It is barely February and Brandon McNulty already has a win, a second place, and a fourth-place against some of the toughest competition in the world at the Mallorca Challenge. Most of the world’s cyclists are still coming out of their winter hibernations, and many are already testing their racing chops over 160km of hilly Spanish roads.
McNulty made headlines when he won the Trofeo Calvia at the end of January, but he did it in style – soloing away from the field with 60km to go and winning by a margin of one minute and 17 seconds. Unfortunately, McNulty’s power meter wasn’t working that day, but it was working during his other early-season races and all of his winter training rides.
Let’s examine Brandon McNulty’s winter training, which gives us a glimpse into why UAE-Team Emirates signed him to a rare three-year professional contract when he was just 21 years old.
Hint: McNulty has one of the best cycling physiologies we’ve ever seen. The 23-year-old American is certainly talented; but when you combine that talent with hard work and a carefully structured training plan, Brandon McNulty is one of the best riders in the world.
After ending his season at Il Lombardia, McNulty took a month off the bike, according to his Strava. The reset began in mid-November 2021, when McNulty started riding ~15 hours a week in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. The 2022 racing season was still a few months away, and McNulty’s goals were even further down the road at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España. Thus, the training in November and December needn’t be too stressful – in that time period, the biggest week that McNulty did was just over 22 hours of riding. In the context of WorldTour cycling, riding 15-20 hours a week is low-volume training.
McNulty didn’t fly to Europe until the second week of January, where he settled into training in Calpe, Spain. In his first week there, he didn’t do any high-intensity efforts apart from a few Tempo intervals, which for him is about 4.5-5w/kg. For the WorldTour professional, these intervals are relatively easy; but for the amateur cyclist, they are anything but.
One of McNulty’s first interval sessions, in Calpe, was a ride that included an opening 30-minute interval at 330w. For a rider of his caliber – as we will see from his threshold training soon – 330w might not even be a tempo effort; it could just be the top end of McNulty’s Zone 2 aerobic threshold.
Later that ride, McNulty upped the pace, doing nearly 6w/kg for 30 minutes, and then finishing off the interval session with a 10-minute effort at 428w (6.3w/kg). Incredibly, this will be one of McNulty’s easiest interval sessions in the month of January.
McNulty’s next interval session was simple: 3×20-minute over/under threshold style efforts at 6w/kg.
These are repeats…6w/kg for 20min repeats.
McNulty – 3×20-minute Over/Unders:
4:00 at 400w (5.8w/kg)
1:00 at 490w (7.1w/kg)
20min Average Power: ~420w (6.2w/kg)
Finishing with an average of ~420w for each 20-minute interval, each over/under consisted of four minutes at 390w (5.6w/kg) followed by one minute at 500w (7.2w/kg). McNulty stuck to the power targets for the most part, but he also increased his power output (slightly) across each interval. This is the concept of negative splitting, but instead of getting faster as time goes on, McNulty is increasing his power output.
In this session, for example, McNulty averaged 416w for the first 20-minute interval, 419w for the second, and finally 426w (6.2w/kg) for the third. This is a concept we will see repeated throughout McNulty’s training sessions and one that we will see exercised in races. The winner of a Tour de France stage is not typically the rider who can produce the highest 20-minute power, but rather the rider who can produce five 20-minute efforts at high power output and still produce their best effort in the final repeat.
Next on McNulty’s schedule was a day of power testing, and if you’ve been reading my recent Power Analysis articles, you’ll know that Val de Ebo is the most popular climb in the world right now for WorldTour pros’ pre-season training. Before McNulty tested himself up the entire climb, he did a 5-minute power test on the lower slopes. The exceedingly strong numbers speak for themselves.
McNulty – 5-minute power test:
Average Power: 530w (7.7w/kg)
Like Tadej Pogačar and some other WorldTour riders, the Val de Ebo seemed to be too short for a 20-minute power test; or the riders were just a bit too fast.
McNulty – 19-minute power test:
Average Power: 465w (6.7w/kg)
With McNulty’s next ride, we’re getting into exclusive WorldTour territory. If you’re an amateur cyclist, even at the elite level, this workout should scare you: three one-hour repeats at 360w (5.2w/kg).
That is an entire hour above 5w/kg, repeated three times.
It is clear by now that McNulty is relatively comfortable at 350-400w, as this is significantly below his threshold. But what do the interval sessions look like when he is really pushing himself and riding at his absolute max?
15-minute climbing builds were next on McNulty’s training schedule, and as per usual, he headed into the mountains for this session. With an overall average of 430-440w (6.3w/kg) for 15 minutes, the numbers can be misleading. Starting out at “just” 400w, McNulty would progressively increase his power output over the final five minutes of the interval until he was pushing over 550w by the very end. The breakdown looks something like this:
McNulty – 15-minute climbing building power:
10min at 400w (5.8w/kg)
1min at 430w (6.2w/kg)
1min at 460w (6.6w/kg)
1min at 490w (7.1w/kg)
1min at 520w (7.5w/kg)
1min at 550w (8w/kg)
Overall Average Power: ~430w (6.3w/kg)
Final 5-minute Average Power: ~500w (7.3w/kg)
The final interval session that McNulty completed before the Mallorca Challenge is perhaps the craziest of them all. This ride was short and intense – the entire thing took less than two hours – and began with an all-out 10-minute effort at 500w. Yes, your read that right: 10 minutes at 500w.
McNulty – 10-minute effort:
Average Power: 497w (7.2w/kg)
After a quick recovery down the descent, McNulty went straight into the first of two 10-minute intervals that are among the hardest I’ve ever seen.
McNulty – 10-minute climbing Intervals:
4:20 at 440w (6.4w/kg)
6x 40/20 (40 seconds at 600w (8.8w/kg) / 20 seconds at 240w (3.4w/kg))
McNulty’s 40/20 session is unique because of the hard lead-in and high recovery power output in between 40-second efforts. Typically, 40/20s are done as a standalone interval, not with a >4-minute threshold lead-in. This goes to show that McNulty’s intervals are less about pure power output and more about sustained power output in a fatigued state. That’s why he begins the 40/20s after four minutes at threshold effort, because if a real-life race scenario, you don’t sprint for the finish after riding easy for five minutes – you sprint to the finish after racing for four hours and riding at or above threshold for the last 10 minutes. That’s when you see how much you have left in your legs.
In between all of these massive rides, McNulty interspersed rest days and easy rides to recover from the high-intensity interval sessions. So what does an “easy” ride look like for a WorldTour pro? Something around 250w (3.6w/kg) and an average heart rate of 110-120bpm for McNulty. He even rode a steep climb in the middle of the ride, pushing 293w (4.2w/kg) for 20 minutes without his heart rate ever breaking 140bpm.
The training of Brandon McNulty is truly remarkable. On a Wednesday afternoon in January, the 23-year-old American is doing 30-minute repeats at power outputs that most of us can only dream about. And not only that, but he will do it day after day, for weeks on end, with travel and racing in between, for about the next nine months. Impressive is quite an understatement.
Riders: Brandon McNulty