Kyle Murphy: From fixed gears to summit finishes

Kyle Murphy's new deal with Rally Cycling, the US team that will move to the Pro Continental level next year, is just the latest cycling leap for the 26-year-old American who started competing in unsanctioned “alley cat” races in high school on the fixed-gear bike he used for commuting.

While grassroots cycling in 2017 is more focused on gravel grinders and grand fondos, Murphy's entry into racing took root in high school on a simple bike he used for transportation and recreation in Portland, Oregon. Not one to wait around for the school bus or rides from parents, Murphy relied on his minimalist machine for commuting at first, eventually discovering opportunities to compete in weekly events that he could ride to in the evenings.

“I didn't know anything about cycling, but [Oregon Bicycle Racing Association] is just so relaxed,” Murphy told Cyclingnews. “When you're a junior you don't need to be on a team or even know anyone. You just show up and pay five dollars for the race and you're in. All you needed was a bike and a helmet. In Portland, especially, all you needed was a fixed gear, which had extra appeal for me because it was affordable and cool at the time.”

Racing in Portland attracted Murphy because it was accessible and fun – something he could do of his own accord. Track racing at the Alpenrose velodrome and a healthy dose of urban races supplemented the weekly events, but Murphy was always outside the mainstream of cycling's usual development pathways.

“I didn't even know what Bontrager-Livestrong was or what talent ID camps were,” he said. “These are all things I learned about in the last few years – like these are options. I had the more informal support of OBRA and my parents. It was a lot more casual.”

Murphy continued his fixed-gear exploits when he moved after high school to San Francisco, where he went to school for furniture design and joined up with MASH, a fixed-gear-centric shop and team. More alley cats followed, along with the Redhook Criteriums in which riders on fixed gears compete on a traditional US criterium road course. Murphy rediscovered sanctioned racing during extended summer trips to New York City to visit his older brother, Evan.

“They have a really great weekly series out at Fort Bennett field, and you could race there two nights a week,” he said. “You can race in Central Park on the weekends, so you didn't need a car and it was pretty affordable. Once my brother did get a car we started going to the bigger races, but still just local.”

Getting an assist from his older brother

The brothers competed with composite teams of friends in some of the bigger national races, but joining a Continental team was not really on their radar. When the Lupus Racing team signed a New York-based sponsor who wanted a local presence on the team, however, Murphy's brother got the call. Evan agreed to ride for Lupus in 2015 – on the condition that the team also sign Kyle.

“I was like, 'Hell yeah,'” Murphy said. “Then we immediately moved to California to get away from the winter. I don't know how well that went over internally, but we had a lot of fun.”

Murphy made the most of his 2015 season, which saw him tackle much of the US national calendar events as well as Tour de Beauce in Canada and the Tour of Qinghai Lake in China. It was an eye-opening experience for Murphy, who admits he was only really just starting to learn about the road racing scene, racing tactics and training.

“That was when I learned about the NRC that people do every year, and there are these teams that travel and are professional and you could maybe get on one,” he said. “I was continually being surprised at the scale of it. We did Qinghai Lake and I was like, 'Whoa, this is crazy. I'm in China right now for a bike race.'”

Another surprise would come in August 2015 when Murphy secured a trainee ride with Spanish Pro Continental team Caja Rural-Seguros at the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. Ben Jacques-Maynes, whom Murphy had met in northern California, put Murphy's name up when the team asked for a recommendation to help fill the eight-man roster.

“It was all done in like a day. It was crazy,” Murphy said. “They just really needed a rider for that race. They were at the Vuelta at the time and another stage race in France. It felt kind of like business, but it was really cool to see how well organised and dedicated that the staff was and the riders. Just four days of riding with them before the race, I was like, 'Oh man, this is so hard I don't know if I can do this.'”

Murphy did the race, and he did it well, riding his way into the US domestic scene's consciousness with a breakout performance. Murphy infiltrated multiple breakaways and finished third in the mountains competition behind overall winner Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) and Dennis's teammate Brent Bookwalter.

“It was perfect timing, because I had just gotten back from Qinghai Lake, which was 10 days or racing at altitude that was so hard,” he said. “I got back to New York, and I didn't even know what I was going to be doing for the next month. Then it was like, 'Oh, I'm going to Colorado. Perfect.'”

Murphy's performance in Colorado caught the eye of Jamis Pro Cycling director Sebastian Alexandre, and the rider took his next step up the cycling ladder when he signed for Alexandre's team in 2016. Murphy continued to excel in time trials and climbing with his new team, but a breakthrough win didn't materialise. When Jamis folded following the 2016 season, Murphy found himself on the Cylance men's team, which had formed the year before as a criterium squad.

Coming close in Utah

In 2017, however, Cylance competed in an expanded roster that included multiple stage races, including the big national calendar events along with the Tour of Utah in August and Tour of Britain in September. Murphy once again excelled in the time trials, finishing fourth in the short uphill test at the Joe Martin Stage Race, eighth in the Tour of the Gila's windswept 26km stage and sixth at the US championships in Knoxville.

It was in Utah in August, however, when Murphy's skills really shone. He was fifth on the race's second stage, which finished with a difficult climb to Snowbasin Ski Resort. He followed that result the next day with sixth in the 9km uphill time trial in Little Cottonwood Canyon. After four stages, Murphy was fourth overall in the 2.HC race. He slipped to 20th on stage 5 to Bountiful, but he fought back on the Queen stage and on the final day to end up 16th overall.

“Other results I'm happy with, but I felt like that was something I'd really prepared for and it really showed,” Murphy said. “It was definitely a bigger race and bigger riders. I had a top five through stage 5, but then on the last day of the tour I kind of went on the attack in the breakaway, and at least personally that felt like redemption. So I had a few good days in the GC battle in Utah, and then having a bad day. I would have rather not slipped at all, but it was interesting to bounce back. So that was cool.”

Murphy's performance in Utah was good enough to get the attention of Rally Cycling director Jonas Carney, whose team Murphy admits he had been trying to court for several years.

“I think I've called Jonas like the past two years. It was me expressing interest,” Murphy said. “I asked him about advice on coaching a few years ago. I always appreciated that he was willing to talk, but he was always up front about the situation with the team.

“This year, I think a week after Utah, he basically called me up and made the offer. So it was pretty straightforward and I really appreciate that – just getting a call instead of sending an email and then texting or whatever,” Murphy said.

“That can be a stressful time of year. But we chatted a little bit at the races, and I saw him talking to my director at Utah. I thought, 'OK.' I wouldn't say I was expecting it at all. It was definitely a surprise in a way. But it moved quickly, which I appreciate.”

Murphy will get a chance in 2018 with Rally to expand his international racing experience as the team moves to the next level. It's a natural progression for the rider who got into racing for the fun and the challenge.

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