“Am I gonna die?!”
Ryan Mullen is worried.
Sitting shotgun in the Volvo 4x4 driven by our photographer, Ryan scans the Manchester tramlines for clues as we weave through the city to a destination unknown to him. Drunk with power and full of glee, I am slouched in the rear, staring at the back of Ryan’s stupid head. We’ve got him right where we want him.
This is not an interview, but an act of vengeance.
Let’s go back to 2012.
Mullen and I, both acne-faced and innocent, are toeing the start line in Tipperary, partaking in the 104-kilometre Visit Nenagh Classic for the Irish Development team. Upon the first mountain of many, we both go up the road. Halfway through the race, I’m thinking…
Museeuw, Bortolami, Tafi – maybe I could be a little octopus behind Mullen as he crosses the line?
Fifteen minutes later, I am fish food. I’ve resorted to sheltering behind the 17-year-old man-boy like a castaway in a sea cave, his pace relentless as the gap to the bunch surges up. Soon, Mullen’s muscular thighs become smaller and more distant. The breeze of the Cycling Ireland team car grazes my puffy puppy face, before also fading away. The peloton swallows me up with kilometres to go, spitting me out the back in a cruel twist of fate.
Eventually arriving at the finish, I find the inevitable has happened. Mullen’s been on the podium, won a watch, and greets me with “What happened to you?”
“What’s the matter with you?” I rasp. “Why didn’t you ease up?”
Ryan looks into my eyes like a lion at a dying hyena: puzzled, but with the realisation that no kill needs to be made. Ignoring the question, he proceeds to tell me of the Subway sandwich he will eat when he gets home.
As he describes a Meatball Marinara and what type of cheese he usually opts for, his words drift away as rage seeps into my adolescent bones.
‘We could’ve been Mapei, man!’ I think. ‘One day, I will avenge.’
That day is today.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect it to take nine years, and for Ryan to be with Trek-Segafredo, on the cusp of moving to BORA-Hansgrohe, but life holds its surprises.
And, today, Ryan Mullen has another one coming.
He will be silenced and humbled,
Through the medium of…
I didn’t kidnap him straight away, of course. Since the age of 15, I’ve built up to this day.
Structured like a pint of Irish stout, Mullen made an immediate impression on me. The first time I came across the broad-shouldered time-trialling specialist was in mid-Ulster for the Irish Youth Cycling Championship Criterium. My confidence absent and with skin as soft as a baby’s bottom, the nerves only increased as he zoomed past me as we practiced the finishing circuit. The pace he set in his warm-up wasn’t something I’d be able to comprehend within the race itself.
“Who’s that?” I asked my more experienced team-mate.
“Oh, that’s Ryan Mullen. I wouldn’t worry about him.”
That became the most misinformed quote of the season, potentially of my life to that point, as Mullen ended up lapping the field to cruise to the Irish title. From that day onwards, every time he and his dad appeared at a race, l sighed at my father, knowing his efforts to get me there were going to be left unrewarded, thanks to a giant with a Liverpudlian accent who would inevitably humiliate me at some stage in any competition we both took part in.
It’s safe to say, I hated Mullen to start with. He stole all the opportunities for me to boost my own ego and prize money. However, I grew up, my racing nous advanced and I found myself on the Irish national team with the man-boy I had once despised. From there, we lived and explored different parts of western Europe as, together, we had a go at becoming professional cyclists.
“Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you.” - The Stranger, The Big Lebowski
This quote pretty much sums up how that went for us both. Entering the WorldTour at the end of 2015, we are both 27 years old. Ryan has eaten a lot of bear. In cycling terms, that means eight elite Irish national titles on the road; a silver – only one hundredth of a second away from gold – in the 2014 World U23 TT Championships and fifth in the elite version a year later.
Comparatively, my attempts at a cycling career ended how The Revenant’s infamous bear scene would in reality: total devourment.
Now it’s my turn to cause the humiliation, as Ryan Mullen walks into Manchester’s Tast Catala restaurant to meet me:
“What are you drinking?” I ask him.
Holding the craft beer bottle up to my face, I catch the waitress’s eye.
“Will you explain this to him like you did to me?” I plead, shaking the bottle at her like a child.
“Aha! This is a Runaway beer, but you cannot run away…” she giggles.
I laugh too; how apt. It’s irrelevant that he ends up not choosing that IPA; important that Ryan Mullen is here in front of me, and marvellous to know something he doesn’t. I front the impending capture with some chit-chat.
DS: I think the last time we saw each other was the National Champs in… do you remember? I think you ended up winning it, how times have changed.
RM: Oh yeah… I’m still a c**t as well.
