Many observers were surprised when reigning junior men's time trial world champion Brandon McNulty decided to stray from the typical path of signing with a U23 development team and chose instead to ride with Rally Cycling next year. Most highly sought-after young US riders have opted for Axel Merckx's Axeon Hagens Berman program and its long list of WorldTour alumni.
But Jonas Carney, performance director for Rally Cycling, one of the longest-running Continental teams in the US, told Cyclingnews his team can offer McNulty one thing that the development teams cannot – teammates with decades of experience to learn from.
"While our team is not a 'devo' team, we have developed many riders who went on the race in the WorldTour, and we can offer things that traditional development teams cannot," Carney said. “Brandon will have more racing options and more flexibility with Rally than with any other team. We offer European racing without having to rely on the national team. Our program is incredibly stable. And most importantly, Brandon can learn from experienced riders like Danny Pate. How much can you learn from your teammates when they are all development riders?"
Although not a development team, per se, Rally has launched several riders into cycling's top level, most recently with Chad Haga and Mike Woods making the jump. Unlike McNulty, who has been racing bikes since he was eight years old, both Haga and Woods came to cycling relatively late. Rally has had riders McNulty's age in the past, however. David Veilleux, who rode with Team Europcar for three years, signed with Rally predecessor Kelly Benefits when he was 19. And the team signed Ben King, who will transfer from Cannondale-Drapac to Dimension Data next year, when he was just 18.
As veteran riders like Tom Zirbel and Will Routely reach retirement age, Rally has been adding more and more younger riders. The team signed Colin Joyce, 22, from Axeon for next year, and it has Sepp Kuss, 22, Adam de Vos, 22, and Curtis White, 21, returning. The new recruits are part of Rally's conscious effort to get younger as it looks to expand its footprint in the future.
"For the last several years we have focused on riders in the 23-25 range or riders who had a late start like Mike Woods. We are now looking to recruit the best U23 riders in North America," Carney said. "We have an incredibly strong group of young guys with Brandon, Curtis White, Sepp Kuss, and Colin Joyce. We want to build a really strong group of young guys who will be ready to race in Europe when our team makes that step. We are thinking long term."
In McNulty, the team obviously landed one of the crown jewels of the 2016 junior class. Aside from his world championship title, McNulty has amassed an impressive international palmarés that includes third place at the 2015 junior time trial world championship in Richmond. McNulty also won the four-day Course de la Paix in the Czech Republic in 2015 ahead of teammate Adrien Costa after taking the lead with a time trial victory.
He was second behind Costa, who has since singed with Axeon and was second this year at the Tour of Utah, in the overall at the 2015 Tour l'Abitibi after winning the opening stage and the time trial. This year, McNulty won time trial stages in Pays de Vaud and Trofeo Karlsberg, where he also won the overall. He increased his result one spot at l'Abitibi in 2016, taking the overall victory in the Canadian Nations Cup race.
In the US, McNulty won two national individual time trial titles in 2015 and 2016, and he also has a finishing kick that has added several criteriums to his already lengthy palmares.
Roy Knickman, the former Olympian and European pro who runs the Lux-Stradling junior team where McNulty raced the past two years, said the rider's potential is unlimited.
"His time trial performances already have him on par with the best U23 riders in the world," Kickman told Cyclingnews. "His race sense is also very advanced for his age. I believe it will just be a matter of his body maturing and him developing the capacity to do more race days in succession to one day be ready for a Grand Tour."
Although admitting that the move to Rally is "unorthodox" for a rider who will only turn 19 in April, Knickman said the "wealth of knowledge and experience" Carney and his staff bring to the table make it the right spot for McNulty.
"Not only will he be able to develop at the pace best for his age, he will have the ability to race as much as he wants in the US with a full team and get support, which will help avoid burn out and he will have veteran professional riders like Danny Pate to teach him and at times support him," Knickman said.
Cyclingnews caught up with McNulty earlier this week to talk with him about his decision to sign with Rally Cycling and what he expects from the next level. The interview is below.
Brandon McNulty competes in the junior time trial at the UCI Road World Championships. (Getty Images)
Cyclingnews: How have things changed for you in the cycling world since winning the rainbow jersey?
Brandon McNulty: All the local guys are asking about it now and people are talking about it. But no crazy changes. Just a kid riding his bike.
CN: What surprised you the most about being a world champion?
McNulty: I think the biggest thing was just the social media part of it, like how much attention it actually got. With Richmond the year before and other big races I've won, I've seen how much – with the social media part of it – how many people are interested. But this was just a whole 'nother level of followers and messages and people sending support. It was crazy. I was rooming with Ian [Garrison], who got third, and after the race we sat in our room trying to rest, and it was just constant messages and posts. It was crazy. That was the biggest surprise. It was awesome to see. I've never got that much support after a race. It was awesome, but it was pretty crazy, too.
