‘Sam trusts me to bring him to the finish and I don’t want to let him down’

Just days out from the national road race championships in Kanturk, defending champion Ryan Mullen is still unsure as to whether he will be on the start line at the weekend.

part from defending the time trial and road race titles he won in Coolbeg, Co Wicklow, last year, Mullen has two other big events on the horizon, either one of which could shove a title defense onto the back burner.

“My wife is expecting a baby in about two weeks,” says the Bora-Hansgrohe professional. “And I’m also hoping to get picked for the Tour de France team, so it’s circumstances really that might keep me out.”

At the moment, Mullen is unsure of his selection for a first ride in the Tour, with the German WorldTour squad due to announce their team at the weekend, but, ironically, even if he skips the nationals and gets a Tour start, the unpredictability of pregnancy and childbirth means he may miss his son’s arrival anyway.

“I’ve always made the effort to do nationals,” says the three-time elite road and time trial champion.

“The only one I missed was 2020 because I had to do the BinckBank Tour but, depending on the baby, this might be the first year I’ve missed out by choice. My wife can’t travel over now so it would be pretty bad if I was riding around Kanturk and my son was being born early, especially if I’m going to be away for the entirety of July. It’s just looking at the bigger picture really.”

Having signed for Bora-Hansgrohe at the bequest of Carrick-On-Suir sprinter Sam Bennett, who wanted Mullen as part of his lead-out team this year, the current national champion got a shorter stint than usual in the shamrock jersey due to the fact that last year’s race was moved to October due to Covid restrictions at the time.

“It was a bit shorter than usual but it was really cool having the jersey in the WorldTour peloton, really special, especially bringing it across to Bora this year. Aside from getting mistaken for Sam at every single race I went to, I really enjoyed it,” he laughs.

The transition to Bennett’s team came after four years with Trek-Segafredo, the final year of which saw him struggle to find form before eventually changing coaches.

“The move came at a perfect time for me because I feel like I got a little bit lost at Trek last year,” he says. “I had the option to stay but when the option to leave came up I was pretty ready to take it, especially when I was coming across to Sam, one of the best sprinters in the world.

“The opportunity of working with Sam was a no-brainer really. I was enormously grateful. I realize the move comes with a certain responsibility to step up for him and hopefully in this run-up to the Tour, I’ve done that.”

Previously known for his time trialling ability, Mullen had been used by Trek as a minder for their big guns Jasper Stuyven, Edward Theuns and former world champion Mads Pedersen.

His move to Bora-Hansgrohe however sees a role change, where he’s part of a four-man sprint train piloting Bennett to the line in the mass sprint finishes, alongside Kiwi Shane Archbald and Dutchman Danny van Poppel.

Both Bennett and Archbald are former team-mates, with the latter regarded as an honorary Irishman thanks to his time at Sean Kelly’s An Post-Chain Reaction team and his various stage wins at Rás Tailteann over the years.

“It’s great to be back with the lads. We have great craic and some serious slagging but you couldn’t write any of it in a newspaper,” he laughs. “Danny is a real key player too and we’re all pretty pally off the bike. We have a really good bond and we know we can be successful as a train and get Sam to where he needs to be.”

Previously renowned for his racing against the clock, Mullen has been prominent in most bunch sprints this year, the shamrock jersey visible in the final kilometers as he tows the trio into position for the gallop to the line. It’s a new job, but one he’s relishing at the moment.

“I think changing roles has forced me to be fresher in the finale so that I am actually there, rather than smoking away all my watts riding for position in the middle of the race or at the start of the race until I couldn’t any more, like I did for four years.

“We did the odd lead-out at Trek and were quite successful at times but it was never ‘this is what you do now’. It was whatever suited the day. ‘You pull here’ or ‘go in the breakaway’. Now it’s ‘here’s the final, this is where you pull off, Shane’s in the wheel, Danny’s in his wheel, stick together, communicate’.

The problem with being a lead-out man though, is that you’ve got to be at the front at the end of the race, no matter what.

“There was never any pressure to be there before,” admits Mullen. “Now there is. You have to be strong enough to get through the c**p that comes before the sprint. Obviously, being with Sam is really motivating to do that.

“Before, in the last 10km or 5km if there was a crash I may have taken my foot off the gas thinking ‘I don’t want to lose skin today’, whereas now I just kind of blank it out, regardless of how dangerous or nervous it is. I just force my way there and we’re there. It’s my responsibility to get the boys there. The whole train’s behind me so there’s that pressure to be there and perform.

“You don’t want to let them down. Sam, Shane and Danny all really successful riders in their own right. They all have more experience than I do, so I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to let Sam down. He took me to Bora, picked me out of the platoon as one of the guys he trusted to bring him to the finish, so that’s the biggest factor I think. When the best sprinter in the world, the green jersey winner of the Tour de France, asks you to bring him to the last kilometer you’re not going to say ‘no’. That’s probably the biggest reason I’m there.”

