After Brandon McNulty won the junior world time trial championships this past September in Qatar, Europe came calling.
Major WorldTour teams reached out to him, offering cash contracts and one-way entry to the sport’s pinnacle. Large U.S.-based development teams reached out, too, offering racing opportunities in Belgium, France, and Spain. McNulty, 19, knew the calls were bound to come. Coaches say he is perhaps the most physiologically gifted American cyclist ever. His power numbers point toward otherworldly talent even beyond that of Greg Lemond, Taylor Phinney, or Tejay van Garderen. It’s not a matter of if McNulty enters the sport’s top echelon, but when.
After taking several weeks to contemplate his future, McNulty made an unexpected decision. He chose to stay in the United States in 2017 and make his professional debut with Rally Pro Cycling, a Continental squad. The choice bucked the trend established by nearly ever world-class American talent that has come before him.
“It was a really hard decision,” McNulty told VeloNews at a Rally team camp in January. “Racing full-time in Europe is something I one day want to do. I’d rather do it slowly than jump into it.”
McNulty’s cautious decision is built on the memories of talented Americans who never made it to the WorldTour. Dozens of gifted youngsters have traveled overseas to race, only to be chewed up and spit out by Europe’s cutthroat development leagues. McNulty and his team of advisors — which includes his coach, his parents, and former Tour de France rider Roy Knickman — believe that this conservative approach will help him avoid the various hazards that have derailed his predecessors.
“If we do it right, then five years from now he’ll be close to doing a grand tour,” Knickman says. “In the meantime, he doesn’t need to grow to hate cycling.”
WHEN SEEN RIDING ALONGSIDE his Rally teammates, Brandon McNulty is indistinguishable from any other professional cyclist; he’s all legs and no upper body. In street clothes, however, McNulty transforms into a teenager with a child’s complexion. Like most kids, he spends his downtime playing video games and reading. Those who know him best describe him as quiet but sociable; he texted a thank-you message to his masseuse just hours after winning worlds.
“We used to think Brandon was shy — then we saw him in his element around other cyclists and he’s not,” says his father, R.J. McNulty, a software engineer. “He’s always been a self-motivated kid. Very focused.”
McNulty’s focus and talent were evident the moment his training wheels came off. When Brandon was eight, R.J. took him to a three-mile mountain bike trail that included a climb that was too steep for Brandon to ride. When R.J. recommended the two go home, Brandon threw a tantrum.
“He wouldn’t go home until he rode the climb,” R.J. McNulty says, laughing. “I’m sure the other mountain bikers looked at me like I was some abusive dad forcing his kid to ride this hill. I was like, ‘It’s not me, it’s him!’”
A passionate mountain bike racer, R.J. McNulty says Brandon’s focus helped him overcome the boredom and discomfort that often chases kids away from cycling. So did his speed. Brandon started racing mountain bikes at age nine, and he took up road racing at age 11, riding in the local group rides alongside veteran racers. By the time Brandon had turned 13, R.J. says, Brandon could easily drop his dad.
Brandon regularly finished on the podium at junior nationals, often near the country’s top junior, Adrien Costa, now with Axeon Hagens Berman. Cycling remained his hobby, not a career path. He never had a coach and instead relied on group rides for fitness.
[pullquote align=”￼right” attrib=”Jonas Carney”]”I have no doubt that Brandon will be successful in the WorldTour. The question is how many mistakes can he avoid and how mentally fresh can he be when he decides to step up to that level?”[/pullquote]
In 2014 McNulty met Knickman, who managed the California-based Lux/Specialized junior development team. Impressed by McNulty’s results, Knickman invited McNulty onto the team for 2015. At Lux’s 2015 training camp, Knickman had the juniors ride an eight-mile time trial course outside of Oxnard, California. After seeing McNulty’s power numbers, Knickman’s jaw dropped.
“He had just hopped on a spare bike, adjusted the seatpost, and then went out and set the course record,” Knickman says. “He averaged 370 watts. It was like ‘Wow, this kid is special.’”
