Nearly two years ago, a young Neko Mulally pulled off what will forever be regarded as one of the most legendary World Championships runs in the history of the sport: his chainless assault on the venerable Hafjell track put him in the hot seat for half an hour, before eventually finishing 4th, only 2 seconds off of the winning pace set by Gee Atherton. The months to follow were well documented, as Neko made the switch from his longtime team of Trek World Racing to another high profile program in Gstaad-SCOTT. With the change in programs came new partnerships, including a sponsorship deal with the American craft brewery Oskar Blues, which helped to further distinguish the native of Reading, Pennsylvania; in a sea of energy drink painted helmets, his red, white and blue-brew lid stands out.
Coming off of his best World Cup season to date, in addition to the most talked about World Championships run in years, expectations were high for Neko. Neko spent that offseason negotiating the terms of his various new contracts and familiarizing his self with the new Gambler, which involved 3 separate testing trips to Europe over the course of the winter. Neko would start the 2015 season off well, with a 4th place qualifying run at the season opener in Lourdes, France. From that point on, things took a decidedly frustrating turn for the current Brevard, North Carolina resident. His race run was cut short early on when he blew up his wheel in a rock garden towards the top of the track. He suffered a series of shoulder injuries as well, starting in Lourdes and reaggravating it a week later during a training run back home, and culminating in a disastrous wreck during a practice run at the Port Angeles Pro GRT a week after that. That same crash also resulted in a concussion for Neko, something he has kept largely hidden from the general public.
Neko's challenges since early last season have raised some eyebrows, as many were expecting the powerful, no-frills styled rider to take the next step forward and become a regular contender for podiums and victories. We had the chance to sit and chat with Neko earlier in the summer to discuss his mindset as he works to regain his form and pace, and the peace of mind that has come with maturing as an athlete and an adult. With his mind and body on the mend, it's only a matter of time before a rider with this much pure talent knocks on the door of greatness once again.
Editor's Note: Just two days after our sit down, Neko crashed during a pre-race practice ride at the Mountain Creek Spring Classic Pro GRT, which resulted in a break of his left forearm with fractures to his radius and ulna. Neko had surgery that very day and faced an 8-10 week recovery period. He made his return to racing at the Killington, Vermont Pro GRT, with a second place finish before heading north to the most tenured World Cup stop, Mont Sainte Anne, where he'd finish 51st overall, and more recently 15th overall at the Canadian Open during Crankworx in Whistler.
I'd like to ask you about the loss of one of our sport's greatest champions and a friend of yours. Which memories of Stevie Smith will always stick with you? What kind of an impact do you think his passing will have on the World Cup community moving forward?
I remember a lot of funny stories about Stevie, one that comes to mind was from Sea Otter a few years ago. Brook and I were teammates on TWR that year, and he and Stevie were good friends and shared the same coach. Brook invited me to join the group for sushi, and Stevie convinced a junior teammate of his that the wasabi on his plate was actually avocado. He got the kid to put a big piece on his sushi and take a bite, and obviously his mouth was on fire after that. It was funny, and the whole table was laughing. Stevie sort of gave him a pat on the back and made sure he was laughing too. Stevie was a fun guy to be around. He found a way to bust balls where is was fun for everyone. The junior couldn’t help but laugh at it.
Stevie's fight for the overall in 2013 was one of the most exciting stories to follow as an athlete. As a rider, I could watch from the finish area each weekend as the season unfolded. You couldn't have written it better, it was so cool be there while it was happening. From my perspective as a fellow rider, at Mont Sainte Anne that year Stevie had a noticeable look of determination in his eye. He won the quali and as the last rider had to race the final in the wet while most riders rode earlier in the dry. I was stuck in the rain too and crashed 3 times, it was so slick! His level of confidence that weekend was crazy, and it only grew after he won in those conditions. He went on to win the following race in Hafjell and closed the points gap to within reach of Gee who was having an amazing season. All of the riders were really pulling for Stevie. Watching each weekend from the finish line after I had already come down, the other riders were rallying around Stevie so much and the stoke for him was so high that it took his already high confidence to a new level. Everyone was pulling for him, partially because he was doing the impossible coming from pretty far behind Gee in the points, but mainly because he was one of the guys.
