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Analysis: How vital is 2023 for Brandon McNulty’s grand tour ambitions?

'McNulty for me is a super, super rider and I believe a lot in him,' UAE's Fernández tells VeloNews.

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It’s fair to say that 2022 has been a year of significant progress as well as a small degree of stagnation for American rider Brandon McNulty.

Those two positions might be at odds with each other but in a campaign defined by both expectations and results, it’s hard to pinpoint where the UAE rider stands in terms of the team’s stage racing pecking order.

On the one hand, the 24-year-old has impressed with three early season wins and a vital super domestique role at the Tour de France. On the other hand, he wasn’t always able to capitalize on the opportunities he has been presented with due to crashes, illness, and other team objectives getting in the way. Two grand tour rides this year provide perfect examples of the situation McNulty finds himself in.

At the Tour de France, he was excellent through several mountain stages and was often the last line of defense when it came to suppressing Jumbo-Visma’s numerical advantage in the mountains.

He finished 19th, arguably his best ride in a three-week race, but fast forward to the Vuelta a España, a race in which he hoped to play his own cards, and illness meant that he was edged down the pecking order by Juan Ayuso and Joäo Almeida, both of whom cracked the top five.

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In fact, McNulty’s best GC result in a WorldTour race this year was 11th in the Criterium du Dauphiné. On paper, it was his one-day results that made his season the success that it was.

McNulty might develop into a super one-day rider, his performance at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021 almost netted him a medal, but it’s in week-long and grand tour stage racing where his passion and obvious talents lie.

He was, after all, 15th in his maiden grand tour at the 2020 Giro d’Italia and has become a formidable ally for Tadej Pogačar at the Tour de France.

The concern, from the outside at least, is that McNulty’s individual chances in the coming years will be harder to pursue.

UAE Team Emirates has made no secret of its desire to become the world number one ranked team and the team signed Adam Yates, Almeida, George Bennett, and Marc Soler in the last two transfer windows. The fact that the entire quartet of riders have better grand tour results than McNulty raises the question over where the American can lead the team over the next 12 months.

Granted, McNulty is still young and he’s clearly learning his trade at one of the best teams in the WorldTour. If he were to sign for another rival team that would offer him more chances it would not necessarily translate to better results. Complete leadership on a smaller team might mean less support, both on and off the bike, while the American is locked in for at least another two years at the team he’s currently riding with.

Speaking to Joxean Fernández, it’s abundantly clear that the management team at UAE has complete faith in McNulty.

They signed him from Rally fully aware of his raw power and his natural ability. They can see his drive and commitment on the bike and most importantly they can recognize that patience is key to rider development.

“McNulty for me is a super, super rider and I believe a lot in him,” Fernández told VeloNews.

“From the first moment of the season, we believed in him. From Mallorca through the spring, and into Paris-Nice.”

Fernández must be taken at face value with those comments but the true definition of his words will be backed up in November and December when UAE decides on the team’s defined hierarchy and goals for the year ahead.

UAE has so many potential grand tour leaders that it’s conceivable that they could field genuine co-leaders for both the Giro and Vuelta, with Pogačar remaining dialed towards the Tour. One option could be for McNulty to be given the co-leadership in either Italy or Spain, with the Tour becoming either a secondary target or skipped entirely.

“He’s a super teammate at the Tour de France but there’s an alternative thinking for maybe next year to send him to the Giro or the Vuelta, with more focus on his possibilities,” added Fernández.

“That’s just one idea in my head for next year and Brandon in the grand tours. We want him to continue that evolution from a one-week racer. He’s a great time trialist and an excellent climber. I believe a lot in him.”

The next few weeks and months will be fascinating when it comes to UAE Team Emirates and how the management juggles the aspirations and aims of so many potential grand tour leaders.

At some point soon, however, McNulty is going to need to make that jump from a top-10 contender in week-long races to proven podium material. That has to be his next step at the start of 2023, whether he’s a co-leader at the Giro or not.