Knickman put McNulty, who is six-feet tall and 150 pounds, in touch with longtime USA Cycling coach Barney King, who began training the youngster. Two months later, at Arizona’s Valley of the Sun road race, McNulty won the junior time trial, and his time would have put him into the top-10 in the pro division. Unlike the elites, McNulty had completed the race on a standard road bike with junior gearing.
When King saw McNulty’s power files, his jaw dropped as well. He had averaged 380 watts during the 30-minute effort. King sent Brandon’s power files to Jim Miller, vice president of athletics for USA Cycling. Miller asked King if the power meter was broken.
“380 watts is unbelievable. Great guys at that age are doing like 340 — we’re talking Tejay [van Garderen], Taylor [Phinney], and [Lawson] Craddock-level guys,” Miller says. “At that time we all saw [Adrien] Costa as the next superstar. I was like, ‘This kid is probably better.’”
In McNulty, King sees the physical gifts for greatness. He squeezes his lanky frame into an aerodynamic time trial position, and approaches time trial courses with aggressive, time-shaving lines. McNulty climbs remarkably well for his height. And his pedaling cadence is abnormally high: 120 rpm.
After just seven months of structured training and racing with Lux, McNulty headed to Europe to compete on USA Cycling’s junior national team. In August 2015 the squad took on the Czech Republic’s junior Peace Race, which has become an essential stop for up-and-coming talent. The American team came in with Costa as the unofficial leader. McNulty rode aggressively, winning the first stage and taking over leadership. Eventually, he won the overall. No American junior had won the race in its 44-year history.
“We race [the Peace Race] with every junior who’s gone on to the WorldTour, and we had never won it,” Miller says. “And then Brandon wins the queen stage and the overall. It was special.”
FOR TALENTED AMERICANS LIKE McNulty, the route to cycling’s highest echelon has always run through Europe. Greg LeMond famously signed with France’s Renault team at the age of 19; Motorola sent Lance Armstrong and other Americans to Europe in the early 1990s; van Garderen chose Rabobank’s espoir (under-23) development team over similar programs at home. USA Cycling still sends its U23 riders to the Low Countries every year, hoping the cutthroat development races pound them into seasoned professionals.
The system produces few champions. But the list of washouts is long.
“The racing in Europe is better, but you have to be careful with guys, especially the first-year U23 guys,” Miller says. “It’s a big change in workload and a big life change.”
The U23 riders participate in development races that are often better-organized than events in the United States. European U23 teams employ aggressive tactics, and the pace is a huge step up from the junior ranks. The weather is often dismal, and sickness can spread through a team quickly.
The races weed out the less talented riders; others quit due to the time away from home. Sometimes, the system chases away riders with WorldTour-level talent. Chris Stockburger came to USA Cycling’s development house in Izegem, Belgium, in 2004, having won 11 junior national championships. He suffered through illness and overtraining, and results never came. At one point, he was quarantined due to illness away from the other riders for weeks. After another year of dismal results, he retired at the age of 20 to pursue medical school.
“It can be very difficult to be over there and to not be successful and to be isolated and to have those stresses on top of it,” Stockburger says. “It’s the reality of the sport.”
A decade after Stockburger quit, his name still echoes within the minds of American development coaches as a cautionary tale. Did the program push him too hard? Could a kinder, gentler approach have helped him survive those crucial espoir years? Did super-talents like Stockburger even need to spend that much time racing overseas?
“Chris was the guy that everybody saw as the next great American,” says King, who directed Stockburger at several races. “He was one of the riders who we thought you just couldn’t miss.”
King thought of Stockburger as he pondered McNulty’s future. He wondered if there was a better pathway to bring McNulty to the WorldTour. After McNulty’s Peace Race victory, WorldTour teams and rider agents began to query about the youngster’s next steps.
Knickman had his own trepidations for sending McNulty overseas. A bronze medalist at the 1984 Olympics, Knickman turned professional at 19 with the French La Vie Claire team in 1986. He says team management promised to ease him into European racing.