DS: Quick question before we start – why did I have to drive up the M40 for four hours instead of taking a flight to lovely Girona? Do you not live there anymore?
RM: I’m just over it, really. I come back here, do my local club TTs, do a few chaingangs and then just embrace the bad weather, the roads here [in north-west England] are great for training. They’re hard. You don’t really move very far when you’re riding, but you get the work done.
DS: So you’re not going back?
RM: I used to like Spain, but now because I’ve served my time there, I might go over when the weather’s crap here, but I’d never live there again.
The cheeky sod. What I wouldn’t do to jet off into the sunshine... As I was fumbling about with my recorder, Ryan announced to me that after being with Trek-Segafredo since 2018, he’s moving to BORA-hansgrohe this winter.
RM: I’ve loved my time at Trek. I feel like I really grew there as a person and an athlete. I’m grateful for all the chances and support they’ve given over the years, but I’ve been there four seasons. I can sit still for a while, but a change in scenery might do my head some good. You’ve got new bosses to impress, new team-mates to work for. I just figured it was mentally a good thing, maybe not so much in terms of the friendships I have with the guys, because I’ll be leaving them behind, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to do what’s right for my career, and not necessarily theirs.
DS: A strong start! When I want a new job, I just moan at a recruiter on LinkedIn for an hour.
RM: Yeah, you just kind of sniff around for job security, I guess. [Trek-Segafredo general manager] Luca Guercilena said he wanted to keep the Classics team together, so then I was like alright, he was going to keep us. I always do what I’m told, I never disappoint. I always do a bit more than I’m asked.
But then, this [offer from Bora] just came around. It came from Sam Bennett. He rang me – he’d seen what I’d been doing for the last four years for Jasper [Stuyven], Mads [Pedersen] and Eddie Theuns and he was like, “You’re one of the few guys in the world who I’d wanna work with – would you be interested in coming across to a team with me?” He wouldn’t disclose the team, but my ears still pricked up.
It was great for my manager: “His team’s offering him this, this team’s offering him this – match it, or he leaves.” That’s just how it works. It’s leverage. Basically, if you have two teams wanting to buy you, it’s best case scenario, because then if you get another offer from another team and you’re more inclined to stay with the team you’re already in, that team has to pay a little bit more for your loyalty.
But then, to be honest, once I had the option, a sniff of an opportunity to leave Trek, I had my heart set on doing it, just because I think mentally, it’s like fresh scenery, fresh motivation, different surroundings… like moving house because you just get bored of it, you know?
DS: No Ryan, you move house because you get bored of it.
Some wise words from a chap who used to wake me up with his ludicrous night terrors. At the mention of Sam Bennett’s name, I sniff saucy headlines are in my grasp. I massage the discussion in the direction of damaged knees and green jersey winners...
DS: What will your role be when you start working with Bennett?
RM: Basically, I’ll do the same job for Sam that I do for Jasper and Mads. I can be quite versatile, apart from getting up a mountain – I suck at that. Take the wind for him during the stage, then I still have enough horsepower to take him through one kilometre to go. Behind me will be someone else, then Sam’s actual lead-out guy behind him… basically, the lead-out guy gets all the praise, but actually the guy before the guy in front of him puts them in a position where they can actually let loose, so it’s actually quite a big role. Basically, the entire train rests on my shoulders. If I don’t do my job, no one gets to shine. To do the job that I do, you just need to have a good one-minute power, no matter what. Luckily, I have that.
DS: Sounds easy enough. What’s yours?
RM: 850 watts. I know guys that can do more…
DS: Fuck them, they’re not getting a Rouleur interview.
DS: …what do you think of all this stuff that came out about Bennett?
He looks away; my big question is like blood spatter across his angular face. Sam Bennett, the elephant, is now in the room. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen Ryan Mullen pensive. He runs his fingers along the leather-padded tabletop, searching for the right words.
RM: Sam’s a racer. Like, he would’ve gone to the Tour and wanted to win stages and defend his green jersey. I asked him what was going on, and he said he tried to do a sprint and he slipped his chain and his knee smashed right into the handlebar. I don’t know the extent of the injury, but basically, it was more serious than he thought. That’s what I was led to believe.
What a drab response – Mullen, a man who typically can’t get his words out quick enough, has not satisfied my hunger for a juicy headline. My meal has been smothered with salty diplomacy. I’m not here for a free meal and a catch-up, I’m here to drill into his mysterious mind, unearth some mystical golden nuggets... and then take him to a salsa class. The usual stuff, really.
I move on in disgust.
