Poised for a big breakthrough: Mullen’s quest for time trial gold

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‘Study the past if you would define the future.’ – Confucius

If Ryan Mullen is obsessed with time, it’s because of the scars.

In September 2014 he missed out on under 23 world championship TT gold by just 0.48 seconds.

In October 2016 he lost bronze in the elite TT worlds by 11 seconds.

In August 2017 he was third in the European TT championships. His deficit to the gold medal? Just four measly seconds.

It’s a trio of near misses, a hat-trick of what-could-have-beens. Little wonder he spends a lot of time thinking about finding an edge.

Speaking to Mullen in the off-season in Girona, he believes he could be on the verge of a breakthrough. After two years with Cannondale-Drapac, he’s making a change. He has signed a two-season deal with Trek-Segafredo, and he’s feeling upbeat about what that might bring.

“It’ll mean a lot more wins, hopefully,” he said, tucking into food after a training ride. “The equipment will be better. We know I am going to go faster. It is just a case of me working hard over the winter to ensure that I actually do go faster.

“The thing is, the strongest rider doesn’t win time trials any more. It is the guy who has the best equipment, who has the most dialled position. Obviously you have got to be strong, but it is aerodynamics to the forefront now.

“It is a case of working hard on that. I am a big guy, and I don’t really think I can get a lot more aero. So it now comes down to equipment for me. I am pretty confident that I found 15, 20 watts in my equipment for next year.

“When it comes to January,” he adds, smiling, “…warp speed.”

Mullen and his coach Sebastian Weber have worked together for years, and they have an understanding of what will help him go faster. He says that he didn’t have any wind tunnel testing during his time with Cannondale, but believes it will be on the cards with Trek. Aside from that, though, they’ve thought out all the equipment possibilities, including wheels, tyres plus more.

Mullen is convinced that he’s going to gain speed because of his move.

The final proof will come once he’s competing again, but at this point in time he’s confident.

“It’s pretty much calculated that I’ll make those gains. Maybe more. In terms of motivation, that’s pretty huge,” he says. “A 15 watt improvement over an hour is more than a minute. And the amount of races that I’ve lost by about five or six seconds…yeah, it is encouraging.”

It’s theoretical, of course, but if we take Mullen at his word, if that sort of gain does occur, it may well translate into big wins. And, equipment aside, he’s still a very young rider. That too psyches him up.

“I turned 23 this year,” he says. “So I guess you get naturally stronger until you are about 28. So hopefully I can keep progressing.”

But how far could he go? When Mullen took silver in the 2014 worlds, he was a rider with the An Post Chainreaction team. Speaking to CyclingTips several weeks ago, its manager Kurt Bogaerts said that the performance was one of the things he personally drew most satisfaction from.

He has faith that Mullen will take a rainbow jersey down the line.

“I always said that was on the record for Ryan. He will be world champion sooner or later. I believe he can do that,” he said.

Mullen embraces rather than plays down the prediction. “That’s my biggest goal. To be world champion.”

Mullen won both the Irish road race and time trial championships in 2017.

Learning from mistakes

The Irishman turned pro with Cannondale-Drapac in 2016 and had, by his own admission, a very tough time. He believes he overdid it during the winter of 2015/2016, explaining now that he was ‘really eager’ to make a good impression with his new team.

It’s easy to imagine that: he wouldn’t be the first neo-pro to feel the pressure, to ramp things up, and to discover that he’d gone too far.

“I really wanted to get fitter and stronger,” he explains. “I knew I was tired at the time as well. But I was like, ‘this must be normal.’ I had one of the best coaches in the world, but I didn’t listen to my body. I was just doing what I was told.

“And then, just after ten 25-hour weeks in a row, I was like… ‘wow, I’m a bit fucked now…’ he says, laughing.

Part of his push to be as good as possible also included weight loss. As an amateur Mullen spoke to CyclingTips about his desire to be as lean as he could be. He shed weight and finished third overall in the 2015 An Post Rás but, over time, ran into problems.

“Losing all that weight was the biggest mistake I have ever made,” he says now, reflecting on that period. “I went gluten free, got real skinny. Right now I am 81, 82 kilos, and I went down to 74.

