Barney King coaches bicycle racers. He’s done this job from his home base in Phoenix, AZ for a few decades now, and over the course of his career, he says, “I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of very talented young riders.” But he’s never worked with someone quite like Brandon McNulty.
McNulty, a 19-year-old racer on Rally Cycling, is the reigning junior world champion in the time trial — meaning, among racers the same age, there is no one better at pedaling a bike as fast as possible over a given distance.
Only two other American men have ever won a junior world championship in road cycling. One of them, Greg LeMond, went on to win the Tour de France three times.
Of course, in sports, as in life, teenage prodigies frequently fail to fulfill the promise we so often expect of them. They encounter insurmountable challenges. Their ambition wanes. They push back against the pressure we’re so eager to put on them.
So, when McNulty crashed and fractured his hip at Portugal’s Volta Alentejo in February, his first real race as a professional, and his first real setback as a bike racer, major questions loomed: How would he handle this adversity? Would he come back as strong as before? Or would his cycling career begin to spiral downward, before it had even begun?
“We hit the crosswinds, and guys started to get twitchy and nervous,” McNulty recalls of the race in which he crashed. “There were several close calls, where guys were slamming their brakes and skidding. Then, all of a sudden, right in front of me, two guys clipped each other, and my front wheel was in between them. I went over on my side and landed right on my hip.”
When you crash in a bike race, something always hurts, according to McNulty, and this collision was no different. “I thought, ‘oh, it’s probably just bruised pretty badly,’” he says of the pain in his hip. He got up, got back to the field of racers, and rode to the finish with half the power in his injured leg.
But getting off his bike at the finish, he could barely twist his leg to get out of the pedal without wincing in pain. “I thought, ‘This isn’t good,’” he says. “That night, I kept trying to tell myself, it’s feeling better.” The next morning, though, he could hardly walk. He went to the hospital, and an X-ray showed two hip fractures, a crack at the front and one near his sit bones.
“I was super bummed, because that was the first race of a two-month stint in Europe,” he says. “But I knew if I let it get too much into my head it would do more harm than if I just accepted it and got through it. I just had to stay positive.”
Where many young athletes might complicate a serious injury by trying to do too much, too soon, McNulty was positively disciplined in his restraint.
Back in the US, he connected with King and developed a recovery plan, following the advice of his doctor and physical therapist.
“It was really painful. At first, the only way I could move my leg is if I picked it up and moved it with my arms,” he says.
He would need crutches to walk for two and a half weeks following the crash, but he was able to do exercises in a pool only four days later. He set new, small goals, and worked toward achieving them.
“There were little things I could do to take my mind off the pain and the monotony of sitting around all day,” Brandon says. “I had never actually done a legitimate swim stroke, so I focused on teaching myself how to swim. I would swim to one side of the pool and already be at max heart rate.”
At three weeks, he began riding a stationary bike. “It was really motivating to get back on the bike, and made me enjoy it that much more,” he says.
At five weeks, Brandon’s doctors cleared him to ride outside, but King advised waiting another week or so until he had finished his physical therapy — and McNulty listened.
“Brandon instinctively has the ability to keep his cool when things aren’t going well,” says Roy Knickman, the director of the team McNulty raced for as a junior. “He’s very relaxed, and utilizes his strengths very confidently.”
That composure has assisted McNulty in races — using his strength when it will prove effective, instead of wasting energy attacking fruitlessly. King cites a world cup stage race for juniors, the 2016 Tour de l’Abitibi in Canada, in which Brandon lost the lead after a difficult day of racing. After the stage, Brandon’s teammates hung their heads in defeat.
But McNulty simply looked at King and said, “No problem, I’ll get the time back tomorrow.” The next day, in the final stage of the race, he made a perfectly timed attack into a difficult crosswind section, rode away from the field, and won the race.
“You can’t coach that,” says King. “That’s just someone who’s special.”
That same composure and discipline helped Brandon fully recover from his broken hip. About four months after his crash, he toed the line at the Redlands Classic, a pro stage race in California, and his first true test after breaking his hip. There, he would prove he’d fully recovered from his injury, and reaffirm his world class talent.
McNulty credits his love for cycling to his father, RJ, an avid mountain biker who had dabbled in racing himself before becoming a father. Both King and Knickman say Brandon’s quiet but confident demeanor comes from both his parents, who have staunchly supported him while also making sure his motivation to ride and race came from within.
“From a real early age, once the training wheels were off, Brandon wanted to go mountain biking,” says RJ McNulty. “He knew I’d raced, and at around 8 or 9 years old, he said he wanted to go race himself. In his first race, he finished mid-pack, but he wasn’t discouraged at all. He said, ‘OK Dad, I want to train now.’”
Almost every day when RJ got home from work, Brandon would be ready to ride. In Brandon’s next race, a month or so later, “He just killed everybody,” says RJ. “And he pretty much just kept doing that from there on out.” At 11, Brandon began road racing with club teams in the Phoenix area, where he still lives.
At 15, in his first junior national championships, Brandon placed fifth in the time trial. At 16, he was fifth in the road race, and second in the time trial. But even as one of the best racers for his age in the US, he tried not to take cycling too seriously.
