• Mullens winning the 2015 Australian National Road Championships (Getty) (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Peta Mullens loves riding her mountain bike. Whether it's alone, racing, or socially, it's where she's happiest, despite the financial burdens. Not one person can get her to give it up for road racing, even those closest to her - and they still try.
Rachel de Bear

Cycling Central
22 Apr 2016 - 10:33 AM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2016 - 11:12 AM

LIVE: UCI MTB World Cup - Cairns
The UCI MTB World Cup XCO will be live streamed Sunday 24 April here on Cycling Central from 11:00am to 4:00pm AEST and broadcast on SBS2.

Peta Mullens is vigilant with spreadsheets. Not the Team Sky marginal gains type ones, but actual budgetary spreadsheets. 

If she isn't, her performance on the mountain bike is affected. Especially her upcoming nine-week program overseas.  

"It affects everything. It affects your eating, your travel. You're driving at odd times of the night to save money on certain accommodation. You don't want to have to do it on the cheap because it does affect your performance but plenty of Australians have done it on the cheap before."

The cost to compete in elite mountain biking year in, year out was the main reason Mullens rode two marathons back to back the last two weekends at the XCM Australian National Championships and the Bendigo Golden Triangle Epic (GTE). 

Mullens' coach, Mark Fenner from Today's Plan, relented on Mullens' nationals title tilt as she tracked quite well at training and he knew she needed that step up mentally. 

The GTE, literally across the road from Mullens' house, she entered only in the last hour before the race. 

"I was waiting for the OK. Mark and I definitely both agreed physically it wasn't a good idea but what allows me to be overseas for the entire nine weeks - the $1200 prize pool - to fulfill the season program needed to be done. I'm pretty desperate for spending overseas.

"And if I feel a bit better because of it, it's well worth it." 

Mullens told herself she'd only ride the first lap, but she couldn't help herself and raced the entire 100km. 

"It was just as much about the money as the fact I like to win bike races." 

And won it she did, easing back to ride the last 90 minutes at 150bpm. 

Walking away from the road 

The constant worry about money; where to stay, what to eat, how to travel, was non existent in the AIS high performance road cycling program Mullens walked away from in 2009. Such struggles just didn't exist.

But ultimately, neither did happiness.  

At this time, Mullens was on the top of the road riding game and had never been on a mountain bike. She'd won junior green and gold jerseys on the track and the under 23 road nationals. Then coach Warren McDonald left the program. 

"We were all pretty close with Warren (and his wife Sian), he was like a Dad for a lot of us, we didn't have our families there, we hadn't been overseas before. We had a really good connection.

"I have a strong personality - that fit in OK with Warren, he was quite accommodating like that." 

Mullens clashed with McDonald's replacement coach Martin Barras not in terms of personality, but over different opinions about training. It was at a time trial camp in Melbourne when things started to fall apart.  

"I wanted to be away focusing on what was going to prepare me for the season - and that wasn't in a wind tunnel testing.

"We did get along well and because we're honest people we were up front with that so I decided to leave." 

Mullens effectively retired from road racing around this time. Soon after, she was introduced to MTB by her father-in-law, Peter Moroni (of Moroni Bike Shop in Bendigo, where Peta works). Her first foray, a casual 70km ride in Wombat Forest, Woodend. 

"I didn't know how to ride it or use the gears. But I fell in love and have been ever since." 

Road/MTB - a fine balance 

It was Mullens' partner Jarrod Moroni who encouraged her to eventually come back to road racing. 

"I wouldn't have come back without him, and I wouldn't have strived for overseas competition without him either. He just believes I can be a better bike rider - and that's pretty special."

Mullens enjoys and is good at both disciplines, but high performance programs and women's professional teams aren't set up to support a rider who is off competing in MTB events. 

"Prior to winning the 2015 national road championship, I did approach the high performance team again. But nothing really came of it. 

"I do get it. Coaches have boxes to tick too. But I know there's a lot of track cyclists who do the same thing and receive support."

Mullens has since tried to hook up a deal on the road after parting ways with Wiggle High5 in early 2016 but she knows finding that elusive team may not happen. 

"I haven't done a lot of road racing in the last couple of years and to find someone who's happy to give me that chance before I even sign a contract is a pretty big thing. I'm still looking and I'll continue looking. I won't give up." 

No compromise

People, including those closest to her, continue to tell Mullens she should focus on just road racing.

"They think that's what I'm better at, the people that matter to me like Mum and Jarrod. 

"That may well be true but my passion is MTB, I like the road, and I'm a chance there but my heart is not quite in it like MTB." 

"But it works for me mentally, to find a balance between the two. Physically it works for me too, I find I'm racing the best when I'm crossing over programs. 

"I need to be mentally happy, or the rest falls apart. I think it's like that for a lot of other people. I think a lot of people don't realise they always race their best then they're happiest."