CN: After you won did you hear from a lot of teams about 2017?
McNulty: My coach and I, we knew the offers were going to come in throughout the year just because of my previous season, so the plan was to focus on Worlds all year and then deal with it afterwards, just so I didn't have any distractions or stress. My coach handled a lot of the communication if any team did contact me, and we made it pretty clear that the plan was that I didn't want to go to a strictly European team next year. I kind of wanted to slowly transition. I mean if a Belgian team contacted us or something we just had to tell them what was going on. So after Worlds I think we had five teams that we actually sat down and talked to, and we just narrowed it down from there.
CN: So your thinking was that you wanted to stay based in the US and slowly transition into more European racing?
McNulty: Yeah, yeah. A lot of guys have amazing junior careers and then they jump straight into the European season, then spend six months there and they just end up hating it and getting burned out. Obviously, I want to go over to Europe and race, just not spend the whole season.
CN: And that's what led you to the decision that Rally was a good choice for you?
McNulty: Yeah, because they're letting me do a split season, so if I get invited to do a national team trip they'll let me go race with the national team. Then I'll do the races I want to do with Rally in America. They also go over to Europe, so I'll go over and do the races with them if my coach and I decide it works into the schedule.
CN: And you have to be careful not to push it too hard as a 19-year-old.
McNulty: Yeah, because a lot of guys, even if they don't go straight to Europe, they just try to instantly jump into those 30-hour weeks and huge races. You have to take it slower and transition smoothly into it.
CN: Your winning time at Worlds in Qatar was good enough for bronze in the U23 race. That's a pretty good sign you'll transition well into the next level. Do you expect to adapt pretty quickly?
McNulty: I hope to. Looking at a guy like [Adrien] Costa, who came from the junior level this year, he's having a pretty good success in the U23s, so hopefully I can jump in. I don't expect to be winning everything, but hopefully some podiums and maybe a win or two.
CN: It seems like when you guys were both juniors – Costa was a year older than you – but you were kind of coming up quickly behind him. You finished second to him in a few races and won some races ahead of him last season. What kind of relationship do you have with Adrien?
McNulty: There's a little bit of tension, but it was just pretty normal. We're just teammates. Nothing too bad.
CN: Do you think you're capable of getting similar results to Costa's this year?
McNulty: Yeah, I hope so.
CN: So how did it come about, signing with Rally? When did you start talking with Jonas?
McNulty: At the Chico Stage Race early this year I raced against his team. I ended up winning the TT, which put me into the lead going into the crit. His whole team had to work me over and they took it back. But it kind of became a joke with my current director, Roy, who is really good friends with them, and my coach, Barney King, who is really good friends with them, that his team was picking on juniors.
But that also sparked his interest, so he started talking to my director. He let me know that he was interested early in the year. So that was always one of the options. We let him know we wanted to wait, so he let us know he was interested and then just waited it out. Then after Worlds was over he came over to my house and we talked for awhile. Shortly after that is when we made the decision.
CN: What are some of the things he said that made you think Rally was the best choice?
McNulty: He offered a lot of flexibility in the schedule, which is really good. My coach and I are kind of in control of what races I do. He's not just going to call me up one day and say, 'Hey, you're going to this race in a couple days.' So that's really nice. And he's also letting me do the split program with USA Cycling.
But I think the big draw to it was just having a lot of guys with a lot of experience. Guys like Danny Pate, who was in the WorldTour for years. So there are guys like that to learn from and gain experience from.
CN: And Rally also has a solid group of young riders now. They just signed Colin Joyce, and they have Adam de Vos, Sepp Kuss, Curtis White.
McNulty: Yeah. There are a lot of really good older guys with a lot of experience, and then a good group of younger guys that are coming up.
CN: It sounds like that was one of the main reasons you went with Rally instead of a more traditional development team like Axeon.
McNulty: Yeah, development teams like Axeon – and we were also talking with BMC Development Team – they have really good development programs, but it came down to all those guys on those teams are 22 and they're doing the same races you are. Obviously, the older guys will have some experience to teach you, but not compared to guys who have ridden in the WorldTour already or guys who have ridden the big races. They have so much more experience and things to learn from them versus a traditional U23 team. So that's where I decided to veer off and go on a different kind of path than the traditional one.
CN: So what are the goals for next season – personal goals or team goals.
McNulty: Obviously the big thing next year is learning. It's a big jump to professional. It's a huge jump, so learning is the big thing, working as a team, helping the team out, and hopefully maybe get some wins. But just learning to help the team and everything.
CN: Have you thought about how long you want to race at this level, although that's not always up to you, I guess.
McNulty: My coach said probably at least a two-year thing before I could make the big jump, and it could take longer. But probably at least two years, because you don't want to make the jump to the WorldTour or anything when you are too young.