Brandon McNulty brought an action-packed performance to the elite men’s road race and, although he didn’t secure a medal, he was honoured to have been the highest-placed finisher for the USA at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
McNulty’s sixth place is the best showing that his nation has had in the men’s road race since Taylor Phinney took fourth nearly a decade ago at London 2012.
"Wow. It's crazy. I think within the USA Cycling program, every year and every generation is getting closer to being kind of at the top of the sport," McNulty said in a team press statement following the race.
"It's a big honor for me to be the first big result of the Olympics in a while. It's super, super big for me."
The elite men’s field contested a 243km race that included a total of 4,865 metres of elevation with five ascents: Doushi Road (80km), Kagosaka Pass (100km), Mt. Fuji (140km), Mikuni Pass (205km) and Kogasaka Pass (215km).
An early breakaway was reeled in on the early slopes of Mikuni Pass, creating an opportunity for Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) to attack over top Mikuni Pass. McNulty followed with Canadian Mike Woods to form a new breakaway but they were later joined by Richard Carapaz (Ecuador), Wout van Aert (Belgium), and Rigoberto Uran (Colombia) as part of a larger lead group of 13 men, and what was the deciding move of the race.
"I think any move with Tadej is gonna be good. I've been racing with him last month, so I knew the level he was at, and I knew if I could have the legs to follow him that I was in a good position," McNulty said. "I think it was good for me to kind of get ahead on the climb too."
McNulty was the next to attack over Kogasaka Pass, with 25km to go, and he was soon joined by Carapaz. The pair gained roughly 40 seconds on the chase group heading into the final at the Fuji International Speedway track. Carapaz proved the strongest of the two and powered away within the last six kilometres to take the first Olympic gold medal for Ecuador since walker Jefferson Pérez at Atlanta 1996.
McNulty faded into the chase group but managed to finish sixth place just behind silver medallist Van Aert and bronze medallist Pogačar. Bauke Mollema (Netherlands) was fourth and Woods fifth, while David Gaudu (France) was seventh, Uran eighth and Adam Yates (Great Britain) ninth.
"I'm quite happy with how it went. I'm sad not to get a medal when I was this close to it, but it was more than I could have expected to be in this group," McNulty concluded.
"I kind of knew coming here I was either going to be incredible or be completely empty, but ended up being the former, and I had some of the best legs I've ever had."
McNulty is the ninth rider from the US to have finished in the top-10 in the men’s road race at an Olympic Games and Alexi Grewal is the only to win a gold medal in the men’s race, at Los Angeles 1984.
Team USA only fielded two riders in the men’s road race in Tokyo, with Lawson Craddock racing alongside McNulty and finishing 80th.
"The experience was incredible. It was a pretty challenging race, and with the heat, it was a tough day. It sounds like Brandon had a hell of a ride. I think there's a lot that we can be proud of today," Craddock said.
"Brandon's showed that he's had a bright future for quite a while now. I think today was just confirmation of that. I'm really proud to be his teammate and be with him over the last week. I'm excited to see where it goes from here for us.”
McNulty and Craddock will be competing in the men’s time trial held on July 28.
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