Brandon McNulty believes the recent string of successes from young riders suggests professional cycling is cleaner than ever. The 21-year-old American will move from Rally UHC to WorldTour level next year but is resisting the pressure to keep pace with his contemporaries.
Egan Bernal won the Tour de France this year at the age of 22, the youngest winner in more than 100 years. Elsewhere, 20-year-old Tadej Pogačar has won the Tour of California and Volta ao Algarve in his neo-pro season, and Remco Evenepoel has won the Clásica San Sebastián and elite European time trial title at the age of 19. Meanwhile, 24-year-olds Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert have taken the road by storm after spending their early 20s dominating the cyclo-cross scene.
"It's really cool, seeing young guys thrive. I think it's maybe also a sign the sport is cleaner," McNulty told Cyclingnews at the recent Arctic Race of Norway.
"You kind of hope so. You never know for sure, but you like to think positively. If young guys are doing well, I think that's a good sign for everything. So I think it's exciting for the future."
McNulty is very much part of an exciting new generation. The Arizonian won the junior world time trial title in 2016 and placed second in the U23 race the following year. Having ridden for the LUX development team, he joined Rally in 2017 and turned pro by default when they obtained a Professional Continental licence in 2018. Such was talent he has shown over the years, moving to the WorldTour was a matter of when – not if.
"There has been interest from several WorldTour teams for a couple of years now," McNulty said. "Luckily enough, I was definitely in the fortunate situation where I kind of had to interview the teams – it was kind of backwards, I guess."
In the end, he decided to sign for UAE Team Emirates this summer. He's known their manager, Joxean 'Matxin' Fernandez, a well-known talent scout, since his junior days, and was convinced by their investment in youth. Having signed Pogačar and Jasper Philipsen last year, they are ramping up another notch for 2020 with U23 time trial world champion Mikkel Bjerg, U23 Giro d'Italia champion Andres Camilo Ardila, and U23 Giro fourth-place finisher Alessandro Covi.
"UAE showed a lot of interest last year and were talking about their plans for developing young riders. I was keeping eye on that this year, and seeing Pogačar and Philipsen and their other young guys, what they've been doing, it became obvious they were serious about it," McNulty said.
"You can see from the other guys they're signing, it's definitely a big project coming up, so it's super exciting to see how it turns out, for all of us."
Despite the rapid advances being made by some of his contemporaries – future teammate Pogačar very much among them – McNulty isn't feeling any pressure.
"I'm still only 21, cycling is not a short career but there's a lot of developing you need to do. Unless you're lucky, you can't expect to be the best right away," he said.
That's why he talks of 2020 as a 'transition' year. "There are no expectations, I'll just be getting my feet wet." As for the possibility of a Grand Tour debut: "Probably not. I'm still quite young. Maybe the Vuelta the year after is a possibility, but it's better to take that kind of stuff slow."
Patience is a virtue and McNulty seems to possess it in spades. Many young riders would have leapt at a WorldTour contract waved in front of their face, but he calmly decided it would be better for his development to stay with Rally for another year. Now, he's in the process of moving to Girona to base himself full-time in Europe, and will race the Tour du Poitou-Charentes for Rally and the World Championships for the USA before heading for the off-season and thinking about the WorldTour.
"I think it was the right choice, staying with Rally for another year. I definitely came a long way this year, so now I know I'm fully ready this year," he said.
"I think I could have been ready last year but I didn't know for sure. Now it's like, I'm ready."