It says something about both Ryan Mullen and Sam Bennett that one of the former’s top competitive highlights of 2022 concerned a race where Mullen wasn’t even taking part. Friend and compatriot Bennett had been on the back foot after a bad injury in 2021, struggling to find form; Mullen was on a break from competition when his teammate lined out in the Eschborn-Frankfurt race in Germany on May 1st.
What happened next is one of Mullen’s top moments of last year.
“I didn’t do Frankfurt . . . I think I was in New York,” Mullen tells The Irish Times. “I saw on Twitter that Sam had won. I was just so proud of him. I was really, really genuinely happy for him, I was like, ‘oh, he needed that and that was a big win.’
“I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t a part of it, but I remember being like absolutely fizzing that he had won. I know how hard he was working to try and come back. It was like the most deserved thing I’ve ever seen happen to someone.”
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Mullen is an eight-time Irish road race and time trial champion, and went within half a second of taking the gold medal in the 2014 under-23 world TT championships. Despite that, he has dedicated his career thus far to helping others win. When he learned about the chance to become part of Bennett’s sprint train, Mullen jumped at the opportunity, moving from Trek-Segafredo to the German Bora-hansgrohe team at the end of 2021.
“Sam reached out to me, saying he wanted to work with me,” Mullen explains. “It was a huge honour to even be asked. I just didn’t want to let him down.
“I was really motivated coming here. I stepped up as an athlete because of the job, the new role that I had...I had to be good for Sam. I did have a role before [with Trek-Segafredo], but it was now concrete. I am in the leadout train, so I have to be there at the finish of bike races, which means I have to step up [a level] to be there.”
When on form, Bennett is one of the best sprinters in professional cycling. He won two stages plus the green jersey at the 2020 Tour de France, and was clocking up more big results in the first months of 2021 before suffering a knee injury.
The effects of that lingered almost a full year, meaning that Mullen and the other sprint train riders were putting in a lot of work without Bennett being able to finish things off. His team were fully invested, though, and they showed ongoing confidence in their sprinter.
“Although the results weren’t flowing at the start, we never really lost sight of things,” Mullen explains. “We knew it would work because we were getting the leadouts right, and then we just had to be patient. Sam was coming back from his injury, so it just took a little time. And then obviously at the end of the year he came great again.”
Both Bennett and Mullen had a morale blow last summer when they were passed up for selection for the Tour de France. Each had expected to go, but the Bora-hansgrohe team evaluated things, decided sprint victories weren’t a certainty and opted to mount a general classification challenge instead.
Both riders kept their focus and Bennett then roared back into form, winning two stages at the Vuelta a España in August.
“When Sam won that first stage of the Vuelta, I had such an overwhelming sense of satisfaction,” he says. “I just helped someone win a Grand Tour stage. I was like, ‘f**k yeah.’ I’d never done it before so it felt really special. And obviously also because it meant so much to the team and the lead out group and to Sam. It wasn’t emotional...I mean, no one was crying, but it was emotional in that sense that actually meant a lot.”
Bennett looked set for more stage wins plus possible victory in the green jersey competition but ended up testing positive for Covid and having to leave the race. He showed strong form again when he resumed competition and is heading in to the new season in a confident frame of mind.
[ Sam Bennett secures back-to-back Vuelta a España stage wins ]
Mullen, too, is looking forward to the new year. His fitness levels are ahead of where they were twelve months ago and he’s fired up. “I’m excited. I am really looking forward to it,” he says. “I don’t know how publicly I should admit this, but I think it’s one of the first seasons [like this]. Well, when every season rolls around again you are like, ‘oh, here we go again,’ but this year I am genuinely excited about what is potentially in store for us as a team, as a train, as a group.”
Training in Gran Canaria at present, Mullen will head to Argentina soon and link up with Bennett there in the eight-day Vuelta a San Juan Internacional, starting January 22nd. He will then follow an almost-identical race programme to Bennett for much of the season, joining with other key leadout riders to try to get their man first to the line in as many races as possible.
“I think if everything goes smoothly, if no one gets any injuries or like any bad sicknesses, we should just pick up where we left off,” Mullen says. “We’re all really happy and, taking that momentum into next season, the motivation is to be even better again.”