“I don’t know why I did that, because then I couldn’t do anything any more. I couldn’t sprint, I couldn’t TT, I could just about make it over the climbs with the first group.”

Dieting while training and racing hard played havoc with his hormonal system. It’s something Alexander Kristoff has talked about: the Norwegian Classics specialist has said that he would prefer to be a couple of kilos heavier rather than putting his body’s endocrine system under pressure by being at a very low body fat percentage.

That approach is contrary to what many pro riders believe, but it echoes what Kristoff’s stepfather and coach Stein Orn has long underlined. Becoming light can make climbing easier, but it can also skew the body’s natural production of testosterone and other hormones.

If they go out of whack, the rider becomes overtrained and unable to work or recover as he should.

Mullen’s difficult first half of 2016 led him to a rethink. He gave himself time to get over his fatigue and also backed off on the strict diet. His performances improved, but it also took him a while to get to where he needed to be.

“Once I started eating gluten again, I just ballooned,” he says. “I went to 87 kilos in the off season. I was like, ‘okay, something has gone wrong here.’ Now I just eat what I want, drink what I want. Well, within reason obviously. Don’t smash a bar of chocolate every night. Don’t eat burger and chips.”

Netting fifth in the world championships showed that Mullen was getting back on track. He considers the year a learning experience, both in terms of seeing how WorldTour races work, but also in modifying his approach.

Pushing too hard had messed things up. Lesson learned, he decided to do things differently.

“I listened to my body a whole lot more this year,” he explains. “If there were days I didn’t want to do an interval, I didn’t do it. If I felt a bit sluggish or didn’t have a great night’s sleep, I would tailor my training to that. Take an hour off here or there, maybe.

“That might sound a bit stupid when you are paying for a coach, but at the same time you have got to work together. You can mix training around, switch a day or whatever. So that’s what we did this year and it worked a lot better for me.”

The contrast was considerable. “2016 was a write-off for me until August, until I got healthy again. All I really learned was how the races unfold rather than how to actually race them. I was either in the cars or back in the bus by the time things actually kicked off.

“This year was much more of a success. I had no injuries or health problems, as such. I was able to go from race to race, learn a bit more and gradually get stronger.

“And I got the opportunity to ride some of the big Classics, which was very nice. I was able to actually do a job rather than just participate. I was able to actually mix it up a little bit. So, in that sense, it was really good.”

Mullen grew up in Wales, has a house in Ireland but is based mainly in Girona.

‘John bought me a massive bottle of vodka on our team-building camp’

Thus far Mullen has built a reputation as a time trial rider, but he’s got another area of high interest. He wants to shine in the Classics. Perhaps because of this, he names a one day race as one of the top moments of the year.

Speaking about it, he becomes animated. It’s clear it is a good memory for him.

“One of the highlights would be in the Tour of Flanders,” he says. “I was told my sole job for the day was to get the team to the Oude Kwaremont first. All eight riders were lined out behind me. We were all the first eight up the climb.

“To do that at that kind of race at that level…I was pretty proud of that.

“Obviously I had the Irish nationals too…winning both titles, after the mishap the year before when I had infections and illness and stuff. Taking those was pretty special. My dad was following in the car and was nearly in tears.

“And then the Europeans, obviously. I was four seconds off the win in the elite Euros. I remember being really, really upset at the time. ‘I came here to win, I was four seconds off.’ But on that day I did 440 Watts for almost an hour.

“I have to look at it from that point of view, the progress I made in 12 months. I put out thirty to forty Watts more than in 2016. I took a lot of confidence from that.”

Mullen didn’t ride the TT worlds because of the tough finale. “I would have needed a ski lift to get up that hill!” he jokes, making clear it made a top result impossible for him.

Still, despite missing the race, he knows his Europeans result plus his solid tenth overall in the Tour of Britain show the progress he has made.

Yet even before those two results, he had already secured the interest of Trek. The circumstances of the contract are interesting, and once again hint at his potential.

“I sent them a few SRM files, and I got called up for testing in July because they wanted to see that my SRM wasn’t over-reading,” he explains. “I came in, did the testing, and had a contract the next day, pretty much!”

Securing a ride with the American squad ticked many of the boxes he had identified as being important.

“I feel like it is a team that really suits me. They have a strong Classics team, obviously good TT equipment,” he explains. “It was everything I was looking for, really.

