Neko Mulally: Resurgent
Mulally talks the Mob, working with Gwin and cats
It was a tough couple of years for Neko Mulally on Scott. After his chainless Hafjell heroics, he seemed destined to become a regular podium contender.
But the results never came. Mulally posted a DNF at his first race on the team (after qualifying fourth), picked up a concussion in a US National and was always playing catch up from then on. After two injury strewn years with only one top 20 result to his name, Scott lost their title sponsor he was told he faced a pay cut - the hunt for a new team began.
It was Aaron Gwin who would give Mulally the big move he wanted, pulling strings behind the scenes to secure his former Trek World Racing team mate as the third member of the YT Mob. Mulally's form returned almost overnight with two seventh places to spark off the season.
It's not been totally smooth running though, the DSQ in Lenzerheide stands out as a black mark in Mulally's copybook, but Neko is undoubtedly at the forefront of the resurgent US scene once again.
We caught up with Mulally as he rests his broken wrist hoping to be back for Worlds in Cairns:
How do you look back on your time with the Scott team?
I think it was a very important learning period in my life. The team was really good and I'm still really friendly with them all. I learned a lot from Brendan, he’s really good with his business stuff. He can make so much happen as an athlete, maybe it's not all his race results but as a professional athlete he's really good at presenting himself and marketing himself so I learned a lot from that.
I also learned a lot about bike development to because we had meetings at Scott maybe five or six times when I was on the team. They're working on a new bike that they've been testing this year but I was able to understand so much of what makes a bike work and give a lot of feedback.
I felt like it wasn't really anything bad about the team it was just a combination of some bad circumstances. I went to the first national race in the US and hit my head so hard I had massive concussion. I had to take a bunch of time off the bike and then it was Fort William and I hadn't been riding. I came back to it lacking a lot of confidence so I got off on the wrong foot. When you get confidence going, it builds, it goes the other way and does the same thing too. It was just tough.
At what point did you start to consider moving teams, what's the story?
End of last year, Scott lost GSTAAD as their title sponsor so they were going to be on a lot more of a lean budget. With two World Cups to go, they said: “We're gong to have to make a cut, we can have you on the team but we're not going to be able to pay you very much. We know you're probably not going to take this but if you can't find anything then we can help you out for sure."
So they gave me some time to look around and I talked to a couple of teams and got to see some options that were out there. Being an American, it's a lot easier because a lot of the brands are California based so you're more recognisable than someone from another country.
If you walk through the pits and look at all the teams, YT has got to be up there for sure. It's probably that one, Loic's team or maybe the Athertons, aside from that it's a little bit of a step down. I thought the best fit for me would be YT because most of the staff and Aaron are the same as Trek World Racing so I knew them all from 2011/12 and we've been friends since.
I thought if there was any way I could get on to that YT team that was going to be the best thing for me. I waited around for a long time, it didn't come around until pretty late but I trusted Aaron.
I had to tell the other teams I was talking to whether I was able to ride or if they needed to get somebody else in October. I told Aaron and he said: "If I were you, I'd wait around." I thought I'd take his word for it and I told them "no" on the hope that YT would work out. It wasn't until January that I signed the contract with YT.
Was the fit of the team more important than bike itself. Had you ridden the Tues before signing?
No, I never rode the bike, I just knew the program was really good, I knew everyone on the program, I knew my mechanic Dan, I'd worked with them all on Trek World Racing so I just knew exactly what I was getting.
The bike fits me really well too and I could know that just by looking at the size. There's a lot of the same stuff, it uses Fox suspension so that's really familiar… and you can tell it obviously worked for Aaron!
It seems like there was an instant change in your form on YT. What do you put that down to?
I was healthy, I got to ride a lot this winter, I just feel like I had everything I needed to get those results.
I did feel at home right away. When I was on Scott I stressed out a lot about my set-up and I was trying to chase a better feel. This time I just got my bike feeling pretty damn good, as close as I could, and then just rode it and that helped a lot.
At Lourdes obviously I went right before it rained, I was hoping to get a top 20, I qualified 16th and I think I was going to do a similar result to that in the final and ended up getting lucky and got a seventh.
I've never done well at Fort William and don't really like the track. For American guys it's tough because British guys ride it so much and we don't have anything like that sort of terrain so I struggled with it but to get a good result there was really cool.