DS: I totally get what you mean moving back to the UK. I’m back cycling a bit more, and I’m trying to get back home [to Belfast] a bit more, because… fucking English people, right? [we laugh at Oxfordshire-based Benedict]. When I go back and just ride my bike with the people I used to ride my bike with as a kid, you’re just like – this is it, isn’t it? This is why we do it!
RM: I mean, I grew up doing Thursday night TTs, I just miss it. I always wanted to come back to the UK. I was gonna retire in the UK, but now I’m here. I’m not planning on retiring just yet, but I always wanted to live in a little sandstone village around south Manchester or Yorkshire.
DS: And now you do! Tell me about Georgina [Ryan’s wife]. How did you meet her?
RM: I met her years ago at track league. I used to be good friends with her brother, [former GB Academy racer] Jake….
When I was racing at the track every Tuesday, she’d sometimes be there, and I had a little crush on her even back then. She’d be in the stands sometimes and I’d be riding, thinking, “Is she watching? I’m going to win today, and try to talk to her.”
I’d always followed her on Instagram and occasionally I’d have a little browse through, see what she was up to. One day, I put my toe in the water, sent her a message and we started chatting, then meeting up. It got really serious and I pretty much instantaneously fell in love, even before I met her. So weird. We’re really happy now. We just bought a dog.
DS: How does it feel, like, just, growing up?
RM: I know: the next thing on the list is a kid. A lot has fucking happened...
DS: A lot has fucking happened! A lot of progression, isn’t it?
DS: I feel I’m truly getting older seeing you.
RM: Older? Why?
DS: We’re growing up, talking about old things, you’re talking to me about contracts, your house and your wife. I remember when you told me you signed for Cannondale [in 2015]: we were cycling up a Belgian canal, excited to be on our way to a café which gave away little doughnuts with its coffees.
RM: Those were the days.
DS: Here’s a question for you: who has been your best and your worst DS?
I point at my phone to show I am recording him. He ignores me and goes on a merciless tirade, employing an illustrious list of swear words. I start to think maybe a little Mullen swear-book that you read whilst sitting on the toilet might be a good post-career venture.
I ease him back to some dialogue where we won’t get sued.
RM: There have been digs at my size, being 80 kilos pluson
DS: What do you think of that? Obviously in this new age, there’s quite a lot of reform everywhere, with Black Lives Matter, for example. And for women’s racing, cycling is getting a lot better, as it should be. How do you feel about that in terms of your weight?
RM: Chris Froome’s not going to ride Paris-Roubaix because he’s not heavy enough.
DS: Is it common for people, for DSs, to comment on your weight?
RM: It’s just very old school.
It is important to point out how lean Ryan actually is. I think if I got some tracing paper I could etch out his entire circulatory system. It is tough to hear that is not good enough for some people still present within cycling. If he was a piece of beef, I don’t think he would’ve made it to the charcuterie board we have just got through.
DS: How does it feel now, versus the start of your career?
RM: I’m not intimidated by races anymore. I know my body a lot better now, and what I can and can’t do, but I think also a big weakness for me is I don’t believe enough that I can do something. I’m very numbers-based, but in a race, I just don’t ever let myself blow. I’m always one per cent less to a point where I’ll blow, so I need to, like, get over that… because I probably can do more than I realise I can.
DS: There’s a psychological term for that...
RM: ...being a soft c**t?
We arrive at a Manchester railway bunker and a graffitied shutter screeches upwards. Mullen is silent. Maybe he genuinely thinks he might get murdered.
We walk into the mirrored dance studio where Mullen learns he is going to have to salsa conmigo. He’s not relieved about not being stabbed; anger paints his face after the discovery.
Our salsa teacher recognises the tension and gets us straight into a warm-up. We jive side-to-side, focusing on moving our weight to the rhythm, Mullen’s eyes are sniper lasers, bouncing off the studio mirror, then onto me, and the conniving joke I’ve played on him. I do not return such glances, struggling to move with fits of laughter.
Soon, the salsa teacher guides us together: Mullen as the salsa-man; and me, as the salsa-lady. To be fair, the salsa teacher struggled with the brief of two men dancing with each other, so I’m also thankful for his efforts, despite him not being able to look at me whilst Ryan twirls me around. Mullen’s anger dissipates and his focus returns.
The music starts to beat faster, and Mullen is encouraged to dance on. He is throwing me about everywhere, and it’s at this moment I realise he shared with me his weakness, but focus is his great strength. No matter where you put this five-time Irish national time-trial champion, he will succeed, regardless of the pranks and prods put in his way.
Sweating and smiling, we thank the salsa man for our class. Switching teams, buying houses, getting married and getting a dog, Ryan Mullen is all prepped for his life’s next chapter.
I don’t need revenge on Ryan, I’m too proud of him.