Brian and Joy McCulloch are cycling coaches based in Southern California. As experienced racers, they work with cyclists of all abilities to reach their goals. They run their business, Big Wheel Coaching, with the help of their newest employee, baby Seamus, who just turned one this summer.
TrainingPeaks: Tell us about your background in coaching and athletics.
Joy McCulloch: I played basketball through college, and after I graduated I got a job as a PE teacher. I was looking for a sense of community post-basketball, so I started hanging in the bike shops, and I found that I was able to do pretty well with cycling, especially mountain biking.
I moved to the road in 2010 after the huge Olympic push. At the Fontana race there were 75 pro-women, and Olympians from 5 different countries. I’m 5’10 and 150-160 lbs, and I was up against the girls who are 5’2, so it wasn’t necessarily a pace where I could shine at all.
Around that time Brian and I had started dating (which means going on recovery bike rides together), and I’d started going to the local group ride to train on the road, which is just such a great way to build your aerobic engine. I found out that with my build I’m good at leadouts and time trials, and Brian was racing crits every weekend, so it was just a natural transition. I stayed in the sport by diversifying to a different kind of cycling.
We put together a team of around 60 people racing from cat 5 to cat 1 on the road, and we’d set up shop at these crits and have kids, dogs, just everybody there all day. And that eventually transitioned into what is now Big Wheel coaching. I was able to take my love for cycling and knowledge of this sport, as well as my coaching abilities from working as a PE teacher and blend that into what is now our business.
Our lives have always revolved around endurance sports in different varieties. When we’re not training, we’re doing yoga or getting out on the trail, just trying to be outside as much as possible. I’d love to say I enjoy cooking and creating delicious nutritious meals, but nobody has time for that anymore! You can probably hear baby Seamus making a ruckus in the background here. We’re trying to wear him out so he’ll take a nap; that’s our new morning goal every day.
Brian, what about you?
Brian McCulloch: I grew up in the Bay Area, but moved to Reno, Nevada, when I was 10. They call it the biggest little city in the world, but at the time it was like the wild wild west; we could just get into all sorts of trouble. My dad got us dirt bikes—I wasn’t a good student so he said I had to get good grades in order to ride, and sure enough, I started getting better grades. I just want to be a pro motorcycle racer.
I love the tactical element of cycling, and being able to apply the fitness we have to problem solve in a way to get ourselves a result.Brian McCulloch
From 12 years on, all I thought about was riding and racing motorcycles. I was doing a home bodyweight routine, like 100 pushups in the morning and 100 at night and eventually stuff like upside-down push-ups—just anything I thought I could do to be more fit. Motorcycle training was not the most sophisticated, we would just run hard and ride hard; basically do everything hard with no time for recovery.
I ended up actually racing motorcycles professionally when I was 18, which continued through college. Eventually I got some screws in my foot from an injury, and someone recommended I try cycling instead of running for cross-training. So I got a bike, but I would NOT wear spandex. I’d just go smash around in this cotton t-shirt that I cut the sleeves off. Eventually someone invited me on the group ride. I didn’t even know people rode in a group; I was the guy in a mountain bike helmet making dirt bike noises and riding my road bike in the dirt.
After I stepped away from the competitive side of motorcycles, I found that I loved racing road bikes. I love the tactical element, and being able to apply the fitness we have to problem solve in a way to get ourselves a result. I got very competitive, met Joy, and started racing elite. I’ve been with the same team for 10 years now.
Joy, you were a PE teacher, how did that factor into coaching?
JM: I taught physical education for eight years. I saw so many parents who were working so hard, and they couldn’t carve out an hour a day work on their fitness. Several of my friends knew I was knowledgeable about this stuff and had asked me to write plans for them. They were like guinea pigs; I just wanted to see what would work, and when it really started working I knew it was gonna take hold. I opted not to re-sign my teaching contract in 2011.
We all need help goal setting, and aside from the axioms of training, we need advocates. I had really appreciated having those advocates who kept me on track and motivated to maintain my fitness, so I started thinking about how I could be one.Joy McCulloch
When I graduated from college and no longer had my collegiate sports career, I realized a lot of adults are kind of left floundering with athletics. We all need help goal setting, and aside from the axioms of training, we need advocates. I had really appreciated having those advocates who kept me on track and motivated to maintain my fitness, so I started thinking about how I could be one. It kind of all just made sense.
Brian, when did you join?
BM: I officially joined the business in 2015. It was clear to me when Joy and I started dating that she had this passion for helping people, but she was constrained by the teaching profession. She thought she could launch this coaching venture, and I was doing well in my business, so we agreed to take the chance. It was hard at first to go from making really good money to doing essentially pro-bono coaching, but through sheer perseverance and the force of nature that is Joy, she made it happen.
After 4-5 years the coaching business was doing really well and I was in a transitional place in my career, so Joy invited me to work with her. At first I thought I couldn’t do it. I had been leading a local junior cycling club for about three years, and we were leading training rides and all these things, but I never thought of it as formal coaching; I thought you had to go to school for that stuff! But Joy was like, “what are you talking about? You’re already a coach, you just need to embrace it.”
In this cynical world we live in where we’re discouraged from dreaming too big for fear of failure, we’re like, “no, that’s the point.”Brian McCulloch
Now I’m just so thankful to be a part of peoples’ success. We really believe that people have amazing abilities. They might be modest with their goals, but we help them see they’re capable of so much more than they know. In this cynical world we live in where we’re discouraged from dreaming too big for fear of failure, we’re like, “no, that’s the point. How can we learn and make it better?”
You pride yourselves on client retention—how long, on average, do athletes tend to stay with you?
BM: The first client Joy ever had she still has today, they’re going on 10 years. But I would say most of the folks we have are 2-5 years on average.