Thrown in at the deep end at the UAE Tour in February, where Bennett took second on the opening stage and third on stage five, Mullen says he learned a lot from Archbald in that first week and continues to learn with every race, even picking up top ten’s himself at Scheldeprijs and Rund Um Koln.

“Our first race together as a foursome was UAE and we delivered on every single sprint stage,” he says. “Sam wasn’t 100pc there because he was only back from injury but as a lead-out train it went really well and I’ve learned a lot in different race situations this year. In Scheldeprijs, I had to attack to take the edge off the other sprinters.

“In Koln we had first, second, fifth and tenth. Nils (Pollitt) and Danny were up the road so that just left me to lead out Sam for fourth so I did the last-man job for Sam. In Hungary, before that, I was the last man for Matt Walls. I wasn’t very good and it took me a while to get the hang of it, but by the time Koln came around I had got it.”

“To win a bunch sprint in any professional race, the lead-out train has to get everything right, and even then, you need a bit of luck.

“Normally my focus switches on in the last 20km,” says Mullen. “I kind of surf the peloton to keep the boys out of the wind and in the top 20, top 30 while trying to be as smooth as possible so they don’t lose me. With 5km to go, when it’s really on, I have to make sure we don’t get swamped in, boxed up, be aware of my surroundings, know what teams are around, what the wind is doing, what side of the road might open up, whether it’s likely to stay open or not.

“Usually my job is done with one kilometer to go, or maybe 800 meters. Basically, I’ve got to keep the boys together into the last ‘K’ as efficiently as possible. On paper, I go to 800 meters, Shane goes to 500 meters. Danny takes over from 500 to 250 to go, and then Sam sprints. It rarely goes exactly like that but Danny has a massive engine, so one of the perks of our train is that even if we’re not perfect, Danny always is. If we’re 100m short, he has the torque and the sustained sprint to get Sam out of the shit.”

The quartet’s most recent outing was at the Tour of Belgium, where Bennett took fourth on Sunday’s final stage.

“We would have liked the win there obviously,” says Mullen. “The sprint was into a really strong headwind. I think I went a bit longer than I should have because of that. Behind me, guys were probably doing 400 watts while I was doing 700 into the wind, so you had (Fabio) Jakobsen come out of Sam’s wheel, (Jasper ) Philipsen come out of Jakobsen’s wheel… but if it had been a tailwind we’ d have won.

“Sam missed a hell of a lot last year, and this year hasn’t been smooth sailing but he’s definitely very much on the way up now and what we’re doing so far is working quite well. We have a good system.”

Having ridden the Giro d’Italia in 2018, tendonitis in his knee forced him out of the 2019 edition before it began and he hasn’t ridden a Grand Tour since.

“The following year Covid hit,” he says. “Last year the calendar got reshuffled and the Giro clashed with the classics and I was doing the classics. I got a muscle spasm in my back from sleeping on ac**p mattress before the Giro that put me out of that team and, even though I had recovered, they didn’t want to risk it.”

He now faces an anxious wait to see if he will start his first Tour de France in Copenhagen on Friday week. And there’s also that little matter of becoming a father. Rather than worry about it all too much however, Mullen is philosophical about things.

“No matter what happens in July it’s going to be good,” he smiles. “I’m either going to ride the Tour de France or be at the birth of my son.”

Tour de France sprint stages to watch out for

Stage 2, Roskilde to Nyborg (199km)
Saturday, July 2

Takes in the 18km Great Belt Bridge before hitting the finish in Nyborg, expect cross winds on the exposed Danish roads.

Stage 3, Velje to Sonderborg (182km)
Sunday, July 3

Another sprint day that sees the race finish in Sonderborg, this stage will be similar to the second day, but expect a mass dash to the line.

Stage 4, Dunkirk to Calais (172km)
Tuesday, July 5

Route broken up by hills and the wind could, once again, play a crucial role on the first French stage of the Tour, but could still be held together for a sprint finish.

Stage 13: Bourg d’Oisans-Saint Etienne (193km)
Friday, July 15

Down as a sprint stage but with three categorized climbs the fast men will have some work to do to stay in contention for the stage win in Saint Etienne.

Stage 19: Castelnau Magnoac-Cahors (189km)
Friday, July 22

Providing they’ve survived the Pyrenees, this is one for the sprinters as opportunities start to run out.

Stage 21: Paris La Defense Arena-Paris Champs-Elysees (112km)
Sunday, July 24

The traditional Tour de France finale, the world championships for sprinters, needs no introduction.

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