It was hard not to feel heartbroken for Brandon McNulty as he came agonisingly close to pulling off a stunning upset on stage four of the Dubai Tour before Sonny Colbrelli conquered the Hatta Dam to snatch victory.
He wasn’t the one celebrating atop the podium in the end, but 19-year-old McNulty stole the spotlight in the picturesque race that was decided in the closing moments on the steep ascent up to the finish line.
After separating himself from the peloton and then the remaining survivors of the breakaway with 12 kilometres to go, the Rally Cycling rider kept enough of a distance over the oncoming charge that it appeared as if he might actually do the unthinkable.
But McNulty’s attack took its toll on the uphill finish, where tired legs could no longer fend off the flurry of riders, and just 50 metres from the line, the American was caught.
It wasn’t the ending McNulty wanted, but he took a glass-half-full view in the aftermath of his brave trek.
“I still put myself out there, I showed how strong I was. I’m still happy,” said the US under-23 national champion. “Getting caught with 50 metres to go is nothing to complain about for someone my age, I guess.”
As often is the case with riders in the breakaway, they eventually get chased down in a predictable manner. Painfully for McNulty, however, he actually believed a win was in the bag after holding a 29-second lead by the time he reached the red flag (1km remaining).
“With 100m to go, I was shaking my head like ‘did I just do this?’ Then with 40m to go, I was behind everyone,” he said.
What was going through his mind when the other riders passed him? “Oh s***. I don’t think there’s any other way to put it.”
Instead, it was Colbrelli who had enough in the tank to scale the Hatta Dam – which at its steepest point features a 17-per-cent gradient.
The Bahrain-Merida rider revealed he had suffered a mechanical issue earlier in the race and was effusive in his thanks to the team.
“I really wanted to repay my team for the excellent work they had done for me since the very beginning of the Dubai Tour,” said the Italian. “Vincenzo Nibali has had a decisive role in the finale today. It’s great to have him along. He’s the first who’s ready to disrupt the plans of the pure sprinters and I hope the work he’s doing here will help him reach his goals this year.
“I had a mechanical problem with 20km to go. But I chose to keep the same bike and ride on the 53 gear until the end but it was very difficult to finish it off. The last 50m were never ending.”
It was Colbrelli’s first breakthrough this season, but he had been consistently lurking through the first three stages of the Tour – finishing in the top 10 each time.
His victory now gives him a chance to capture the Circle of Stars trophy as he trails general classification leader Viviani by four seconds heading into the final day.
Viviani could have all but cemented the title with a win in Hatta, but the Quick-Step Floors rider kept hold of the blue jersey while rivals such as Dylan Groenewegen, Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish couldn’t capitalise.
The other man posing a threat to the Olympic gold medalist on the final stage is Cort Nielsen, who trails Viviani by just two seconds.
Currently in the white jersey for best young rider, Cort Nielsen is also in contention for the GC crown thanks to two second-place finishes on the opening stage and in Hatta.
The Astana rider know he has his work cut out as the Tour returns to a flat course, which heavily favours Viviani.
“We’ll see now,” said Cort Nielsen. “Viviani is not an easy guy to steal from. It’s not like we just do a bonus sprint and I take it. But for sure we need to try something.”
The Emirati rider finished the race from Skydive Dubai to Ras Al Khaimah in 107th place again, but his work was done well before the finish line as he banked seven intermediate sprint points
Mirza won the first intermediate sprint and then remained in the mix among a breakaway group that also included the UAE National Team’s Mohammed Al Mansoori.
Both were eventually caught by the peloton down the stretch, but Mirza – who admitted to riding more cautiously to avoid another crash – did well to rebound from a disappointing start on day one.
“I’m happy I succeeded in fulfilling the teams expectations for today. The SD were keen for me to join the breakaway and I focused all my attention on that target.” @yousifmirza shows attacking prowess in stage 2 #DubaiTour🇦🇪.— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) February 7, 2018
“Yesterday I tried, but the race was controlled by the good teams. I tried again today and I went in the breakaway and I was happy to be in the breakaway,” the UAE national champion said. “I tried my best to take some bonus points for the team and I did it with the first sprint and in the second sprint I took third. So it was a good bonus for the team.”
Mirza’s team-mates, meanwhile, were again in the thick of the action at the end as Alexander Kristoff followed up his fifth-place finish with seventh on Stage 2.
The Norwegian was one of several riders that went for the bunch sprint finish, only to be out-paced by winner Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors).
“It was a bit too early on the front,” Kristoff said. “Unfortunately I had John’s wheel, because he was also too far. If he went for a long one, I think I would have had the perfect position. Unfortunately for me, he was also too far and I just tried to keep the speed, but I knew it was too far.”
The wide road in Ras Al Khaimah made for another exciting finish, although this time there was less danger with the riders not nearly as crowded.
“It felt a bit cleaner, but there was many sprinter teams here, so it’s always a lot of fighting for position,” Kristoff said. “But yeah, it was a bit cleaner today.”
Here are three takeaways and observations from the race that saw riders trek from Skydive Dubai to Ras Al Khaimah:
DOWN, BUT NOT OUT
Considering their quality, it wasn’t shocking to see Viviani and Dylan Groenewegen overcome mechanical issues to finish one-two, but their ability to bounce back was impressive nonetheless.
While Viviani’s comeback after a rear tire puncture will rightly receive most of the attention, the mental and physical strength displayed by Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) to shake off not one, but two problematic instances with his bike, only solidified his position as a contender at the Tour.
It doesn’t appear as if the 24-year-old will fade into the background after capturing the opening stage. Even though you could argue his near-win on day two despite facing adversity was more impressive, Groenewegen was in no mood for moral victories.
“I’m a little bit disappointed in the final,” he said. “Had some bad luck with mechanical problems and then I lost my sprint train. I saw the finish line but it was a little bit too late.”
After speaking confidently following day one, Groenewegen did nothing in stage two to lower the lofty expectations he’s earned for himself.
Soms win je 🙂 soms verlies je🙁 pic.twitter.com/i7HT0KU272— Dylan Groenewegen (@GroenewegenD) February 7, 2018
KITTEL KEPT WAITING
German sprint king Marcel Kittel has yet to replicate the magic he produced in previous editions as another bunch sprint finish didn’t go his way.
Kittel appeared in favourable position with his Katusha-Alpecin team-mates lining up at the head of the peloton, but the desired result didn’t follow.
While he claimed he “always” learns more from losses than wins, Kittel also expressed some frustration in the lack of help from other teams in carrying the load at the front of the peloton.
“Today and yesterday, we got no help, apart from only our team,” he said. “All the others waited, so I don’t know why they were doing it. It’s a sprinter’s race so you should also maybe go for it.”
After dominating the past two years, Kittel is uncharacteristically trailing nearly midway through his three-peat bid.
A SPORT OF CAMARADERIE
Kittel’s gripe aside, there were moments of sportsmanship in the second stage which highlighted cycling’s beautiful contradictory nature.
It may be an individual sport, but riders and teams often make it clear they’re part of a greater brotherhood and helping one another – even if it can come at the cost of your own success – isn’t a rarity.
That was evident when Viviani made up ground from his tire puncture as cars in front of him allowed him to draft on their rear bumper before reinforcements arrived from his Quick-Step Floors team to guide him the rest of the way back to the peloton.
Another bit of camaraderie came when the two remaining riders in the stage’s breakaway. Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) and Charles Planet (Novo Nordisk) fist-bumped to signal a job well done before giving way to the onrushing peloton.
It was a small gesture between the Frenchmen, but one that showed mutual respect, appreciation and team-work.