How did downhill biking phenom Neko Mulally rediscover his mountain biking mojo? He built a bike park.
A torrential downpour is pounding Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia, and there’s talk of canceling the men’s U.S. Nationals downhill championship, in which case podiums will be awarded based on Saturday’s qualifying runs. This should be welcome news to Neko Mulally, who already took first in qualies.
Mulally is ruminating on the possibilities. While a cancelation would make him national champ, shortcuts have never held much appeal to the 25-year-old pro. Deep down he wants another run.
“He takes the long way round,” says friend and business partner Sean Leader. “He believes in hard work.”
Mulally‘s penchant for work has compelled him to move mountains, or at least reshape them. In eastern Tennessee he and Lider have built their own downhill park and training facility, an epiphanic experience for the young athlete.
“It changed my perspective,” Mulally said. “Getting on the podium isn’t the only thing that matters. There’s more to life than just winning the race. It taught me balance.”
These days nothing surpasses the pleasure of pushing his boundaries in the company of his friends, a whole new crop of downhill competitors who are thriving thanks to Neko’s leadership.
When the announcement comes through that the national championship race will take place, albeit on a slippery track, Mullaly is stoked.
The 25-year-old pro kits up and takes to the starting gate brimming with confidence.
“When you go into a race knowing you can win, it’s the best best feeling.”
Alongside his little brother Logan Mulally, Neko began racing BMX at the tender age of six in their home state of Pennsylvania. Their father, an avid mountain biker, pushed them into BMX in order to build their skills early. When Neko was 13 he competed in his first downhill race at Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia.
With pinpoint precision and hit-it-wide-open bravado, Mulally developed a reputation as one of the best youngsters in the East. Mulally crashed the party hard in 2014 when took fifth at a World Cup race in Australia and then followed it with a legendary run at the World Cup Finals in Norway. Within seconds of busting out of the starting gate, his chain broke and flopped onto the the dusty track.
“I rode on instinct,” Mulally said of his miraculous performance. “I was able to do stuff. I never practiced.”
Mulally’s star began rising rapidly. He attracted sponsorships from Scott and Oskar Blues, earned $200,000, and bought a house in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina.
In both 2015 and 2016, injuries plagued Mullaly, and he struggled to recapture the magic of his breakout season.
“He was struggling,” said Logan Mulally. “It was a big mental game. He just didn’t know how he could get back on top.”
In the winter of 2016, discontented and restless, Mullaly approached his friend and fellow racer Sean Lider about building a downhill course. Mulally hoped that such a project would reinvigorate his career and rekindle his fire.
Furthermore, both riders wanted to see a downhill renaissance in the Southeast. In a region where mountain biking had exploded in recent years, downhill riding has been conspicuously underplayed.
“The first year was just Neko and myself busting ass,” said Leader.
The duo sculpted trail inspired by the downhill courses they had competed on around the world. “Windrock is unique because we have the freedom to develop this place however we want,” says Lider.
The gnarly, steep terrain immediately attracted a following of dedicated competitors, World Cup stars like Walker Shaw, Dakota Norton, and Max Morgan.
“It gives me a place to train that is similar to the conditions we ride in Europe,” says Norton. “From the rider’s perspective it is everything we could ask for. I’ve built my entire career at that bike park and on that mountain.”
Rivalries and friendships abound as the Windrock has become a hamlet of downhill athletes. In the off-season, a slew of trailers arrive at Leader’s, where a nonstop routine of pumptrack riding, motocross, and downhilling begins.
“Three of the top 30 in the world practice at my place,” said Mulally. “They train on my mountain. I am happy about that.”
Logan Mulally says his big brother warmly embraces the extra competition that comes with the scene he’s cultivating.
“It’s brought all the riders up a level,” Logan said. “He’s bringing his friends with him. He’d rather see one of those guys win than some European.”
Aside from a training ground, Windrock is open to the public and also home to a Southeast Downhill Series and the Windrock Enduro. When Neko isn’t training he’ll jump into one of their old trucks and run shuttles. Embracing the bike park’s everyday chores and sharing in the stoke is a big part of Neko’s new-found zen, says Lider.
“He comes up here on his day off all the time. He likes just seeing the scene. He’s here because he loves it.”
Mulally and Leader say a growing number of novices and young riders now frequent the mountain, especially as they develop more trails. In Windrock downhill has taken hold.
“The younger kids who come are pretty good riders,” says Neko. “It’s cool to see they are products of our scene.”
As the starting gate buzzes, clicks, and parts open, Mulally smoothly glides out. He picks and flows his way down the chundery track, riding a razor’s edge of calculation and euphoric abandon.
“It was the Neko we’d seen in 2014: calm, relaxed, having a good time with his friends,” says Logan Mulally of that national championship run.
Mulally crosses the line with a time of 3:11:121, winning by only a half-second. Climbing the podium, the national champion is all smiles.
“He’s back with that desire,” said Norton. “This whole process of building this bike park has given him a sense of clarity about what he wants.”
“I am proud of all the guys that ride at our spot,” says Mulally. “We all ride together all the time. Sometimes I win. Sometimes they win. We do that all winter long.”