Instead, he was shipped from the Championship of Zurich straight to the Tour du Romandie and on to the Giro d’Italia. After four seasons in Europe, Knickman retreated to the U.S. domestic scene, where he retired in 2000.
“They swore I wouldn’t do a grand tour, and there I was racing 31 days straight. I was toast,” Knickman says. “It showed me that I was expendable. Cycling is a business.”
In McNulty, both men saw a young rider with unworldly talent who still raced for fun, and not yet for cash. Working-class kids in Spain or Belgium often gravitate toward cycling for the glitz and big paychecks. McNulty is the son of a software engineer, not a farmer. He grew up in suburban Phoenix, not in working-class Flanders. Like Stockburger, McNulty has other options in life
— college, a professional career — should cycling not work out. Perhaps throwing him into the European meat grinder wasn’t the best way to nurture his talent.
“That European hard-man, only-the-tough- survive approach doesn’t work for everyone,” Knickman says. “What if we make cycling palatable for Brandon? He can be around friends, he can let his body mature, and when he feels it’s time, he can go to Europe.”
THREE WEEKS BEFORE THE 2016 UCI world championships in Doha, McNulty invited his USA Cycling teammates Ian Garrison and Tyler Stites to his house in Phoenix to train in the Arizona heat. Hoping to simulate Qatar’s hot, muggy conditions, the three took over the McNulty family garage, filling it with space heaters and wet towels. Three days a week, they pedaled 20-minute efforts on the trainers in the makeshift sauna.
McNulty can’t say whether the unorthodox training helped him acclimate to Doha. While painful, the makeshift sauna intervals were fun.
“We were dying. It was so hard,” McNulty says, laughing. “To anybody outside of cycling I’m sure it would sound like child abuse.”
During race week, the heat rose above 100 degrees on most days. The day before his race, McNulty spun warm-up laps on the course. During these short efforts, he says, he knew his body was prepared.
“I texted Barney and told him that tomorrow is going to be something special,” McNulty says.
When all 83 junior riders had finished, McNulty had won by 35 seconds over Mikkel Bjerg of Denmark. Had McNulty been in the U23 race, he would have won the bronze medal. After McNulty’s victory, the inquiries poured in. Quick-Step’s U23 team Klein Constantia was interested, and so was Axel Merckx’s Axeon-Hagens Berman team. Two other European teams threw their names in the ring. A fifth inquiry came from Jonas Carney, director of Rally.
A longtime friend of Knickman, Carney flew to Phoenix to meet with McNulty’s parents. He said Brandon could do a shorter, two-month European stint with Rally, and then return to the United States to race domestically, before returning to Europe with USA Cycling in the late summer. He assured the McNulty family that his team’s veterans Danny Pate and Jesse Anthony would mentor the youngster.
Carney says. “I think we gave him a lot more options than other teams.”
The deciding factor was schedule flexibility. King and McNulty viewed the 2017 UCI world time trial championships as their primary goal. When King asked team directors whether they’d guarantee schedule flexibility to prepare for worlds, only Carney agreed.
McNulty’s American-centric plan is not without risks. WorldTour teams value results at small European races over those at top North American races. Racing dynamics in North America are less tactical and cutthroat than what you find on narrow, winding roads in the Low Countries. And the traditional European development plan has worked — even Stockburger agrees it’s still the best way to reach the sport’s pinnacle.
“The aggressiveness and the wattage is harder, so it makes sense why [European] racing is better,” Stockburger says. “If your end goal is to be a European pro I still think it’s the best way to go.”
Still, if McNulty can win another world title, the result will likely overcome any gap in his European experience. Thus far, Rally has agreed to work alongside King and McNulty’s goal. After several days of heavy training miles in January, the Rally team headed toward Southern California’s famed Gibraltar climb. King asked if McNulty could have a rest day, and the team agreed.
“The goal is to challenge Brandon but not to drown him,” King says. “Just because the kid can ride like an adult doesn’t mean he’s an adult — not yet.”