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.”
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