“If I went to QuickStep, there is probably a massive chance that I would never make their Classics team. Going to a team for me that had good TT equipment and were willing to back me for every TT, and then give me the opportunity in the Classics…that seemed like the perfect team, really.”

Mullen’s initial optimism about the team grew when he got to know the team’s two Classic riders. He quickly clicked with John Degenkolb and Jasper Stuyven, saying that the former broke the ice in an unusual way.

“We are good friends,” he smiles. “John bought me a massive bottle of vodka on our little team-building camp. So he is in my good books!

“To go in with leaders you can help and be already pretty good friends with is nice. Obviously I really enjoyed riding with Cannondale, with Sep [Vanmarcke] and Dylan [Van Baarle] and Sebastian [Langeveld]. They were really cool to work for. Once you have that friendship, you really want to empty yourself for them.

“Maybe it is a bit different when you have a leader you are not really pally with. You just do as you are told, but you might not give 110 percent. Whereas if you are good mates with everybody and you really want to see them succeed, I feel you can go a lot deeper for them.”

In the short term Mullen wants to help Degenkolb and Stuyven, working hard for them to try to help them achieve their Classic goals. He also wants to use this time to build as much experience as possible. “I have already learned so much in the last two years. Hopefully I will learn more in the next two years.”

Longer term, though – worlds TT championship aside – he has a dream of his own. “Maybe I can lift a cobblestone over my head one day,” he says.

“Between Flanders and Roubaix, Roubaix is better for me. It is less about being tactically good or technically good. Flanders is like left, right, up, down, on tiny little roads. Whereas Roubaix, if you are strong you are going to be up there.

“Obviously the first couple of sectors you have to be well placed and stuff, and it takes some pretty big balls to do that. But after five or six sectors, ten sectors, the race is decided. There is a select group. Once you get over Arenberg, there is a select-enough group left.”

Mullen made the selection at Arenberg this year, but suffered in the heat and had problems eating. He cracked and ended up finishing 50th. “That was kind of shit, but it still gave me confidence. I was up there, and will be up there again.”

Mullen’s TT position is extremely aero. He is pictured en route to silver in the world under 23 championships, missing gold by less than half a second.

“It could be my only shot at holding a Grand Tour leader’s jersey”

The Classics may be a long-term goal but, far sooner than that, he believes he can win big in time trials. He has always been good at the discipline, competing in his first race against the clock at 12 years of age and then doing those races almost every week until he was 16. “Maybe it is all those years of memory muscle, of being in a box all the time,” he says.

Mullen has worked hard on his TT position, and made further advancements while being part of the Irish track team. He’s got a distinctive TT style now, with very little gap between upraised hands and his head, creating a bullet-like profile into the wind.

That position came about when he was preparing for track pursuit events. “One day we just changed my bars, moving the hand position after the UCI rules changed. It turned out I was about five seconds quicker,” he explains.

“I haven’t done a great deal of wind tunnel testing. I have just been testing helmets and stuff. But at the end of the day you are restricted there anyway: if I’m given a helmet to use by a team, I’ve got to use that.

“Obviously there are gains to be made in skinsuits, bikes, tyres, wheels, whatever. And I do think that’s going to make a difference next year. I’ve gone close to some big victories in the past, and hopefully this is now going to translate into wins.”

Mullen is yet to ride a Grand Tour, and wants to do that in 2018. He knows it will add a great deal of strength, but also believes a three-week race can provide an immediate target.

“The Giro next year is pretty decent, because it starts with a 10k TT,” he says. “It could be my only shot at holding a Grand Tour leader’s jersey, if it goes well. We will see how that goes.”

If Mullen is indeed correct in terms of the gains to be made from different equipment, 2018 should be a breakthrough year for him. Second in the under 23 worlds, third in the Europeans and fifth in the Elite worlds: he’s banging on the door, and may be on the verge of some major triumphs.

It’s not inconceivable that he could become the world’s best within the next three to four years.

“With time trials, I’ve found something I am good at,” he says. “I found something that can sell me to other teams, future teams. I like working on that because I have realised I can get results in this and be successful at it.

“There are not that many people who actually have that thing they are really good at. It is just nice to have something that maybe a lot of other riders don’t.”

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