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23-year-old American Brandon McNulty announced himself to the world on Stage 4 of the 2021 Itzulia Basque Country. Avid cycling fans would have already known the McNulty name thanks to a number of WorldTour podiums and contract with one of the top teams in pro cycling. But his lead-grabbing coup on stage 4 revealed the true depth of his talent and determination.
Stage 1 – 13.9km individual time trial
Stage 1 was but a preview of what was to come. In the 13.9 km ITT around Bilbao, riders flogged themselves up the opening climb at 500w, before bombing down the false flat descent, and back into town for a 13 percent climb to the finish. Time trials have always been one of McNulty’s specialties, but on this day, he reached another level.
Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) left the start house early, posting a time of 17:17 in the stage 1 time trial. Among his expected challengers for the stage were 2020 Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates), Patrick Bevin (Israel Start-Up Nation), and Wilco Kelderman (Bora–Hansgrohe). But by the time they all came through, Roglič was still nearly 30 seconds clear of the field, and only McNulty could get close.
Stage 1 began with a 2.3km with an average of 7 percent, before winding down a gradual descent, cutting through town, and then finishing with a brutal kick of 300m at 13 percent before the finish. Pacing would be key, and that meant smashing the opening climb.
McNulty went out at an otherworldly 520w (7.6w/kg) up the opening climb. Spectators at the side of the road were probably confused that someone could ride up this climb so fast. With 8km of downhill to recover, McNulty was still pushing 400-450w down the majority of the descent, with the greatest respite coming in the final few moments of tight corners before that hellishly steep climb to the finish.
Average Power: 523w (7.6w/kg)
After 16 minutes at 420w, McNulty still had plenty left in the tank, and he attacked the final climb like it was the Mur de Huy, averaging over 700w for a minute, and crossing the line with a time of 17:19, just two seconds slower than Roglič.
McNulty’s ability to produce 6w/kg+ on the TT bike is among the best in the world. Most amateur riders lose power on the TT bike and in the aero position, compared to their maximal power outputs on the road bike. But many pros are able to equal the two through thousands of hours and training, testing, and tweaking. McNulty is almost able to produce more power on the TT bike, which we can clearly see in his stage 1 result where he produced a normalized power of nearly 7w/kg for nearly 20 minutes.
Average Power: 682w (9.9w/kg)
Peak 1-min Power: 702w (10.2w/kg)
McNulty – stage 1
Average Power: 435w (6.3w/kg)
Normalized Power: 482w (7w/kg)
A mountainous profile in the Basque Country always means fireworks, and even the rain couldn’t put a damper on the show as Astana-Premier Tech took their first win of 2021 in style with Alex Aranburu crossing the line first, with his teammate Omar Fraile leading home an elite chase group 15 seconds later.
The real action came on the final climb of the day, the La Asturiana. Pogačar and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) attacked first, but were caught and later countered by McNulty, Roglič, Sergio Higuita (EF Education–Nippo), and Max Schachmann (Bora–Hansgrohe). It really was a who’s-who of the world’s best climbers, and McNulty showed no shortage of confidence by responding to attacks and descending at 80kph through the Basque rain. In the final run-in to the line, McNulty lost a handful of seconds to the chase group containing Fraile, Roglič, and Pogačar.
The first summit finish of the 2021 Itzulia Basque Country, Stage 3 could become the blueprint for the rest of the season, namely the Tour de France. Everyone expected a Slovenian duel between Pogačar and Roglič, and that’s exactly what we got.
Jumbo-Visma controlled the majority of the stage, letting a sizeable breakaway slip clear, before pegging them back in the triple-climb finale. An unclassified climb began with 20km to go, followed by the Cat 2 Malkuartu, and finishing atop the Ermualde, a 3.1km climb with an average of 10.2 percent and ramps of over 20 percent. It took over 400w for McNulty to stay near the front of the bunch on the unclassified climb, and even more on the Malkuartu. Even with the Ermualde looming in the distance, there was hardly any energy saved in the mountainous run-up.
McNulty – unclassified climb
Average Power: 438w (6.3w/kg)
McNulty – Malkuartu
Average Power: 462w (6.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 507w (7.3w/kg)
McNulty avoided a crash on the run-in to Ermualde which took out Mike Woods (Israel Start-up Nation) and Kelderman, and hit the foot of the final climb with all of the main favorites including Pogačar and Roglič. With just under 3km to go, Pogačar began to push on, with only Roglič able to match his initial pace. The duo past the last remaining attacker in Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), “flying” up the 20 percent gradients at an almost comical 12kph. Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) led a thin chase group that also included Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) and Mikel Landa Meana (Bahrain Victorious), while McNulty was just a few seconds behind.
The American was hardly caught on a single camera shot as unfinished business from the 2020 Tour de France played out on the front. Roglič went early, leading into the final 300 meters, but his effort was perhaps a bit strong-headed, and the spritely Pogačar swept around his countrymen with 150 meters to go and sailed to the stage win. Lost in the noise, McNulty finished 10th on the stage, only 18 seconds down after a brutal day in the mountains.
