In 1983, a Southern California kid by the name of Dave Cullinan started racing BMX. By ’85, he was good enough to merit international travel to the sport’s most important events. Cullinan’s turn to mountain biking came in 1990, when Craig “Stikman” Glaspell, who raced cross country and worked at the Bicycle Center in Redondo Beach, California, suggested that he give it a try.
Dual Slalom seemed a perfect fit for Cullinan’s skill set, so he headed to Mammoth for the NORBA National series event. Before things really even got going, though, he got a flat tire, and hit up John Tomac for a loaner. What “Cully” didn’t know was that Tomac’s brakes were set up moto style, reversed from Cullinan’s setup. Halfway through the first elimination round, he grabbed too much of the wrong handful, and went over the bars and onto the dirt.
But that was enough—he was hooked. From then on, Cully was all in, and by the end of the 1992 season, the BMXer would be the downhill mountain bike world champion.
Cullinan’s incredible worlds-winning run is the stuff of legend. It happened five years before Philippe Kahn decided to connect a digital camera to a cell phone and broadcast the birth of his daughter, so the course was absolutely void of iPhone-toting spectators documenting every angle and second of the event on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Vimeo. And the Red Bull Media House wasn’t even a faint glimmer in an entrepreneur’s eye back then. So, Cully’s rainbow-winning performance is much more mysterious and under-documented than, say, Danny Hart’s astonishing Champery ride in 2011. It was, nevertheless, something extra special.
Near the bottom of the Worlds DH course in Bromont, Canada, racers were required to cross a roughly 35-foot-long bridge. A chairlift passed over the bridge just a few short feet from the riders’ heads. In practice, Cullinan started timing the interval between chairs and their relationship to his exit from the woods, thinking he might be able to jump the bridge—which would not only shave a bit of time off his run but also set him up for a better dash to the finish. Blowing the timing, however, would send him smack into the passing chair. Perhaps because of the potential for mishap, or perhaps to keep his innovative line a secret, he only made one attempt at it before his final run.
“I think I was a little bit progressive in the jumping side of mountain biking, being a BMXer,” Cullinan remembers. “I don’t think that was something people were ready for at that point.”
On his final competition run, he went for it.
“When I came out of the trees, I had to watch where the chair was, and I either had to slow down, to wait for the chair to clear the bridge, or speed up. I remember coming out of the trees, and I actually had to slow down on my final run and not sprint at the bridge for what seemed forever—because I almost didn’t do it.”
Cullinan jumped the bridge, staying clear of the chairs, and took home the gold medal and rainbow stripes of a UCI World Champion.
But less than two years later, his mountain-bike dream—and his life—nearly ended. In the evening of the 1994 Cactus Cup’s opening day, then the official kickoff of the mountain-bike racing season, Cully started to feel considerable chest pain. “It took my breath away,” he says. And then it got worse.
He was misdiagnosed at the emergency room, but luckily, went to see a specialist the next morning. He reasoned that Scottsdale, Arizona, probably had better heart specialists than his adopted hometown of Durango, Colorado.
Shortly into the appointment, the specialist sent him to surgery. His aorta, the large artery attached to the left ventricle of the heart, was dissected, or torn. This was causing an aortic aneurism, which is when the artery bulges and risks exploding.
Cullinan underwent open-heart surgery to repair his aorta and to replace the adjacent heart valve with a metal one. A little more than a year later, surgeons opened his chest again and swapped the metal bits for a human valve. That’s what allowed him to go back to racing.
Doctors suspect that a huge jump gone wrong during practice for the 1993 World Championships was what damaged his aorta in the first place. A mechanical mishap—a wheel that detached itself midair from Cully’s bike—made it impossible to avoid a massive crash.
His sponsor, Diamondback, stuck with him despite the lost ’94 season, and he came back to competition in 1995. “My medical release was about the size of the Orange County phone book,” he says. For the lifelong competitor, being part of the racing circuit again was everything.
Though thrilled to be back, less-than-hoped-for results ultimately precipitated a move to KHS bicycles, and then a move to Schwinn.
But Cully did find his rhythm again, and got back to winning races. By 1999, he was on the top of his game. He won the first race of the new millennium, and then suffered a navicular fracture of his left wrist, which ended his professional career.
Professional mountain biking in the 1990s was never a race-for-a-few-years-and-then-retire-to-a-private-island proposition. Even if it had been a big-money deal, the people who did it were almost uniformly there for the love of competition and for the camaraderie of racing’s ‘traveling circus.’ Cully loved it, and wasn’t prepared to quit. And like many retirees, he got a bit lost in the transition to ‘normal’ life.
“It was very troubling to me to even look at a magazine, look at the results, because the competitor in me still wanted go race Mikey [King] and Brian [Lopes] and Eric [Carter].”
These days though, the inner drive to compete has quietly given way to regular life and family, but the former World Champ is back with “the world’s fastest racers” in his relatively new role as Troy Lee Designs National Sales Manager. It’s a job that has him rubbing elbows with the guy who encouraged him to get on the 26-inch wheels in the first place—Craig Glaspell, TLD’s Bicycle Global Marketing Manager. And it seems a fitting spot for someone who first started wearing helmets painted by Troy Lee, back in 1987 on the BMX track.
Cully plans to bring his wife Brijette and their three-year-old daughter Daven to this year’s Sea Otter Classic. He’s looking forward to catching up with old racing buddies and maybe even entering the downhill. If he doesn’t make it to the start house, though, he’ll be okay. Because, as he puts it, “It’s all about family now.”