Sink or swim. The Giro d’Italia reached its midpoint on the Adriatic coast on Wednesday and it marked the entry into uncharted waters for Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates). A Grand Tour debutant, he has never been this far out to sea before.
“I did the Tour de l’Avenir, which is ten days, but also it’s a bit different because the stages were 90 or 100k,” McNulty said in Porto Sant’Elpidio before the start of stage 11. “The Tour de Suisse was nine days long, but I only did eight days, I believe. So by far, this is starting to be the longest race I’ve done.”
Towards the end of the opening week, in the days after the Giro crossed the Strait of Messina from Sicily to the Italian mainland, McNulty worried that he might be floundering a little, but he quickly found his sea legs.
On a cold and sodden Roccaraso on Sunday, the American was an assured presence in the group of favourites, and he coped well with the change of pace in the steep final kilometre to finish a handful of places and seconds ahead of a grandee like Vincenzo Nibali. In Tortoreto Lido on Tuesday, meanwhile, McNulty clipped away from the maglia rosa group to take second on the stage and move up to 13th place overall.
“Day five and six, I was starting to feel it, but I’ve been good since,” McNulty said. “Every day is a bit surprising since stage 9. I’ve been feeling very good, very fresh.”
McNulty’s performance in the frantic finale to stage 10 owed as much to his sharpness as his sinew. He endured a frenetic fightback after suffering a puncture with 30km to go, grimly maintained contact with the favourites on the succession of steep muri that followed, and then sensed his opportunity on the fast run-in to the finish.
“Every climb, I thought it was going to be my last one until the final one,” McNulty said. “After that, I knew it was a flat run-in and there were no teams there. I knew if I could get a jump on them, I could probably hold them off on the flats to the finish and that’s exactly what happened.”
McNulty could just about see stage winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) on the approach to Tortoreto Lido but the three-time world champion, seeking a first victory in 461 days, wasn’t to be denied. The American eventually came home 19 seconds down, but he had the wherewithal to hold off the maglia rosa group by 4 seconds.
“I knew it was close, and a stage win would have been nice, but gaining some time and getting second place on the stage is still incredible,” McNulty said afterwards, adding the stage’s intensity had been exacerbated by the uncertainty over whether this Giro will complete its full course.
Mitchelton-Scott and Jumbo-Visma both withdrew from the race on Tuesday morning after confirmed COVID-19 cases during testing on the rest day. Most Grand Tour experiences are novel for a debutant, but Tuesday was particularly tumultuous, both on and off the bike. “I guess yesterday was a bit surprising. I don’t know how many times you see two teams out of the race with GC leaders,” McNulty said on Wednesday.
McNulty is in his first season at WorldTour level after joining UAE Team Emirates from Rally UHC Cycling last winter. Winner of the Giro di Sicilia a year ago, he underscored his potential with strong displays in his first two outings for his new team, placing 4th overall at the Vuelta a San Juan in January and then 7th at the Ruta del Sol a month later.
That was McNulty’s final race before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the season, and he returned home to Arizona in the spring. He didn’t resume competition until the Tour de Pologne in August, where he was, by design, a low-key presence. His path towards the Giro continued with the Tour du Limousin and the World Championships in Imola.
“I think, mentally, it was almost a bit nice, because I was home. Obviously, you want to be racing but to be at home is not such a bad thing,” McNulty said of the hiatus. “It was a bit tough in the restart because I came in a bit ‘under.’ I wasn’t so fit, because we’re racing through to the end of October. Being at my best in August wasn’t the best idea, but the Giro’s been good since the start for me.”
It might get even better. The rugged trek along the Nove Colli route on stage 12 will be another test of McNulty’s credentials – though he will be able to reply on the ample local knowledge of UAE Team Emirates COO and Cesenatico native Andrea Agostini – while Saturday’s rolling time trial through Prosecco country to Valdobbiadene offers him an obvious chance to move up the standings.
“I know there’s some good climbs on it. A time trial is always good for me but if it’s harder that can be good because I can climb too. It should be a good one for me, hopefully,” said McNulty, who is now 2:39 off Almeida’s maglia rosa and just 47 seconds off a berth in the top 10.
“It’s a wild one,” McNulty said when asked his ambitions for the general classification on his uncertain Giro. “I think really anywhere at this point. Hopefully the top 10 for me, but it’s very open.”
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