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Race leader McNulty upbeat ahead of Arrate showdown at Itzulia Basque Country

Brandon McNulty (R) has the distinct advantage of having Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar (R) at his side in the Itzulia Basque Country
Brandon McNulty (R) has the distinct advantage of having Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar (R) at his side in the Itzulia Basque Country (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates) has promised that he will give everything to defend the leader's jersey of the Itzulia Basque Country on Saturday's toughest mountain stage and the final ascent to the Alto de Arrate in what could be the biggest day of his professional career to date.

After an uneventful stage 5 for the GC racers on Friday, McNulty has a 23 second lead over arch-rival Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), while Roglič's teammate Jonas Vingegaard is only five seconds further back.

Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) is also inside the minute margin and recent Volta a Catalunya winner Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) is 62 seconds adrift, too.

The margins are tight as McNulty faces no fewer than seven classified climbs, three of them ranked first category in just 111.9 kilometres of racing. But Itzulias have been won by less than 23 seconds, too, most recently in 2017 when Alejandro Valverde won by 17 seconds against Alberto Contador.

McNulty recognised after stage 5 that the chance to fight for his first WorldTour title was "a great opportunity, super exciting and I'll give everything I can to defend the jersey.

"Obviously, it is a huge goal for me to be there and I will do everything I can to be in it."

This is McNulty's first outing at Itzulia Basque Country. He did not do the Vuelta a España last year when the riders also tackled the Arrate, meaning he has never been up the region's most emblematic ascent.

However, just as teammate Tadej Pogačar, guided by the Basque members of the UAE Team Emirates staff, went to recon stage 3's summit finish where he subsequently won, McNulty said he might well do the same with the Arrate tomorrow morning.

"A lot of the team know it quite well, so that's a great help for sure," he observed.

Having a defending Tour de France champion in Pogačar in support is not something that happens every day, and McNulty recognised that.

"It's great to have him by my side. Tadej is very strong. If I blow up, then he's the next best option."

Pogačar made it clear, too, in a brief interview with local TV that he would be happy to provide that support. Asked if he wanted to win La Itzulia, Pogačar said, "I hope we, as a team, will win it. Brandon has the yellow jersey and it's probably easier to defend it than attack. I hope we can defend it."

McNulty also argued that it wouldn't just be Roglic he'll be watching tomorrow, with so many other potential challengers on the GC. And he agreed that letting a breakaway go to soak up the time bonuses on offer, and thereby making it easier to defend his GC options, would be an ideal scenario.

"However," he said, "that's easier said than done, so we'll just have to see how it plays out."