As a rider in this sport, you don't just compete alongside your competitors, you have the chance to interact with them on a regular basis. In the pits, on the course, on the chairlift or shuttle, at the after party, you are close with the other guys, and Stevie was loved by everyone. He was a friend to so many on the scene and had a personality that you could see yourself in. At that moment he was doing exactly what every other rider set out to do and was performing to his full potential. Everyone was behind him. He had to do everything right in Leogang at the final race of the year, and he delivered a perfect performance to win the quali, final and overall. Of all the races that I've been apart of, the most impressive rides that left a lasting impact on me were Greg winning the Worlds in Pietermaritzburg, and Stevie winning the World Cup final that year in Leogang to clench the overall. There was so much on the line for each of those wins and it was so impressive to watch. The fact that it all came down to the last rider in the last race of the year made it seem so much greater. Stevie was so relatable that when he won it felt like we all won. We all, as the racing community, could feel it with him and it was really special to be at the finish line that day. As I'm sure many others were, I was inspired to chase that feeling for myself. Stevie showed us all what was possible.
He lived his life in exactly way he wanted to, and he loved every minute of it. He went fast because he loved to go fast. He experienced things most people never will. His approach to life is what made him a champion. He inspired many and that legacy will continue.
Coming into 2015 off of a legendary World Championship run, you qualify fourth in Lourdes before your wheel explodes during finals and everyone goes on an unmitigated Procore tirade. Then you crashed in Port Angeles…
Yeah, I was coming off of a really strong finish to my best year on the World Cup circuit in 2014. There was a lot of excitement after the season for me to pursue a new team and test out a new bike. I felt like I was riding a wave all winter from that last race and it crashed right at the start of the season. Looking back it seems clear that I peaked too early.
I had a new bike and I was so excited to ride it, trying to tweak things and get the suspension dialed in. I normally wouldn’t ride downhill so much through the off-season to keep it fresh and stay motivated through the summer. I try to save it for the month or so leading up to the first race of the season. I try to transition from working on my fitness and cross training to riding my downhill bike and building my speed up, but with everything going on i felt like I got carried away with doing a lot and didn't have the proper time off. I podiumed (that year), had a few top 10’s, and obviously, the World Champs run. It’s a cliche, but you hear you’re only as good as your last race. As a rider, that’s kind of how you feel because it's a clear measure of your current ability. To have that going into the offseason, it just felt good.
In March, I was riding super fast. I won the Pan American continental championships, and had a lot of confidence from the last season. In downhill, you kind of have this peak level of focus and speed and it's hard to maintain that all of the time. Sometimes you need to step away in order to keep your focus. In Lourdes, I was starting to reach that point, but that was the first race of the year. I was feeling fast and qualified 4th. I was picking up where I left off which felt great. Then came the adversity. I landed on a rock in the first 10 sec of the final which damaged my rear wheel and I didn't finish the race. That was a bummer, and it came on the heels of a winter filled with testing and traveling and a lot of work that didn't seem to have paid off. After Lourdes there was another big break until Fort William, and as the Hafjell run had filled me with excitement going into the offseason, this performance kind of bummed me out going into this break.
When I got back home from Lourdes I had a big crash that tweaked my shoulder. I had to take some time off the bike and then as soon as I could ride re-injured it at the Port Angeles Pro GRT. It was one of those injuries where you could still do most of the things you wanted to, but you notice it all the time. Sleeping was the worst. When I crashed
in Port Angeles I hit my head pretty hard too. It was scary because I went over the bars slowly in a high-speed section, and as anyone who's had a gnarly crash knows, it takes away a some of your confidence. It just threw me off, I was feeling battered and I lost a lot of my motivation. I DNF’d at the first race of the year after a busy off-season and was feeling pretty beat up. I was feeling burnt out, and right when I was starting to feel that way, I left for Europe for 2 ½ months. I was on the road and out of my routine. I felt like I was unprepared going into the next few races and struggled to find the confidence I had on the bike earlier in the year. I struggled after that crash in PA, I felt like there was too much hesitation in my riding after that.
I learned so much from that experience, though. I learned a lot about what specifically was making me feel that way, and how to stay motivated. That’s the toughest thing; when things are going well and performing to your full potential is your reality, it’s easy to stay motivated because your goals are right within your reach. But when things aren’t going your way, winning seems like much less of a reality. When your goals seem less attainable, it’s difficult to get excited about it.
