Brandon McNulty climbs with confidence on Tour of California's toughest day, showing he has a future in the WorldTour.

SANTA BARBARA, California (VN) — You can’t blame Brandon McNulty for feeling starstruck when he raced against Alejandro Valverde, Mark Cavendish, and the other stars of the WorldTour earlier this year. McNulty is just 20 years old; 18 months ago he was pedaling junior gears.

The starstruck moments came in February. McNulty made his debut in cycling’s big leagues when his Rally cycling team participated in select races in Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

“Those first days were pretty weird. These are the guys I’ve been watching on TV since I was 12 and now I’m racing against them,” McNulty said. “I was like, ‘This is pretty cool.’”

Whatever remained of that youthful naivete was blown away Monday afternoon on the slopes of Gibraltar Road, where McNulty rode like a man well beyond his years. The Amgen Tour of California’s second stage sent the peloton high into the Santa Ynez mountains for the first climbing test of the week. WorldTour teams BMC and Sky looked motivated to set up their respective leaders; domestiques from both squads tapped out a scorching pace that shredded the peloton on the 3,400-foot climb.

Brandon McNulty survived the brutal pace and rode comfortably in fourth wheel for the lion’s share of the climb.

A surge from Sky domestique Tao Geoghegan Hart with 2.5km remaining unhitched McNulty and others from the group. McNulty limited his losses and chugged on toward the finish, crossing the line in 13th place, the second American behind Tejay van Garderen.

“I felt amazing until 3km to go and then the pace slowly started hitting me,” McNulty said. “This climb really wears on you. You can start it at a certain wattage and it feels easy and by the end, you can barely touch that number.”

McNulty now sits 1:25 down in the GC, but only a few seconds outside of the top-10. And he’s a skilled individual time trial rider. This means McNulty could edge into the race’s GC hunt after Wednesday’s individual time trial in San Jose.

Adam Yates, Brandon McNulty, and Tejay Van Garderen rode together on the upper reaches of Gibraltar. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

McNulty’s impressive ride comes after a winter and spring of promising results in Europe and the Middle East. Rally stepped into the UCI Pro Continental ranks for 2018 and plotted an early season abroad. The team’s goal was to expose riders like McNulty to the ebb and flow of European racing as preparation for the Tour of California and other U.S. races

McNulty scored no victories, only close calls. Each near miss, however, spoke to the potential for future success.

During stage 4 of the Dubai Tour, McNulty attacked into a daylong breakaway; he outlasted his companions and pedaled into the final kilometer nursing a small advantage on the peloton. Unfortunately, the final hundred meters included a wall-like climb, and McNulty was swamped by the peloton within sight of the finish.

At Spain’s Klasika Primavera de Amorebieta McNulty was unable to follow the winning attacks by Movistar teammates Andrey Amador and Alejandro Valverde. But McNulty made the front group of 15, racing alongside top riders from Spain and Portugal.

And then there was the GP Beiras e Serra da Estrela, a hilly UCI 2.1 race in Portugal. On stage 3, McNulty was so sure he’d won that he raised his arms in victory after crossing the line. Unfortunately, breakaway rider Marino Gonzalez had eluded the chasing peloton and escaped with the victory.

“That was a high and a low,” McNulty said. “Every race I felt more comfortable riding at the front of the race and not just following wheels.”

Brandon McNulty
Brandon McNulty nearly pulled off the biggest win of his young pro career in stage 4 at Dubai Tour. Photo: Tim De Waele | Getty Images

McNulty’s ascension is linked to Rally’s conservative developmental approach to his talents. In 2017, McNulty shrugged off offers to race in Europe and instead signed with Rally. Since then team performance manager Jonas Carney straddled two opposing forces: give McNulty chances to win, but also prevent him from burning out.

“We’re trying to get him to as many really solid race days as we can without pushing him too hard,” Carney said. “Ultimately, the team wants to be careful with Brandon because he’s still a kid and we’ve watched a lot of big talents not reach their potential or burn out early because they try to do too much too early. We don’t want to do that with Brandon.”

Carney said the team’s relationship with McNulty is that of an advisor, not a heavy-handed boss. He advises McNulty and his coach about the racing opportunities and challenges ahead. Ultimately, it’s McNulty himself who can make the decision.

Thus far, McNulty has agreed with the conservative approach, Carney said.

“It’s hard to be 20 years old and not want to swing at the fences all the time,” Carney said. “The team is doing our best to try to guide Brandon. We want him to be successful at 20, 25, and 29 years old too.”

McNulty said he’s content with the conservative development plan. Those racing trips to Europe gave him a boost of excitement without drubbing his morale. A top result in California will give him confidence heading into the major races in the summer and fall, including the UCI World Championships, where McNulty would love to win the U23 time trial title.

And Carney’s approach still allows McNulty to have a comparatively normal life. He still lives at home in Phoenix with his parents, where he rides bikes, plays video games, and spends time with his girlfriend. The rigors of European racing can wait, for now.

“I still eat a lot of food. I still like dessert,” McNulty said. “It’s awesome.”