When Brandon McNulty went clear over the summit of the Jaizkebel climb during this year's Tour of the Basque Country, he didn’t just ride into the leader’s jersey; he also rode into UAE Team Emirates’ Tour de France squad.
The 23-year-old American wasn’t able to win the testing Basque stage race but he’d already done enough for his team managers to rip up his 2021 programme and hand him a debut at the biggest race in the world, with one of the biggest tasks in the world: supporting the defending champion, Tadej Pogačar.
"Basque was huge," McNulty tells Cyclingnews ahead of the Tour. "It wasn’t exactly last-minute, but after that things did change quickly."
McNulty set out on the 2021 season thinking he’d be riding the Giro d’Italia in May. He’d made an encouraging Grand Tour debut in the autumn edition of the Giro the previous season – itself a fast-tracking given a three-week race wasn’t planned for his first season at WorldTour level – and was due to step up into a leadership role.
However, his form was too good to ignore. After eye-catching performances at Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya – with strong showings against the clock in each – he arrived in the Basque Country and immediately placed runner-up in the opening time trial, second only to Primož Roglič. After establishing himself in the top three with Roglič and Pogačar, he seized the initiative on stage 4, tactically outmaneuvering Roglic and Jumbo-Visma to take the overall lead.
The pendulum swung the other way on a dramatic final day, as McNulty and Pogačar – now riding in his service – lost contact and Roglic stormed clear to snatch the overall title. Despite the obvious disappointment, however, that changed little in the eyes of the team bosses.
"The plan at the start of the year was to do the Giro but with the way the year went, and especially the way Basque went, we kind of decided it was maybe better to give the Tour a shot," McNulty explains.
"It was a discussion between myself and the team. It wasn’t like it was the team telling me – ultimately it was my choice. But the timing of it… my level was so high at Basque it was like ‘okay, how do I rest and stay at this level' for what would have been five or six more weeks to the Giro. Fitness-wise it made sense to take a break, re-set, and build up for the Tour."
McNulty, one of the new hopes for North American cycling, will therefore travel to France next week for the next major step in his career.
He has always pleaded patience, even turning down WorldTour offers to spend an extra year developing with Rally Cycling in 2019, but things have moved quickly since he eventually joined UAE Team Emirates.
The rescheduled 2020 calendar gave him an opportunity to make his three-week debut, and he made an instant impact with a brilliant second week that saw him up in fourth overall after placing third in the stage 14 time trial. Although he faded in the final week, placing 15th in Milan, it was more than enough to support the long-held theory that he’s a Grand Tour contender in the making.
"That was kind of the realization," he says himself. "When you first do three weeks you have no idea how your body’s going to react. By the third week I was completely empty but just to be able to have some good stages and to learn to have the mental capacity to be racing all the way to the end when you’re off the back was a really good experience."
This year, McNulty has very much kicked on. He started out at Paris-Nice, sitting third overall before a crash took him out on the penultimate day, before placing a solid 13th at the Volta a Catalunya after fourth place in the time trial. Then came the Basque breakthrough.
"I didn’t expect what happened at Basque at all. I was hoping for a good TT then anything in the stages would be kind of a bonus. It was super exciting for me," he says.
"It was Just the fitness was building up. I trained really well in the off-season, then had a really nice block with Paris-Nice, rest, training, Catalunya, rest, training, Basque Country. Each race just built on top of each other and had a snowball effect, so by the time Basque came around I was the best I’ve ever been.
"I’ve been quite fortunate. I’ve still been patient and the team’s letting me go at my own rate. I’ve kind of naturally come to this level without any pressure or rush. It’s been a case of learning the ropes of the WorldTour, I guess –how races flow, positioning, nutrition, recovery, and all the little things that end up being huge. You don’t really realise you’re learning, then you look back at where you came from and you’re like ‘ah, I’m clearly better athlete all round’."
"My first real memories of properly watching the Tour were the HTC years with Mark Cavendish"
McNulty will fulfill what he describes as "a dream" when he takes to the start line in Brest a week on Saturday. Cycling has been his main passion since childhood, following in the mountain biking footsteps of his father before getting into road racing around the age of 11.
At that time, a certain Lance Armstrong was the star of US and world cycling, making a dramatic comeback to the Tour de France in 2009 with seven yellow jerseys on his wall at home – although that wouldn’t be the case for much longer.
"Lance wasn’t really the reason I got into cycling, but that was the first real thing I knew about cycling – that Lance was the best at that time," McNulty says.
"My first real memories of properly watching the Tour were the HTC years with Mark Cavendish. Seeing them do those lead-outs was super exciting for me. That was around the same time as the [Andy] Schleck and [Alberto] Contador years. I was a big Andy Schleck fan so those battles were really fun to watch at that time."
Following in the footsteps of the riders you grew up watching on television is what makes any Tour de France debut a special event. For McNulty, however, the magnitude of the occasion is amplified by the scale of the task at hand.
"Just to do the Tour is like a dream come true, almost, but then it’s also twice as exciting knowing you’re going in riding for the defending champion," he says.
"Ok, the pressure is higher, but it’s also super exciting. It’s quite a crazy situation to be in so soon."
McNulty will have a particularly important role to play.
Pogacar won last year’s Tour in dramatic fashion but he was largely a lone operator against the dominant collective force of Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma, while Ineos Grenadiers will once again return to the Tour with staggering strength in depth.
McNulty’s inclusion is part of an effort to beef up the support network around Pogacar, as well as new signing Rafal Majka, with Jan Polanc and David de la Cruz among the existing riders expected to be there in the mountains.
"I think the team will start out hoping I can be the last man with Tadej, or second last – just go as deep as I can," McNulty says.
"Obviously we have guys like Majka who are super good climbers as well. I’ll kind of be able to see how I fit in as we get into the mountains as the days go on."
McNulty is under no illusions that any personal ambitions fade into insignificance in light of Pogacar’s status, but the two time trials on the 2021 route – on stages 5 and 20 – have nevertheless caught his eye.
"We’ll see how race is going. You never know what’s going to happen. My first big objective is the TT on day five. I’ll really focus on the TT’s then help as much as I can and see how things go. A stage win is a big ask but I’ll for sure go for it. But the GC is the priority."
'Pogačar is so good he raises everyone's level'
In any case, there’s little doubt that McNulty will do anything other than relish the opportunity to suffer and sacrifice himself for his Slovenian teammate. The Basque Country was the first race he did with Pogacar, but it left a lasting impression.
"It kind of brings everyone up another level, having someone around who’s that good," McNulty says.
"For me, maybe at Basque that was why I was able to ride so well, because he brings everyone up. You step up when you have a leader like that.
"He’s definitely a quiet leader. He’s super calm, never any stress, a really good guy overall. He’s not silent but he’s just a quiet, humble guy, which I prefer versus the loud egos."
McNulty is currently in Girona, Spain, completing his final 10-day training block before a five-day taper and a journey up through France early next week.
His pre-race form isn’t quite as encouraging compared to the Basque Country, given he only managed 40th at the Critérium du Dauphiné, but he insists there’s no cause for concern, attributing his opening-day struggles to his recent return from altitude training.
"Going forward, recovering from that race and doing another bit of training, I’ll be right back up there," he says confidently.
"I'm really looking forward to getting going."
As Deputy European Editor, Patrick is responsible for Cyclingnews' long-form and in-depth output. Patrick joined Cyclingnews in 2015 as a staff writer after a work experience stint that included making tea and being sent to the Tour de Langkawi. Prior to that, he studied French and Spanish at university and went on to train as a journalist. Rides his bike to work but more comfortable on a football pitch.
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