Brandon McNulty shocked the cycling world in Tour de France Stage 17, doing one of the best climbing performances this year, dropping almost every GC contender on Col d’Azet except his teammate Tadej Pogačar and crucially the race leader Jonas Vingegaard.
Stage 17 was a hard stage with multiple 20 minute mountains of 7-8% gradient. The pace on climbs was high from the start. According to Sepp Kuss’ power data, he did 5.63 w/kg for 30:14 on the first climb and 5.52 w/kg for 19:22, combined for the next two climbs, including a 1 minute descent.
UAE Team Emirates, despite losing their best mountain domestique, Rafal Majka, was able to make the race extremely hard because Mikkel Bjerg and Brandon McNulty stepped up and completely shattered the peloton. Bjerg, Pogacar’s main rouleur, tested positive for Covid in the Tour of Slovenia and was suffering at the start of the Tour on the climbs, often dropping early from the peloton. The Dane has improved throughout the Tour and today he did a strong pull, dropping many riders from the peloton, including Adam Yates and Tom Pidcock, who were both in the Top 10 in GC before the stage. This must have been Bjerg’s most impactful performance in Grand Tours.
After Bjerg’s impressive pull, McNulty took over the job and started drilling extremely hard on the Col d’ Azet climb (8.34km, 7.94%). Surprisingly, McNulty distanced big GC contenders, including Geraint Thomas and Nairo Quintana, who have been looking very strong this Tour. Only Pogačar and Vingegaard were able to stay in McNulty’s draft, doing 0.22 w/kg less than the American, who today was flying up the hills after struggling in the Alpes.
McNulty did an estimated 6.58 w/kg for 22:24 min on Col d’Azet, which is by far the best performance of his career.
After pulling on the Azet descent and the short valley before Peyragudes, McNulty still continued to drill at a fast pace on the final climb with Pogacar seemingly unable or unwilling to attack. McNulty was able to pace at around 6.3w/kg on for over 20 minutes, before ending his pull on the steep 14% pinch to the finish, where Pogačar and Vingegaard accelerated.
In 2022, McNulty has definitely improved his climbing ability and consistency. In the early season the American was performing very well, earning 745 UCI points in 7 weeks. He had good climbing performances in Criterium du Dauphiné, Paris-Nice, Faun Ardeche Classic, Volta ao Algarve, but nothing is even close to his level on today’s stage. His Col d’Azet performance is way above everything he has ever done, without even taking into account it being the penultimate climb and him pacing the descent, valley and final climb. The Col d’Azet performance is even more impressive considering that this is the 3rd week of a Grand Tour and the stage temperature was around 31 centigrade, according to Sepp Kuss’ Strava data.
McNulty’s Col d’Azet and Peyragudes combined performances might be even more impressive than Tadej Pogačar’s performance in stage 8 of Tour de France 2021, where he beat the next best GC rider by more than 3 minutes. The Stage 17 parcours before Col d’Azet arguably was harder with two big climbs compared to stage 8 in the 2021 Tour.
McNulty, Pogačar and Vingegaard also broke the Col d’Azet record, which until this day was owned by Pantani, Ullrich and Virenque.
To date in this Tour de France, Majka was usually the last climbing domestique left for Pogačar in the mountains as McNulty was dropped early in all the alpine stages. In stage 16 McNulty was in the breakaway and was waiting for Pogačar at the top of the last climb. With these legs he probably could have taken away the stage win from Hugo Houle.
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Stage 18 will be the last mountain stage in this Tour. It will end with the mythical Hautacam climb (13.33km, 7.95%). The record holder is Bjarne Riis. In the 1996 Tour Riis’ set an unbeatable time of 34:41 minutes, doing 6.88 w/kg, which, in our view, is the best climbing performance of all time. Tomorrow Vingegaard will be defending against Pogačar, who has not been able to drop the Dane on climbs this Tour and will need to take back significant time before the final time trial.