JM: We have to be willing to troubleshoot, and we have to be willing to change. We end up using a lot of stuff we wouldn’t personally use, but our clients want it so we’ve gotta figure it out. When I was pregnant, for example, it was a great opportunity to get on the smart trainer and figure out how it would interface with athletes. We have to continue to change in order to stay relevant.
Is there anything you struggle with in coaching?
BM: My biggest challenge is how quickly technology is evolving relative to the tools we have. When an athlete gets a new smart trainer, or a new computer or a new power meter and all of a sudden there’s a connectivity issue, it can be really frustrating. At the end of the day, I would rather spend time and resources on things that are really moving the needle in their lives. A lot of time we’re talking about backlight settings or whether your wifi is interfering with the Bluetooth settings on your watch, when we could be talking about sleeping better, nutrition strategy, or pacing plan.
Really any pet peeve I’ve had is just a way for me to grow.Joy McCulloch
JM: The pet peeves of coaching are the same as you’d find in any business. One big one is just the internet. You can have the perfect plan set up and the client is like, “I read this article or I found this YouTube and I want to start doing that.” Plan adherence can be frustrating, but I look at it as a challenge. We’re kind of myth busters; we have to be willing to read articles on new protocols, research them, and see if they’re going to be beneficial to the athlete or not. Really any pet peeve I’ve had is just a way for me to grow.
JM: Yeah, sometimes it feels like we’re tech support/emotional support first, and then maybe we should also do a workout today. I’m a developed athlete so if my power meter’s not working I’m gonna go after HR or, shockingly, RPE—and I’m gonna be totally fine. But I also understand that, for some athletes, when that pink line on TrainingPeaks isn’t there, it could be borderline catastrophic. You have to respect that.
In a lot of ways, coaching is a service industry.
BM: Absolutely. I’ve had some great conversations about this. I was talking to a local bike shop owner as if we were a service business (because I figured he considered himself a service business too), and I thought it was a very novel idea for a bike shop to be considered a service when so many have tried to become more product-driven. But he took it a step further and said, “actually Brian, I’m in the entertainment business; we’re in the business of selling an experience.”
This guy understood that you get on a bike as a kid and you’re free to go wherever you want to go because your bike can take you there. As coaches, we also have this ability to craft an athlete’s journey and help people find some freedom. It’s no longer about the next best workout, although that’s important, but now we’re also talking about how equipment matters, pacing matters, hydration and nutrition matter, and how to all of our life stressors affect our experience. My conversation with this gentleman was years ago now, but it has really changed the way we think about our business.
What you’re really trying to do is build a relationship with somebody who can help you see the potential that you can’t always see in yourself. To me there’s so much power for us as an entire industry to transcend that product mindset…Brian McCulloch
I tell people that there are many great coaches out there who have many great workouts, but what you’re really trying to do is build a relationship with somebody who can help you see the potential that you can’t always see in yourself. To me there’s so much power for us as an entire industry to transcend that product mindset, and that’s where this app is great; TrainingPeaks handles the product side of coaching for me. I don’t have to just crank out workouts; I get to be service-driven. I can focus on people’s experience because I have partners like TrainingPeaks.
You’ve got a young family now, how do you balance everything?
JM: You take a bunch of these things, throw them against the wall and hope they create a pretty design. Through my pregnancy we took the approach of transparency; we just told all our athletes I was having a baby. When you involve the athletes it brings them along for the ride, and then they were very excited when baby Seamus arrived. They call him coach Seamus.
Luckily Seamus is getting more stable with his sleep. He goes to bed at 7, but I’m often writing plans ‘till 11. There’s a lot of tag-teaming with Brian to get things done. It’s been really exhausting but we’re so fortunate to have the ability to work from home while we have him and spend that time with him—and to have clients who are genuinely excited about him being part of our family.
Has being a mom changed you as an athlete?
JM: Yes. When I was racing I never had a big injury, so now I can talk to my athletes from that perspective. I look this as a science experiment; how am I gonna get fitness back? How am I going to gain productivity in movement? How am I going to gain 90-minute rides and get back to my sprints or tempo intervals? My main goals are to get healthy again, take care of my sleep, build strength, and work on pelvic floor stability, and work on abdominal muscles that have changed.
It’s a bit humbling, and you kind of have to change your perspective. I just remind myself I’m here for the community.Joy McCulloch
But it has been an interesting shift in my mentality about training. When I was racing I was usually at an 80+ CTL, but now I’m around a 28. I used to do NRC races and multi-day events, but now a 50-mile gravel ride packs as much of a fatigue punch as the Redlands Cycling Classic; the sensations are pretty bad. It’s a bit humbling, and you kind of have to change your perspective. I just remind myself I’m here for the community.
What is next for Big Wheel coaching?
JM: Brian is very ambitious and I’m very conservative, so it’s a pretty entertaining blend at times. Thank God we have this old RV so we can go do some events. Brian’s like, “We gotta go do this big ride,” and I’m like, “can I sleep in that thing?” We’re finding the balance.
BM: We’re also very excited to have two new coaches working with us. That was a big move for us, and we want to continue helping and supporting them so they can continue to provide the level of competency and passion that we’ve built the business on.
We’ve also been doing more event-driven experiences, where we can connect with athletes in an environment that isn’t hyper-competitive. Whether that’s in a training camp or a team-tactics clinic, we’ve been talking about events that give athletes a chance to disarm themselves and maybe try something completely outside the box.
JM: We’ve partnered with existing events in the past, to find ways that don’t take as much legwork on our part. In 2018, for example, Brian won the Belgian Waffle Ride, so we’ve done several camps and clinics in dabbling in gravel, which helps expand our market there. We have the ability to compete in these events so we might as well do it, we like to be in the trenches for what we’re helping people do. We’re always wanting to hone our teaching.