“I’d just do the group rides I wanted to, and when I wanted to go hard I’d take off,” Brandon says. At 17, when his family hired King as a coach, and Brandon began training with more structure, he says, “things went to a whole new level.”
King not only gave Brandon a regimen of interval training to strengthen him physically, but also worked with him on bike handling skills, and the way in which he prepared for races. In advance of the 2016 junior world championships in Doha, Qatar, King jokes that Brandon’s preparation, “bordered on child abuse.”
In Qatar, Brandon would face extreme heat and humidity. So King had Brandon ride a stationary trainer in a closed garage, simulating 100-degree heat and 90 percent humidity. Then, after the workout, Brandon would go sit in a sauna.
“He would eat endless Gatorade slushies the whole time,” says King.
To simulate the technical nature of the circuit at the world championships, which featured 19 turns over a roughly five-mile loop, King and Brandon devised a similar course in a neighborhood near Brandon’s home. Brandon left for Qatar with a feeling the focused work would pay off.
The night before he would win in the time trial at junior worlds, he emailed King. “I feel great,” he said. “I think something special is going to happen tomorrow.
At the Redlands Classic, his first race following the crash that broke his hip, McNulty arrived similarly confident. “The previous weeks, in training, my numbers had been good, so I knew I’d be competitive. I was just excited to be racing again,” he says.
The stage race began with a time trial, in which McNulty finished fourth, one of the few times he’d missed the podium in a race against the clock. The next day, in a road race with a mountain top finish, he finished third, and moved into second place overall. The pair of results confirmed that, in the wake of the crash and injury, he had maintained his health and fitness.
But it remained to be seen if the crash had in some way affected his psyche — if it had tarnished his gift, shaken his confidence, killed his coolness, or disrupted his ability to make good decisions, even during the heat of a race.
He admits that riding inches away from other racers at Redlands, “there was a little bit of nervousness.” But by the fourth stage, a high-speed circuit race on a technical course, he found his mojo. “I was back to being pretty comfortable.”
In fact, he received the biggest compliment of all, praise from his teammates. “All the guys were like, ‘It was super nice riding for you,’ because they didn’t have to do anything to keep me at the front,” Brandon says. “I already had the skills.”
With a solid stage race result under his belt, McNulty retrained his focus on his season’s major goal, defending his title as a time trial world champion, but now one age bracket higher, racing in the under-23 category.
Even before McNulty became a world champion, he’d attracted attention from some of the world’s top development teams — US and European outfits comprising racers under the age of 23, with a reputation for turning talented young cyclists into Tour de France level riders.
The Rally Cycling team races predominantly in the US and features both younger racers trying to move up in the sport and older, more stable veteran racers. In the bidding war for Brandon, the Rally Cycling team was an outlier.
But King, as well as Roy Knickman, the director of the team Brandon raced with as a junior, saw Rally as a good fit. King viewed the veteran racers at Rally as a valuable resource for Brandon.
King felt that the difference between joining Rally, or racing on a team of similarly talented but relatively inexperienced young racers, was the equivalent of either, “doing an internship, or joining a fraternity.”
Knickman, a longtime friend of Rally Cycling director Jonas Carney and a former junior world medalist himself, also saw the atmosphere at Rally as highly beneficial to the athletes.
“They seem to have figured out that the happiest and healthiest athletes are the most productive athletes,” he says.
Carney visited McNulty at his home, to meet face to face with him and his parents and to reinforce Rally Cycling’s commitment to putting the rider’s well-being first, and to making Brandon’s long-term career a priority.
“When Brandon decided on a team, he spent almost the entire day at Barney’s house,” says RJ. “Going over the various options, and the benefits of each.”
McNulty says he chose Rally because, “It feels like a family-oriented environment. And people are willing to help you out when they’re in the position.” Even though he came to the team as one of the strongest riders — he was Rally’s “camp champ,” the title awarded to the best rider at the team’s January training camp — he appreciates his teammates’ decades of experience.
“Brad Huff likes to remind me that he’s been racing bikes longer than I’ve been alive,” he says.
In June, McNulty notched his first win as a professional, taking the time trial at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in Minnesota. And weeks later, he followed up that victory by winning the time trial at the under-23 national championships in Louisville.
The national championship win secured McNulty’s spot on the US under-23 roster for the world championships (never a guaranteed start, even if you’re the reigning junior world champion), and put him one step closer to his goal of winning the under-23 time trial world championship this fall.
In overcoming his crash, and the resulting injury, McNulty showed an ability to overcome adversity, to find practitioners he and his coach trusted, and to methodically follow a plan laid out for recovery. These things may seem simple, but so often, we get them wrong.
McNulty says that in facing the inevitable challenges of professional cycling—and life—he’s adopted a relatively simply mantra.
“One thing my coach has always told me, that I often repeat to myself, is that as long as I’m healthy and I’m happy, I’ll perform well.”
Ian Dille is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He has written for Outside magazine, Bicycling, and Texas Monthly, and is the author of The Cyclist’s Bucket List (Rodale, 2015).