McNulty – Ermualde
Average Gradient: 10.2 percent
Average Power: 479w (6.9w/kg)
Normalized Power: 491w (7.1w/kg)
First Kilometer: 3:21 at 517w (7.5w/kg)
McNulty – stage 3 finale
Average Power: 399w (5.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 440w (6.4w/kg)
“McNulty takes race lead from Roglič with a late attack” – read the headlines after a chaotic stage 4 to Hondarribia. It took over 110km for the break to form, which meant a painfully fast start to one of the toughest stages of the race. A group of four finally went clear, but it wasn’t long before they were being pulled back on the Jaizkibel by Astana-Premier Tech and Bahrain Victorious.
McNulty – first 110km of stage 4
Average Power: 269w (3.9w/kg)
Normalized Power: 337w (4.9w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 128bpm
Deskarga climb (kilometer 51)
Average Power: 469w (6.8w/kg)
A true cyclist’s strength lies in their repeatability, or the ability to do (near) maximal efforts over and over, for hour after hour, and day after day.
McNulty’s final attack is impressive in and of itself, but it is even more incredible when you consider the context. Now on the fourth day of full gas racing, there has not been a flat sprinter’s stage or any sign of a rest day. Every climb is ridden at full gas, with the finales somehow being harder. McNulty has gritted his teeth day after day, and with 25km to go in stage 4, he still had enough in the tank to go on the attack and drive the breakaway against the likes of Movistar, Ineos Grenadiers, and EF Education-Nippo.
With 2km to go on the final climb of the day in the Erlaitz, McNulty bridged across to an attack by Esteban Chaves (Team BikeExchange), and started driving the pace for the breakaway group that ballooned to six on the descent. In a perplexing move that would only come good in 48 hours’ time, Jumbo-Visma refused to drive the chase, and so McNulty’s breakaway group extended their gap to 20, 30, and then 40 seconds. Riding for GC, the young American drove the front group all the way to the line, even placing 3rd in the sprint and earning four bonus seconds. By the end of the day, McNulty had the race lead by 23 seconds over Roglič heading into the final two stages.
McNulty – stage 4 breakaway:
Average Power: 382w (5.5w/kg)
Normalized Power: 417w (6w/kg)
Average Gradient: 10.4 percent
Average Power: 470w (6.8w/kg)
Stages 5 and 6
Deceuninck-Quick-Step led a 1-2 finish as the breakaway foiled the sprinters on a rolling stage 5, and with no changes in the general classification, the stage was set for an epic finale in Arrate. With seven classified climbs packed into 112km, the race could explode at any moment.
Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) kicked off proceeds with an attack on the opening climb of the day, a bit of foreshadowing for the remainder of the stage. Attacks, regroupings, and major splits were all that spectators could see in the opening 25km, and it wasn’t until the Azurki climb where a breakaway finally went clear.
Jumbo-Visma sent Sam Oomen up the road on the next climb of the Elosua-Gorla, and once Marc Hirschi (UAE-Team Emirates) jumped across, UAE-Team Emirates had just two domestiques left chasing before the onus would fall on Pogačar and race leader McNulty.
McNulty – Elosua-Gorla
Average Power: 383w (5.5w/kg)
While the climb softened things up, it wasn’t until the descent off the Elosua-Gorla that the race truly split. Roglič followed a move on the downhill by Astana-Premier Tech, Movistar, and Bahrain Victorious, and by the time the road flattened out, Pogačar and McNulty were 20 seconds back and losing time.
The gap between the Roglič and McNulty groups was 30 seconds by the time they reached the base of the Krabelin climb; it was on these steep slopes that McNulty finally cracked. From the previous stages, 6-6.5w/kg seemed to be the target power for staying in the front group. But any riders who were attacking and riding off the front were pushing 6.5-7.5w/kg for five, ten, or twenty minutes at a time. Pogačar led the chase group up the Krabelin while Roglič attacked out of the front group, and like two positive poles of a magnet, the Slovenian duo never made contact again.
McNulty – Krabelin
Average Power: 432w (6.3w/kg)
Final 30km of stage 6
Average Power: 339w (4.9w/kg)
In the end, Roglič gifted the stage win to the fresh-faced David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), with both riders crossing the line with arms aloft. Valverde led home Pogačar’s chase group 35 seconds later, with McNulty trailing in almost eight minutes down. The 23-year-old’s performance could be but a glimpse of what is to come. Many doubted the American’s climbing prowess while simultaneously promoting his time trialing skills – if we learned anything from the 2021 Itzulia Basque Country, it’s that Brandon McNulty is one of the best climbers and time trialists in the world.
Power Analysis data courtesy of Strava and Strava Sauce extension.
Riders: Brandon McNulty