Brandon McNulty (Rally Cycling) made the most of his first opportunity to compete in America's only WorldTour race last week at the Amgen Tour of California, coming in fourth on the Queen stage to South Lake Tahoe and finishing seventh overall when the race concluded Saturday in Sacramento.
McNulty established his place among the best in the race with his 12th place finish during the second stage to the summit of Gibraltar Road outside of Santa Barbara. He followed it the next day with 13th place in the reduced bunch sprint behind solo stage winner Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo).
His luck turned south when he punctured during the stage 4 time trial while on a pace that could have put him in the top 10, eventually finishing 24th on the stage but moving up to seventh overall, the spot he'd hold all the way to the race's end.
But it was McNulty's ride to South Lake Tahoe on stage 6 that was the most impressive. The rider who just turned 20 last month finished fourth on the race's Queen stage, coming in just 1:33 behind stage winner and eventual overall victor Egan Bernal (Team Sky). McNulty rode with an elite group of climbers on the penultimate ascent up Daggett Summit, helping weld some of the attacks back together and eventually finishing behind Bernal, Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Sky).
"I knew it was possible," McNulty told Cyclingnews Saturday before the final stage. "As far as GC, for sure I was hoping to be top 10, but I think riding the way I was at the end of that hard of a long stage was a bit of surprise. It was pretty crazy to be with Yates and Majka."
McNulty helped pull then-race leader Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) back up to Yates and Geoghegan Hart on the Daggett climb as Bernal soloed away, then he was able to stick with the best on the final kicker to Heavenly Resort after more than 4,000 metres of climbing and 196.5km in just over five-and-a-half hours of racing.
"A day like that, I don't think it gets much harder," he said. "It was good."
It was the kind of performance from a developing rider that has team directors licking their chops and imagining him in their jersey. The 2016 junior time trial champion and 2017 U23 time trial runner-up was already on their radar, especially after a solo attack in this year's Dubai Tour saw him come up just 50 metres short of a stage win at Hatta Dam. Now, after California, that blip on their screens is screaming for attention.
"I've had quite a few meetings with my agent and a few different teams, but we're trying to keep the noise level down as long as we can before getting too distracted by it," McNulty told Cyclingnews. "For sure it's the goal to go up, but I'm still only a second year U23, so staying where I am now is a definite possibility, because there's no rush right now."
Indeed, when McNulty joined the team in 2017, Rally remained a Continental program racing a mostly US domestic calendar after an early spring in Europe. The team jumped up to the Pro Continental level this year and capitalised on more international racing, starting the season in the Middle East, then moving on to Spain and Portugal.
"They're kind of on the same trajectory I am personally, so it's working out pretty well," McNulty said of Rally. "Obviously, the team is growing as well, so it's definitely a good place to be."
Rally Performance Director Jonas Carney knows he's got a hot commodity in his young American rider, and he's obviously hoping to keep him around a little longer.
"Those are decisions that Brandon will have to make in his career," Carney told Cyclingnews when asked how long he thinks he'll be able to keep McNulty on the team.
"Our team is growing very quickly, and we're expanding our European program next year," Carney continued. "We'll be doing quite a few more of the bigger races in Europe next year, so we hope that our program will develop at the same rate as Brandon so it makes sense for him to stay."
Carney acknowledged that there is a lot of interest in McNulty from WorldTour teams, but he also pointed out McNulty's young age, saying it's important that McNulty make good decisions at this point in his career.
"He has a bright future, but so did a lot of young American riders who didn't reach their potential," Carney said. "We want to see Brandon contesting Grand Tours and racing at the front of the WorldTour races in his late 20s and maximising his potential. So hopefully we can provide the development that he needs and he won't push too hard too early and risk burning out."
McNulty will likely have some big, career-defining decisions to make at the end of this season. It's a pressure that doesn't seem to affect the Arizona native, in the same way that the bad luck in his time trial didn't derail him for the rest of the week; he accepted it and set about doing his work.
McNulty may be young, but he already understands that at the end of the day, a good cyclist learns to ignore the outside "noise" and just do the work – even, for example, when competing against riders he's used to only seeing in the big races on TV.
"When it gets hard you kind of forget about it, and then you take a step back and say, 'Oh, wow, these are some big names,'" he said. "But you can't really let it affect you because it's still just a bike race. No matter the level you still have to get your job done."