As he stepped on to the podium to receive his silver medal in the under 23 time trial at the UCI Road World Championships, Ryan Mullen was still shaking his head in quiet disbelief. The Irishman had looked every inch a world champion on the rain-soaked Ponferrada course, an impression borne out at the two intermediate check points along the route.
With 13 kilometres remaining, Mullen held a lead of 20 seconds over Australia's Campbell Flakemore and his remarkable average speed of 49.5kph seemed too imposing a bar for any of the late finishers to vault.
On the final climb of the course, however, Campbell began to claw back the seconds and when he raised himself out of the saddle in the finishing straight, it was impossible to say which way the spoils would fall at the end of his seemingly interminable sprint.
The only certainty was that the margin would be tight, and so it proved - Campbell spilled across the line just 0.48 of a second ahead of Mullen. Sitting in the hot seat by the finish, Mullen's face scarcely betrayed a flicker of emotion as his deficit flashed on the screen before him.
A word of encouragement from the Irish coaching staff were enough to raise a rueful smile and Mullen had congratulations for the exhausted Campbell when he collapsed into the seat alongside him shortly afterwards. As he received his silver medal 20 minutes later, Mullen bore the expression of a man still struggling to process what had happened.
By the time he sat down for the post-race press conference, however, Mullen was beginning to put his performance in some perspective. A man could drive himself to distraction trying to figure out where he had mislaid half a second on the slick roads of north-western Spain, but there was, he said, simply nothing more that he could have done.
"I can't even explain it. I thought I might hang on but I got everything out, I emptied myself," Mullen said. "I took as many risks as I could but at the end of the day the better guy won. I can't really regret anything but it's really disappointing to come so close to getting a world title.
"I can't think of anywhere where I could have pushed harder without jeopardising the overall result, so like I said the best guy won. It is very disappointing to come so close but I'm happy with the result and I'm proud of it because it shows my progression over the years to be up there with Campbell."
Mullen became Ireland's first medallist in the road Worlds since Mark Scanlon took gold in the junior road race in 1998, and only the country's fourth ever medallist, joining Shay Elliott (silver in Salò in 1962), Sean Kelly (bronze in 1982 and 1989), and Stephen Roche (world champion in 1987) in the record books.
The son of former Navan Road Club rider Kevin Mullen, he grew up in north Wales, but has been trekking back and forth across the Irish Sea to compete since his early teens and has raced for Ireland from the youth ranks. "We've worked hard as a federation," he said. "They've done everything they could to get me in the shape I'm in and I'm really grateful for the support I've had."
Mulllen impressed in winning the under 23 Chrono des Nations last year, and his development continued apace on road and track in 2014. He finished fourth in the elite individual pursuit at the Cali Worlds and then became Ireland's elite national road race champion in June, soloing clear of a field that included Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp). His Worlds build-up included a fine showing in the time trial at the Tour of Britain.
Currently riding for the Continental An Post-Chainreaction team, the 20-year-old said that he was in no particular rush to step up a level in 2015. "They've offered me a really good set up and they're really helpful with my track commitments. They give me a programme that's completely flexible around what I want to do," Mullen said.
"At the moment, if a contract came along it would be nice but I'm probably still a little bit too young. I'm not physically or mentally ready to step up to that sort of level. I'd consider it, but I'm more than happy to spend another year at Continental level and develop more as a rider and try and get the results that I need to move on in the world."
It went without saying, of course, but another season in the Continental ranks would give Mullen the chance to return to the under 23 time trial at the Worlds in Richmond in 12 months' time. As his 2014 campaign showed, a year is a long time at this level.
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