Brandon McNulty on stage 3 of Paris-Nice.

Brandon McNulty knows the results will come

Brandon McNulty is hoping to improve on his debut Giro performance as he continues to focus on his development.

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Brandon McNulty (UAE-Team Emirates) made the first racing appearance of his sophomore season at this week’s Paris-Nice, where he got off to a fine start before crashing out on Friday’s stage 6. It was a tough way for what looked like a promising outing to end. After putting up some strong showings here and there in 2020, the American up-and-comer is continuing to aim high in year two at the highest level, and at least in the form department, he seems to have reason to be optimistic about this year.

Fortunately, his team said after the stage that he had not suffered any major injuries, and UAE-Team Emirates has confirmed to CyclingTips that the big goal for McNulty’s season remains the same. As McNulty told CyclingTips by phone just before starting at Paris-Nice, he is hoping to improve on what was a solid Giro d’Italia debut last year with a return to the Italian Grand Tour this season.

“I’m targeting the Giro again so I’d really like to see if I can improve on 15th, see if I can get into the top 10 or top five and maybe a stage win,” McNulty said. “Also trying to improve on my time trial as well. I’ve shown I can put down a pretty good time trial at this level.”

He did just that in the early goings of Paris-Nice. McNulty rode to fourth in stage 3 time trial and spent a few days sitting third overall before his untimely exit after a crash. Occasional mishaps notwithstanding, building a lead with a TT and holding onto it has been his strategy for years.

“I think that’s always been the style of rider I’ve been since the juniors,” McNulty said. “Every junior race I would just win the TT and then defend. I don’t want to make the TT my crutch, like that’s the only thing i can do, so I’d definitely like to improve my climbing a lot more, but the TT will always be my strong suit.”

Indeed, McNulty was a junior world champion in the time trial back in 2016, after having finished on the podium in 2015. He then put in podium performances in the under-23 event in 2017 and 2019. In other words, he has been on the radar of American cycling fans for a while – since he was a teenager, in fact.

That sort of exposure has sometimes proven to be a tough weight for other up-and-comers to bear. McNulty is hoping a measured approach will help him reach his goals.

Still just 22, McNulty is now in his fourth year racing above the Continental level (this is his second year at UAE-Team Emirates after three seasons with Rally, two of those at the Pro Continental level). That’s quite a bit of experience for someone of his age to have racing with the upper echelons of the peloton while still focusing mostly on gradual development, and that’s by design. McNulty flashed plenty of talent from a young age, but he has remained laser-focused on continuing to grow his skill set and learn the ropes of top-tier racing over hunting for big results at the highest level right away.

“It’s tough. Being an American there’s so few riders that it’s pretty easy to have a hype train, and at this level it’s hard to perform, so it’s easy to let down the hype,” McNulty said. “I just try to stay focused and not let outside things affect me. I’ve taken a bit of a slower approach going to the WorldTour and focused on developing and I hope [as I] continue that will help.”

The gradual accumulation of experience over the years has helped him across the board. He experienced racing in Europe as a junior before joining Rally, and experienced riding in a few WorldTour races with Rally before joining the UAE team. He says those prior opportunities to ride in increasingly talented fields helped make it less “mind-blowing” when stepping up to the highest level. His years of increasing exposure to higher-level racing also helped him ease into the life of spending more and more time in Europe, which is so often a huge challenge for non-European riders.

“I think I was 15 the first time I went or 16, so by the time you’re 23, you’re used to being over there for a month, two months, three months at a time,” McNulty said of traveling across the Atlantic.

McNulty is racing in an era that has seen riders his age doing amazing things. Egan Bernal was the youngest rider in years to win the Tour in 2019, and then McNulty’s teammate Tadej Pogacar, more than a year and half younger than Bernal, took the title last year. McNulty is seeing that as a good sign while trying not to let it change his approach.

“It’s exciting for me, especially to see my teammate who’s my age win the Tour de France, it shows it’s possible, but it’s a long career,” McNulty said. “I’d love to go have a long successful career, so I’m not too worried about having to win a Tour de France at 21 or 22. For me it’s about having success over the years. It encourages me but I don’t feel pressure or stress from it to perform right this second.”

With all that in mind, McNulty’s 2020 campaign, his first as a WorldTour pro, gave him plenty to build on moving forward. He was fourth at the Vuelta a San Juan and seventh at the Ruta del Sol before the season hiatus, and then he made his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia. He was sitting as high as fourth overall after the stage 14 time trial before dropping to 15th, not a bad performance for a first-time rider in a three-week race, not to mention his runner-up ride on stage 10 and third-place finish in that TT.

And while the brutal third week of the 2020 Giro saw McNulty drop down the standings, he came away feeling good about his performance and where he can go from there, as he continues to get used to three-week racing and on perhaps slightly less mountainous terrain most of the time.

Brandon McNulty on stage 15 of the 2020 Giro d’Italia.

“As hard as it was, I could definitely see that if you do one or two more of those … it’s not easy but it’s normal,” he said. “But I think the Giro in particular [in 2020], that final week was abnormal for any Grand Tour so it was encouraging.”

McNulty takes that encouragement and that experience into this season as he gears up for more WorldTour racing, and he is feeling optimistic after the offseason. He spent most of it training at home in Arizona, except for a stint in Dubai for a training camp with the team, and he was pleased with what he was seeing in training.

“My numbers all around have been good,” he said. “That just comes from every year at this age you’re going to get better. It’s been really good. For me, the time trial should look good. The big thing is putting the power together with the position but I’ve been really happy with my position for this last season and this year so hopefully those two can come together well.”

Power and positioning certainly appeared to mesh in McNulty’s first TT of the year earlier this week, where he was nine seconds off the lead in a 14.4 km test.

After his crash, the upcoming calendar isn’t set in stone, but if he can get back on track and resume racing as planned, he was slated to next race at the Volta a Catalunya, the GP Miguel Indurain, and the Tour of the Alps before gearing up for his second Giro. He will likely be one of a few options for UAE-Team Emirates to come away with a result at the Italian Grand Tour as the team is also expected to bring Davide Formolo for the overall and Fernando Gaviria for the sprints.

The team also took a multi-faceted approach to last year’s race, not building a team around one rider but bringing firepower to help in the mountains when necessary. McNulty is looking forward to another opportunity to test himself without having the full weight of his team – one that just won a Tour de France – on his shoulders.

“It’s an options thing again,” he said. “We’ll have climbers there that if I start going well can ride, but if it ends up not going so well, there’s plenty of other options in the team. It gives me more freedom too and less pressure than to have a team completely built around me.”

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