The duo, who lay fourth and fifth in the general classification after stage 1, piled a joint series of attacks on race leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) on the hardest climb of the day, the second-category La Asturiana climb 15 kilometres from the finish.
The lead group finally reformed on the way down, before Alex Aranburu (Astana-Premier Tech) powered away to claim the stage win.
But Pogačar and his 23-year-old American teammate had made it obvious that even if a powerful older racer like Roglič had taken the opening time trial in decisive style, the younger generation of racers would do anything but accept the status quo.
Foiled on the climb as Roglič led back the lead group in person, Pogačar nonetheless rounded off his excellent performance with a late charge for the line in Sestao that allowed him to claim third place and four bonus seconds.
As a result, even if McNulty lost a little time on the final climb and slid back to third behind stage winner Alex Aramburu, Pogačar moved up a place to fourth on GC, 24 seconds back, and stays at the head of the Best Young Rider’s classification, too.
“I had good legs, we tried with Brandon, attack after attack, it was an interesting race,” Pogačar told reporters afterwards. “It was a hard day, quite cold but we kept ourselves in good position all day and that meant no stress for us.
“Finally [teammate] Marc Hirschi put me in a good spot before the sprint, and I was third, with four seconds time bonus. That result marked the day.”
Pogačar’s blistering, climbing performance and third place will boost his morale after Monday’s below-expectations time trial result and prior to the first crunch summit finish on Wednesday at Ermualde.
Although short, stage 3’s final 3.5-kilometre climb will be anything but straightforward, with a middle section featuring six tough hairpins and multiple ramps of up to 20 per cent.
Overall, the GC remains with Roglič in control, although with 17 other riders still within the danger zone of a minute or less, his lead is far from stable.
And after Tuesday's fraught finale, Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingegaard and Tobias Foss, who performed so well in the first day TT, dropped out of the top five on GC, with Pogačar and McNulty now in third and fourth. Should they be aiming to attack again on Wednesday’s summit finish, they’re in the ideal position to do so.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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