Born and raised in the townland of Kilronan, about a kilometre from the pier — where it “all happens” in this part of the world — it’s quite a remarkable story that a place with a population of around 800 people might produce an Olympian.
Everyone knows everyone and their business on the islands. News travels fast but many still scratch their heads when Mullen comes home and he’s quizzed on what the hell the kilo, the sprint and the keirin are; events he’s hoping to qualify in for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Most people here don’t know the specifics of what I do, they just see me cycling around, and probably think I’m half mad. Maybe I am to want to do this sport,” he laughs.
Admittedly, he was like his fellow islanders too and the only cycling he knew was his father Michael renting bikes to tourists in the summer from their shop. But when he took part in the Community Games at age 11, a love affair quickly blossomed.
“I didn’t know much about it at all, had no heroes growing up but I did the U12 and U14 Community Games and I won that a couple of years. I went to boarding school then in Dublin and took up rugby, but cycling was always something I wanted to get back to. I got a couple of injuries from rugby and my rehab was cycling and rowing and I got back into it that way. There was a track was just down the road [at Sundrive Road] from the school I was in so I got onto them, headed down one day and haven’t looked back since I guess.”
In his first year he tried out for an U16 track squad and won the junior sprint championships (200m). By then he was hooked and winning regularly.
The coaches at Sundrive were suitably impressed and approached the high performance director of Cycling Ireland, Geoff Liffey, with his CV to get him a trial for further development at the sport’s governing body’s headquarters in Aigle. They too liked what they saw and Mullen was offered a month’s trial.
“Two weeks into the trial they offered to hold onto me until the European Junior Championships in Portugal that year . This was then extended to the Junior World Championships in Moscow after I placed fifth in the 1km time trail and seventh in the sprint. I also broke both the Irish junior record and senior flying 200 sprint record.
“I had come such a long way in such a relatively short time thanks to my training in Aigle and, just before heading to Moscow, I was offered a year’s scholarship with them which was something way beyond anything I could have wished for.”
His move to the World Cycling Centre (WCC) has involved forgoing college for the time being and an increase in the training load.
“We’re up bright and early at about 7am,” he says. “Our morning sessions are usually a couple of hours on a road ride or a gym session which consists of core work, squats, power cleans, leg press, leg curls, bench press, back rowing, shoulder elevations and pull-ups.
“We have gym two to three times a week as it plays a very big part in our training as sprinters.
“We then have our lunch and rest for an hour or two before we have our training on the track in the afternoon. That could be standing starts, sprints and sometimes 30 minutes behind a motorbike at 60kmph. We then have dinner at 6pm and return back to our accommodation where our lights must be out at 10pm. It can be tough, but I love it. It was a chance I knew I had to take and I’d regret it if I didn’t.”
His introduction to the big stage arrived at the London velodrome in February 2012 when he rode in his first World Cup — a multi-race tournament that spans three to four ‘meets’ in four months and is used to earn qualifying points for Olympic Games. That was five months before the Games and 6,000 people packed the arena to see Chris Hoy.
“That was pretty shocking actually,” laughs Mullen. “We got the start sheets the night before the race but then I arrived down at the track in the morning and our team manager told me I’m in with Chris Hoy in a different heat, it was quite a shock. I’ll never forget the noise that day, it was a world away from Inis Mór anyway.”
Though he was beaten and crashed in a different event, he was better for the experience and focused firmly on the 2016 Games.
But that’s something he’d prefer not to think about right now because in a sport where first and last are often separated by less than a second, he’s enduring a monk-like existence.
“I have committed to going all the way with this but am also very aware that it is going to take time and a long-term belief that I can do this.
“I realise every tenth-of-a-second from now comes from months of intense training and from sticking with the programme and lifestyle.
“Right now I’m building towards the summer GPs, the European U23 Track championships in the summer and for the World Cups later in the year.
“They’re pretty important because they obviously go towards Olympic qualification so we need to be there and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Depending on the size of the velodrome, the sprint can be a race from 600m to 1,000m where participants start side-by-side. The first over the line wins. Simple.
Races are about two kilometres long: eight laps on a 250m track, six laps on a 333m track, five laps on a 400m track. Lots are drawn to determine starting positions for the eight or so riders behind a motorised bike. The bike gradually increases its speed until it leaves after a predetermined number of laps, but not before getting up to around 50kph after which the riders, who all stay safely tucked in behind in one line, race for the line. The finishing speed is usually between 70-80kph.
Probably the most painful of track disciplines, the kilo is raced as a time-trial over 1000 metres.