"I can never decide what I'm doing - I love everything, and I think an athlete should be able to do everything." 

"I'm just not willing to compromise. I want to leave no stone unturned and who knows, the right combination may come along, it might cost me a couple of hundred thousand in the long run though."

The price of passion 

There is no high performance program for MTB nationally and barely any at state level. Everything is self-funded. For example, national series races cost $1000 each hit out, and V02 max tests.  

"I would say 70 per cent of the mountain bikers I know have never done a V02 max test. Those who have, paid for it themselves," Mullens said. 

This is practically unheard of in most other high profile, high performance sports.

"We don't have our hands out, we all go to work every day to earn our money but when we go overseas, it gets spent quickly.

"It's also the money you're not earning at your job, it's the mortgage and the rates. We've done that for a couple of years now and I don't know how much longer we can sustain it."

Despite repeated requests to the AIS by numerous MTB athletes, they are denied any access to the high performance base in Italy used by Australian AIS road cyclists. The base includes accommodation, gym equipment, lab testing, ice baths and pools.  

"Even if the AIS housed us for one week accommodation wise, that would save us $1000. Or helped us out with car hire - which for nine weeks for example, is around $7000."

"But it's obviously too much paper work and rigmarole," Mullens concluded. 

Olympic qualification

Mullens and Henderson are the two riders fighting it out over the one Olympic spot Australia obtained. 

"I'm going to race Bec three more times before the Olympic selections are done - Cairns, Albstadt (Germany 21-22 May) and La Bresse (France 28-29 May). These are the main points of selection too for Rio," she said. 

But Mullens is realistic about her chances against Henderson. 

"If she holds the form she's got, she's unbeatable. She well and truly deserves to go to the Olympics. I want the best bike rider representing our country. 

"If Bec goes to Cairns in the form I saw her in at the Oceanias, I wouldn't be surprised if she runs the podium, which would be a huge accomplishment." 

Mullens will also represent Australia at the World Championships in the Czech Republic 28 June - 3 July, which falls after Australia's MTB Rio selection is made.  

"The World Champs will either be a really positive or negative experience for me." 

She is fairly zen about potentially not making the Olympic team. 

"A lot of people don't go to the Olympics. I like riding my bike - at the Commonwealth Games, World Championships or just socially. People put so much emphasis on it and athletes themselves but they forget about the bigger picture, it's one race very four years. It's a milestone, but it's certainly not the only race. 

"We don't go to the Olympic Games because we think it's the best course or against the best people, we go because of the hype around it. 

"I feel like I inspire people every day to get on their bike and I don't need to go to the Olympics to do that, but sure, it's a definite goal of mine." 

Always the bridesmaid 

Mullens jokes about always being Rebecca Henderson's bridesmaid. 

Asked if there's any frustration about never beating Henderson, Mullens' passion for MTB shines through. 

"Usually in a MTB race the best person wins and that's one of the things I love. I know your own performance is obviously a reflection of what you're capable of and what you're doing and there's not really many tactics.

"I've come at the wrong era and i just need to suck that up. 

"Bec Henderson and Dan McConnell are the two best things that have happened to Australian mountain biking for a very long time," Mullens said. 

Makin' plans  

Following this year's nine-week program overseas and hopefully Olympic selection, Mullens looks forward to racing at home next year for the World Championships in Cairns, and in 2018 at the Gold Coast's Commonwealth Games. 

Her biggest motivation are challenges, and Mullens says that happens every day on her mountain bike.  

"I enjoy learning new things - conquering something technical I haven't before, or doing a jump I haven't done before - I get something satisfying every day."

Beyond these, MTB stage races are what excite Mullens. Next year, Moroni and Mullens hope to compete at the Absa Cape Epic in South Africa. 

They raced the 2013 edition, finishing second in the mixed category. Completing the eight day, 700km, 16,000 climbing metres race in 37 hours, 18 minutes and 49 seconds, it was the toughest race Mullens has ever done. 

"We weren't properly prepared as we'd come from XCO nationals and had ridden a lot of short sharp stuff so towards the end I got quite sick and Jarrod had to have acupuncture on his arm from pushing me.

"We'd sleep in tents every night and snuck out a few times to get McDonalds it's pretty special to have someone to share that with - they're the stories I'll tell my kids every day."

Watch: Absa Cape Epic final stage
Four-time winner Karl Platt and his teammate Urs Huber of Team Bulls topped the final podium at the Absa Cape Epic.

Life's a marathon

Mullens shares the story of how she got into marathon running at 14.

"It was my escape. I used to go running in the bush all the time. I'd go running for hours Mum would send out a search party trying to find me."

It's hard not to conjure that image after listening to Mullens speak about riding her mountain bike. It's as if only a dinner bell could summon her back from adventures out on the trails. 

"I can see myself riding a mountain bike until I can't ride it anymore."