the only way to have a shot at achieving selection might be to give up on the dirt disciplines for a year and commit completely to road. But that’s just not the way Mullens functions.

“I just feel like I wouldn’t enjoy cycling if I was to drop mountain bike and the motivation to do any cycling discipline would then be gone,” said Mullens. “So I’m willing to sacrifice, but not that sacrifice.”

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