What a difference a year can make, especially when you're barely out of your teens. Brandon McNulty remembers getting spat out of the peloton early in the 2018 Tour of Oman, and then abandoning the race entirely on Green Mountain. Twelve months on, the former junior time trial world champion rode along Muscat’s Mattrah Corniche on Thursday to sign and seal a top-10 overall finish.
McNulty delayed a move to the WorldTour this year in order to continue his development with Rally UHC, who made the step up to Pro Continental level last year, and he described the improvement he and his team have made over the past 12 months as "huge".
The American, tipped as a future Grand Tour contender, has finished up towards the front on every stage but the big test was always going to be Green Mountain on the penultimate stage on Wednesday. With the field scattered around the mountain in ones and twos, he was the 14th rider across the line, vaulting him into ninth overall.
"It was almost so hard it didn't matter, it was like who could suffer the most. There weren't a whole lot of tactics aside from not blowing up. It was rough," said McNulty, slumped on the tarmac beyond the finish line, recovering from the effort.
The aim was not to blow up but it would have been easy to, as the peloton immediately exploded on the double-digit gradients of the 5.7km climb. McNulty, however, held his nerve, stuck to his guns, and made his way up in the wheel of teammate Rob Britton without going too far into the red.
"As soon as we hit the climb, people were doing these 700-watt surges. I was on Rob's wheel doing like crazy power, going backwards. In the first 500 metres of the climb, we were probably 40 seconds back," he said.
"We rode it the best we could. We rode it like a time trial, which is what I'm good at. We just rode where I was comfortable riding for 20 minutes. So we kind of just fell back, and we weren’t even in the mix until it completely blew, which I think was the right thing to do, because a lot of the guys who made that surge were behind me pretty fast. Obviously no one was going to sustain that. Tens of guys were crawling back and then I don’t know how many guys were in front of me but nowhere near as many as at the start."
Britton led the way for McNulty for almost half the climb, pulling off with 3km to go to leave him to pass yet more remnants of the peloton on his way to 14th place.
"I've not seen someone suffer like that for me before, so that was really awesome," McNulty said. "He was pretty incredible today. He kept me calm, got me to where I was comfortable taking over, and I just suffered the rest of the way."
The performance on Green Mountain exorcised the regrets from last year, but the whole week has been a big step forward for McNulty, who turns 21 in April. Last year was his first full season as a professional and he felt it was too early to make the jump to a WorldTour team in 2019, but nevertheless is feeling like he belongs.
"Last year, the first block of racing I did was here, and it was like brand-new, crazy, all these WorldTour teams, and we were just there, watching, kind of. Then we made a ton of progression over the last year so, now, this year, it's the same race but we’re actually fighting to be part of the race," he said.
"The improvements are all around. Last year I came to this race and on stage 2 I just got dropped. This year I was attacking over the last climb. Here [Green Mountain] I did get sick but I didn't even finish the stage last year, and this year I was fighting for a top 15 top 10 result. We're not quite there to be winning these stages, but I think the improvement over the past year has been huge, so that's super cool to see."