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Near Fillmore, California, Rally UHC sets up next to an abandoned farm building every year for an intra-team time trial, an old tradition at its winter training camp. The winner’s only prize: bragging rights. Considering Rally’s time trial talents, such as Svein Tuft and Evan Huffman, they are coveted bragging rights.
Despite the veteran firepower in the field, Brandon McNulty, 20, set the fastest mark on Guiberson Road this January. Following a 2018 campaign with promising results but no victories, he hopes a few small improvements will turn near-misses into wins — outside of training camp, and not necessarily on a time trial bike either.
A junior world time trial champion, McNulty is known for his TT talent. But he acquired a taste for a new style of racing in 2018: hilly one-day classics.
Rally scored invites to the Grand Prixes of Québec and Montréal last year, giving him an opportunity to try his hand at one-day racing alongside riders like Greg Van Avermaet and Michael Matthews. McNulty finished in the lead group in both events, riding to 16th in the Montréal race.
He says the experience opened his eyes to the wider world of pro cycling, which doesn’t revolve around the pressure to perform in grand tour-type events.
“I definitely learned that I like races like Montréal,” he said. “I kind of realized that I got wrapped up trying to be a super-skinny light climber and it’s not what I am naturally.”
Rally’s performance director Jonas Carney still sees McNulty as being a potential grand tour contender down the road but said that his versatility shouldn’t be underestimated.
“He’s a really well-rounded kid for a climber/time trialist,” Carney said. “He’s got some pretty good skills and he’s a pretty punchy rider.”
McNulty may have more opportunities to shine on varied terrain in 2019. Rally UHC has been invited to La Flèche Walonne, a climber-friendly spring classic on April 24 in Belgium. The team is also hoping to return to the Canadian WorldTour races in the fall.
To prepare for these events as well as stage races, McNulty is working hard to become a more durable and versatile rider going into his third year with Rally, now on a one-year contract. He wants to maintain the kind of form he had at last year’s Amgen Tour of California for more than just a few days. He learned a lot about his limits in 2018, particularly at the Tour de l’Avenir. Two days after a near-stage win, he punctured early on in a short but tough mountain stage and spent the rest of the afternoon chasing the pack, ultimately losing nearly five minutes.
“I learned how far I would push myself because I remember how hard I was going just to try to get back [to the peloton],” he said. “I was like, ‘How am I still going? How am I moving?'”
McNulty is hoping to build on that this year. He has seen positive signs so far in training and he is motivated by his near-misses last season.
“As close as I came several times last year, I could tell if I was one or two percent better, I probably had a few wins,” he told VeloNews as Rally neared the end of its Southern California training camp last week. “I think a win is possible this year, hopefully.”
McNulty came within a few hundred meters of winning stage 4 of his first race of 2018, the Dubai Tour, but was caught within sight of the Hatta Dam finish line. He went on to land a handful of top 10s elsewhere last season, including a seventh-place overall finish at the Amgen Tour of California. An early celebration cost him a stage win at the Tour de l’Avenir, the sport’s premier event for up-and-coming prospects.
It is an incident his teammates won’t let him forget, but he’s quick to laugh about it now. Although McNulty still has a lot to learn, he feels like he is “on track” in his development.
“I think three or four years ago if you told me I was going to be here it wouldn’t even seem real,” he said.
“This camp, had I done this last year, I’d be probably just lying here completely wrecked. Now, it’s like, I feel it, but I feel like I made it through it,” he said. “That’s a big thing for any young guy, just developing the engine.”
Along with his engine, McNulty also plans to boost his European experience. Currently based in Arizona, he expects to relocate to Europe in the next few years with the ultimate goal of becoming a WorldTour pro. As Rally focuses more on European races this year, McNulty and his teammates will spend plenty of time on the other side of the Atlantic, giving him an important opportunity to adjust to life as a European pro.
“There’s more than just the cycling aspect of being a WorldTour rider,” McNulty said. “You have to learn to grow up a little bit more.”
McNulty’s 2019 season begins next week in Spain at the Challenge Mallorca series.