Throughout most of my career, I’ve been able to see this upward trend. Sometimes it would go a little slower than I would have liked, with injuries and small setbacks here and there, but I’ve never experienced such a sharp turn in the wrong direction. I’ve always felt as though I was improving steadily. So that’s been the toughest thing to try and understand. It’s hard when you have had good results to accept results that aren’t so good. When you exceed your own expectations, it’s the best feeling in the world. I remember back in 2012 I was racing elite for the first time and the first World Cup of the year was in South Africa. I really wanted to get a top 20 and I ended up 14th. That was the best feeling in the world, I remember going behind the pits and yelling "yeah top 20!" Because I was so excited. I could hardly sleep that night, dreaming of the next race. Last year my best finish was 18th at Lenzerheide, and had it been 2012, I would have been thrilled. But having been there, built on it, and then felt like I went backward, it didn't really do anything for me. What was this past off-season like for you? How did you approach things differently after having gone through what you did in 2015?
Yeah, it’s hard to try and turn things around mid-season while you're racing every weekend. I knew that I could turn it around, I just needed time and when the offseason came around I had the opportunity. I was in Europe for such a long time last year that I fell out of my routine. I felt out of shape and I really wanted to get back into a good regiment. I took a few weeks to relax after the last race, then got into a good routine. I felt like I was doing everything I could on a daily basis to get back on track, and that in itself was motivating. Every day felt like a step in the right direction.
I had been discussing some bike changes with Scott throughout the 2015 season, and we were able to make those tweaks coming into the season this year so it just helped to build the stoke. I had been wanting to try some longer frames and different linkages, and we were able to do that and make the bikes a lot lighter. I approached my build up to the season in a way that didn’t just focus on that first race, but instead the entire season. I was really happy with the offseason. How has the season gone this year? You broke your arm and missed some key races. How have you dealt with that?
I didn’t have great results in Lourdes and Cairns. After putting in all of that hard work over the winter, it would have been really nice to come back and get a good result again, but it just didn't come together. I crashed in Lourdes and had a really bad stomach bug in Cairns. For whatever reason, things weren't going my way, but this year I was able to have a much stronger outlook on it. I knew that the hard work would eventually add up.
The weekend before Fort William, at the Mountain Creek Pro GRT, I crashed and broke my arm. It was a bad break, but fortunately, it was clean and uncomplicated. I had a great doctor and was able to be on the road to recovery really quickly. The timing was horrible, to have an injury in the middle of the season certainly sucks. I worked really hard while I was down, but coming back in MSA on one of the fastest roughest tracks to date was not easy. The racing is so tight now. Even compared to just a couple of years ago. I try to look at this as a continuous process. I believe that at my best, I can be equal to any of my competitors. I’ve had first place splits at races, and I know what it feels like to ride that fast and I know I can get back there. It’s kind of like a puzzle trying to put everything back together but looking back at it now I think having gone through tough times has helped me gain a full perspective. I'm as excited and motivated as ever to figure it out. How has your time with Gstaad-SCOTT been?
It’s been a great experience having my brother with me. It’s about more than just his wrenching. I think one day we’ll look back on it and realize how cool it was. Brendan is someone I’ve always looked up to in videos for a long time. He’s a genuinely good guy and someone I would call a good friend. I’m lucky to be on a European team with English speaking people. Riding with Brendan is pretty damn sweet. Getting to chase him down a mountain and seeing his style firsthand is sweet. I really like the people I work directly with as well, like Cyrille Lagneau, our team director. He organizes so much for us and had a great career himself racing World Cups. He knows what I’m going through because he’s been there before, so to be able to work with him and learn from him has been really cool. He seems to understand everything. Having Claudio as a team manager is great too. He’s really popular in our sport right now, so it makes our team a lot of fun to be around. You’ve told me before that prior to you being on his team, you’d never actually watched any of his videos with the sound on. Have you finally gotten around to that?
I had no clue how popular his previews were before I got on the team. I watched them without any sound just so I could remind myself of a few things about the tracks. Now I always watch them with the sound on and he’s always got a funny story about them afterward. Will you ever jump in on one of those?
I’d love it if he’ll put me in. How’s life for you in Western North Carolina?
