Brandon McNulty's disappointment was evident when he crossed the finish line in Tavira after Saturday's time trial, but his Volta ao Algarve took on a different hue after he sealed second place overall with another assured display on the summit finish at Alto do Malhão.
The traditional finale to the Portuguese race provided its usual frissons, with the yellow jersey group splintering on the first ascent of the Malhão, although QuickStep-AlphaVinyl restored order over the other side and then winner Remco Evenepoel took command in the closing kilometres.
McNulty was one of only four riders to match Evenepoel's pace, together with Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe), Daniel Martinez (Ineos) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ). Although he was unable to match Higuita's winning sprint, the UAE Team Emirates rider claimed third on the stage and moved up a spot in the overall standings to boot.
"I had good legs and went for it in the end. It was nice to have that confidence, but I was out-sprinted. There was nothing to complain about when it comes to getting beaten by those guys," McNulty told reporters after wheeling to a halt past the finish line.
"It was a super aggressive day. People spotted a minor weakness in QuickStep with those guys on the team, but obviously, they defended well and there was definitely a lot of attacking. It took a while for the break to go and then things opened up quite far from the finish. It was super aggressive but enjoyable."
McNulty finished the race 1:17 down on the unassailable Evenepoel and 4 seconds ahead of Martinez to claim his best finish in a stage race at UCI Pro level and his best in a multi-day event of any kind since he won the Giro di Sicilia in 2019. "I knew that Martinez was super strong and that he had to be respected, but I figured that he wasn't going to put five seconds into me on the climb," he said.
The lone frustration from the race came in Saturday's 32.2km time trial, where he conceded 1:25 to Evenepoel. At this early point in the season, some kinks have yet to be ironed out. "We'll figure it out. The numbers were good. It wasn't about the performance. It will be dialled up," McNulty said carefully of his time trial.
"For sure I'm satisfied with the race and the overall. The time trial could have been a bit better, but I can figure those things out. Racing wise, it's been really good. I'm super happy overall. Racing wise, I keep making steps forward."
McNulty began his 2022 season with a towering, 60km solo attack to win the Trofeo Calvia, his first victory since 2019, and he followed up with two more striking displays in Mallorca. He continued in a similar tone with his podium finish at the Volta ao Algarve.
"Everything has come together and really it's a snowballing effect," he said. "You have one good race and that leads you to race better in the next. I'm just trying to keep the momentum through for the rest of the year."
In July, McNulty will form part of the cadre of riders who will look to shepherd Tadej Pogačar to a third straight Tour de France victory, but in this opening phase of the season, the American has been granted the freedom to pursue personal success. The next stage race on his agenda is Paris-Nice, where he will line out with a sense of unfinished business after crashing out while lying third overall a year ago.
"Definitely last year was unfortunate. It's nice to have a bit of confidence and some racing in the legs going into the first WorldTour stage race of the year for me. I'm looking forward to it," McNulty said. "Last year was pointing towards the podium or the top five, had things gone better and I'm considerably stronger than last year too. We'll see how it goes."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.