You and Aaron approach training on a World Cup weekend differently to most teams. It seems like you barely ride at all compared to others who might pound out the laps. Why is that?
I started doing that this year with Aaron. In Lourdes I did one practice run on race day and I never did that few practice runs before so it was a first time for me.
If you notice, Aaron is really good at not getting hurt, he's always in good shape and he's never really injured. I think it's because every time he goes up to do a run, he knows he needs to figure something out and then once he's figured something out, it's cool, he chills.
You can only ride as fast as you can down a World Cup track so many times before you crash and get hurt so I think he's really good at managing the risk, if there's nothing out there that he needs to gain then he's just going to chill.
A lot of us have so much fun riding that comes first. You might not need to do another practice run or take another risk but you want to because it's so fun and you're loving.
Aaron's more on the calculated end and I've learned that. Sometimes instead of walking the track, we'll just do a really slow run on the last run so you don't have to take an hour and a half to walk down the mountain and it's easier on your legs.
I think the biggest thing I've learned form it is that there's not a lot of crazy lines you need to worry about. I've been worried there's got to be a tricky line or something special on every section, you don't really need to do that you just need to find something you're comfortable with and ride it a fast as you can. It makes it a lot simpler when you do that rather than trying to find something everywhere.
The US scene seems to be exploding at the moment with Luca Shaw, Aaron Gwin, Charlie Harrison and more. What do you put that down to?
It feels like it's growing a lot. I was growing up before Aaron was really on the scene and the best guys from America were getting top 30 at the best. It felt like we couldn't do it, Americans couldn't make it. It felt like a British or European thing.
I imagine it's the same in the UK with Steve Peat, you go to a national and you’ve got a load of World Cup top ten guys and it shows you how fast your need to go and it just elevated the whole scene. It's starting to get that way now here in the US, with Aaron doing so well it motivates a lot of kids and we've got a lot of up and coming guys.
How has your own race organisation been going? What made you want to start it?
I was doing a bunch of local races here that were poorly organised and I just thought I could do it better myself. I had a bunch of cool venues in the South East where I live that you can ride year round and I thought it would be sweet to have a pre-season race series.
They've always had them in California but on some pretty mellow tracks so I just put together a race series. There were two or three different races and it was all over the course of February to April, so you'd do every two weeks and be ready for the first World Cup so it worked great.
I learned a lot from doing it and then did it a bit better next year and then we had a Pro GRT, which is a national series.
I've been working on a bike park too. That's been super cool for me too, I like being out and building trails and just love making cool stuff. I didn’t go to college or anything like that but it's a huge education to be able to figure out how to pay your taxes, to learn how to invest my own money and figure out how we can get people to come and buy lift passes. I love doing it. For sure racing is important to me and I could probably go run the bike park better if I didn't race but I want it to all complement each other.
It really does help the scene having better races and having a better place to ride. There are so many younger kids that I’ve seen in the past year get so much better because they come out and ride with us every weekend.
Cam Zink owns the distribution in the US for YT, and he said the South East is where they've been able to sell so many more downhill bikes. I sent him a photo of one day that we had our shuttle trailer full of 15 YTs!
Should pineapple be on pizza? (Ethan Brown)
Yeah, it's pretty popular here in the US. The ham and pineapple pizza I think is pretty good. It's not my first choice.
How was it working with Claudio? (Rupert Radley)
Claudio was always pretty busy. His pump track business is huge and that consumed a lot of his time. At the races he was doing his GoPro stuff and commentating so he seemed more like a team mate than a team owner. You would get to the race, he would have his bike there, he would do his GoPro run and then he was busy with Red Bull so he wasn't really how Martin is for us [at YT]. Claudio was more one of the boys than the boss, but it was cool. His business is crazy he has so much going on
Whats your favourite New World Disorder Film? (Ben Egglestone)
Would you rather have toes for fingers or fingers for toes? (Ethan Brown)
I'd rather have fingers for toes
Cats or dogs? (Ed Palmer)
I've got a cat, I like them both but cats you can leave for the weekend and a dog you have to take a lot more care of. It's like a new young thing to get a dog when you're going to be travelling round the world and just think that you're going to figure it out and be irresponsible with it. I just like going racing so much I couldn't get a dog. So we have a cat and cats are sweet.