Life’s been great outside of racing, honestly. Something I’ve been able to do that has come with maturity has been separating happiness from race results. I can say, “Hey, I might not be stoked with this result, but really enjoyed being here this weekend and was glad to be out there with my friends”. I can go home and put in the hours it takes to get better, but I don’t have to live inside my head and dwell on results all of the time. It’s been great living in North Carolina. It has everything I love in life: spending time in the mountains, doing cool shit. I have a great group of friends and we ride motocross and trail bikes all of the time. I love living in the mountain of North Carolina. It still feels like a hidden gem.
This year I had the chance to build my own house. I was able to save all of the money I was making while I was racing for Trek living at home with no expenses. I’m lucky that the area I want to be in here is pretty affordable too. I would hate to live in a city where things are overpriced and don’t offer the same benefits as the mountains. I’m in the process of building this house and it’s pretty small, but it suits my lifestyle well. It has a huge deck with a great view that looks across to Pisgah National Forest. I’ll have a big garage and a basement. It’s on a 3-acre lot, so I have a decent amount of land around me. My neighbors on both sides are friends of mine and they both ride mountain bikes. I feel like I’m in the right place. Where did the idea for your Southeast Downhill Series come from?
I was riding at some of these local spots for my own training purposes over the past 4 years. The Shaws and I would go to these small downhill races in Tennessee that were really poorly advertised, and we’d see that the tracks were great and with a lot of potential. The southeast has a lot of these really gnarly, rough tracks. We’ve got big mountains, and you could have a really good build-up to the World Cup season down here. It’s hard to find the terrain in the United States during the offseason that will help you throughout the summer. You can go to the desert, but that’s kind of one dimensional. The east coast stuff is more similar to what we race throughout the season; more similar to Europe. I thought that if we could get some people together and get something organized, that we could develop a cool early season race series. To be honest, the driving force was really just trying to put something together for me and Luca to use as practice and preparation.
It started as a fun little project, but anyone who has ever organized a race knows how much work goes into it. It would have been easy to put together a shitty race series, and now I can understand why a lot of races are so poorly organized, but I wanted to hold it to a higher standard which required a lot of time and effort. It also cost a lot of money. I learned you can make organizing and event good as you want to if you have the money to pay enough people to help you. I wanted to see through my vision of what I thought a perfect race experience would be. It was cool, but a lot of work. I think the best thing about it was that we had three awesome race tracks. They were safe, well marked and taped from top to bottom, and truly top level terrain. We made the races affordable, ran everything on time had the podiums presentations immediately after the last rider crossed the finish line. Everything wrapped up between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon. That gave people plenty of time to drive home, or stay and get some laps in. We learned a lot, and even by just the third race we were a much more efficient operation. Next year I want to build on the experience and make it even better. I'm hoping to make it an annual thing that riders can count on getting some "practice races" in this area in March. Was it tough for you to race and manage the series?
Yeah, that was really hard. I came up with the idea to help with my preparation leading into the season and to actually organize everything myself while trying to get the most out of riding made it really difficult. I would train all week, set up the course on Friday, try and practice as much as I could on Saturday, race Sunday and then tear everything down right after the race It was more work that I anticipated, but worth it looking back on how it all went down. It made me realize how nice it is to show up to a race and not have to do anything but race. I was lucky to have some good people helping me out, mainly my mom and Jamie Wilson. We had a really competitive pro class at most of the races. Luca won the series, Isaak Leivsson was in from Norway, and some fast young Americans like Dakotah Norton, Shane Leslie, Charlie Harrison, Max Morgan, and Kiran Mackinnon. We had over 100 riders at each race. I was stoked to see that for the first year of a winter downhill event. You’ve also been busy assisting with some youth camps, correct?
Part of my partnership with Oskar Blues Brewery involves something called the Can’d Aid Foundation. It’s an initiative that started as a way to help displaced people due to floods near the brewery's headquarters in Lyons, Colorado in 2013. Now it has developed into a lot of different things, and through their Treads and Trails program, I’ve gotten the chance to do a lot of kids camps. We do most of them in North Carolina on the Oskar Blues reeb ranch where they have an awesome pump track build by the guys who made the Redbull Dreamline BMX jumps there in 2014. Of all of the things that I’ve been able to do with the foundation and giving back, doing the kids camps has been the most fun.
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