Irish road and time trial champion Ryan Mullen blasted around the flat, non-technical stage three time trial at the Vuelta a San Juan Tuesday to take home his first international victory and with it the first team victory for the 2018 season.
"I am super happy, and everyone here is super happy; it's nice to get the ball rolling and get a first win of the year in my first race," said Mullen. "I have always been the guy who has been second, third fifth, so yeah, it's my first international win."
The flat and windy course suited a power rider like Mullen, but in the first individual test against the clock of a new season, even Mullen had trouble pacing himself for the 14.4-kilometer race of truth.
"The course was very well suited to me, maybe I would have preferred it a little bit longer, but it was pretty close to being perfect for me. But I misjudged the pacing a little bit; I went out a little bit too hard and then the last four kilometers it was a pretty hard headwind, and I kind of came off the pace a little bit there.
"I really suffered in the heat as well for the last four or five minutes, so it was more a case of just hanging on and keeping a little bit of rhythm and not lose too much time. Luckily I held on!"
Mullen may have felt like he was losing time, but he made up most of his advantage in the second half of the race. At the first intermediate split, midway through, he was down eight seconds but crossed the line in 17 minutes and 43 seconds to set the fastest time by nearly a half-minute.
"I didn't come here to come second, but it's January, and normally in the season I can gauge how I will do, but this was my first TT, so I wasn't sure how my body would handle in the heat and that sort of stuff," admitted Mullen. "I was watching my power meter and thinking this sucks, I feel like shit. But everyone's power was down in the heat."
With all riders using road bikes and no time trial machines, Mullen felt he was not at an advantage, even with arguably the fastest tested road bike in the Madone.
"Obviously, our bike is incredibly fast, probably faster than my previous TT bike on its own," Mullen smiled. "I know that we have some of the best equipment in the whole race and that was definitely a big motivation for me. We have the best bike; we have great wheels, the only thing missing was the extensions. Last year guys rode them, and we assumed it was the same, and we only found out two days ago we cannot even use it.
"The problem for me is I am actually a big guy, I have a big frame, and in the TT position, I am lucky that I am able to get very small for someone my size and hold a really good position. That's one of the factors that makes me good at time trials; I am able to bend my body into a shape it's not supposed to go. But on the road bike I have nothing to pull on like with the extensions; normally I would pull on the bars quite a lot."
"It's the first for me having to do a TT on my road bike, and I made a few modifications like a couple extra rolls of bar tape where I was resting my arms, and I folded my hoods in so I could hold onto something and have leverage. I struggled a little bit to hold the power I normally hold [on a TT bike] but it worked out really good - in the end, I think everyone was in the same boat."
As an early starter, Mullen spent most of the race in the hot seat and was later joined by teammate Greg Daniel, who also had a fantastic race. Daniel finished in a time of 18 minutes and 13 seconds, 30 seconds slower than Mullen, and held onto second place until the final few riders finally bumped him to fourth. Daniel missed the podium by less than a second.
Rounding out the top three Filippo Ganna (UAE-Team Emirates) in second – who also claimed the race lead – and Rafał Majka in third (Bora-Hansgrohe).
"I kinda had it in my head that I needed to be around 52km/h average and it was leaning towards that in the final, so I knew it was a quick ride. But I also knew that Ganna is probably in good shape as he is going to the World Track Championships in 2-3 weeks, and he was fourth yesterday in a hard finale - I was nervous about him that he would have some serious horsepower. At the first check, he was 8 seconds ahead, and I was in the hot seat thinking, 'Here we go again - I've been here for two hours, and now I am going to kicked off with the last guy. Story of my life.'"
Except for this time.
This time the story had a happy ending.