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Brandon McNulty hits milestone with Itzulia Basque Country leader’s jersey

Rising US star is first American male to lead a WorldTour stage race since Tejay van Garderen at 2019 Tour of California.

Brandon McNulty was hunting for a stage win Thursday in Itzulia Basque Country, but came away with something much bigger — the overall leader’s jersey.

The GC jersey is the latest milestone in the already impressive WorldTour palmarès that the 23-year-old is quickly building.

McNulty starts Friday’s stage in yellow, marking the first time an American elite male leads a WorldTour stage race since Tejay van Garderen led the 2019 Tour of California for four days.

“For sure we were aiming for the stage win without thinking too much about the leader’s jersey,” McNulty said Thursday. “I’m obviously happy with the result today.”

After a hot start to the season with strong rides at both Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya, McNulty bounded into the demanding Basque Country tour with good form.

The WorldTour sophomore snuck into an attacking group at the sharp end of the 189km fourth stage ending in Hondarribia. With the GC favorites seemingly content to let their second-in-commands take a run at glory, McNulty bounced ahead of UAE Emirates teammate Tadej Pogačar and overnight leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) on the GC table.

Also read: Izagirre wins stage as McNulty takes over

McNulty trailed through third on the stage behind stage-winner Ion Izagirre (Astana-Premier Tech) and Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious), but when the time bonuses and gap to the main GC group at 49 seconds were tallied up, McNulty ended up on the top step on the podium.

With two days of racing left, McNulty leads Roglič by 23 seconds, with Vingegaard now third at 28 seconds back. Bilbao climbed to fourth at 36 seconds, with Pogačar now fifth at 43 seconds.

Also read: McNulty keen to push limits in sophomore season

Though he fell short of victory — Izagirre beat fellow Basque rider Bilbao by 5 centimeters at the line — the third place is the eighth top-3 placing in a stage since McNulty joined the WorldTour in 2020. McNulty’s 15th overall in the 2020 Giro d’Italia is the best grand tour debut by a U.S. rider since 2001.

The leader’s jersey also marks the first time he’s led a race since joining UAE-Emirates in 2020. He’s been nipping around the podium on several occasions and won the Giro di Sicilia in 2019, but landing in the leader’s jersey at a race as challenging and difficult as Iztulia reveals just how fast McNulty is progressing.

“Getting into the yellow jersey I didn’t really think it was possible today, but anything can happen in cycling,” McNulty said.

The Rally Cycling alumni just missed winning Monday’s opening time trial, finishing second to Roglič by two seconds. McNulty held tough in Wednesday’s decisive climbing finale won by teammate Pogačar, and slotted into third overall. He started at 30 seconds behind Roglič in Thursday’s hilly stage, which featured a second- and first-category climb in the closing hour of racing.

McNulty rode into the winning attack in the closing part of the stage, and with Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingegaard also in the group, it meant that both Roglič and Pogačar had key teammates up the road. With Astana and Bahrain-Victorious also having key riders in the move, the main GC group rode a steady tempo to keep the challengers on a relatively short leash but did not work to reel in the group.

Also read: Generation Now — young US riders rising in the WorldTour ranks

Could McNulty become just the second American — Chris Horner won in 2010 — to win the challenging Basque Country tour?

It all depends on how his climbing legs hold up.

“The final day will just be full-gas, and whoever has the legs will take it,” McNulty said. “For me, it’s everything I can for the jersey. If I can’t do it, then Tadej is probably the strongest guy here, so it’s a really nice position for us.”

Friday’s fifth stage features three third-category climbs in a lumpy course that should suit the sprinters, while the profile of Saturday’s final stage looks like a saw’s teeth. The 111.9km stage features no less than seven rated climbs and ends atop the Cat. 1 Arrate summit.

“I feel good and ready to face the last two stages,” McNulty said. “Tomorrow could be another tricky stage, while Saturday will be an epic day. We’ll do our best to defend the leader’s jersey.”