American rider Brandon McNulty of Team UAE Emirates took the overall lead of the Tour of the Basque Country on Thursday as home hope Ion Izagirre won stage four.
After coming third on the mountain stage McNulty ended the day top of the heap, leading former yellow jersey holder Primoz Roglic by 23 seconds, with two days’ racing remaining including a mountaintop finish on the final stage.
On the line Astana rider Izagirre used a bike throw technique, dropping behind the saddle and shoving the handlebars forwards, to win the 189.2km run in 4hr 17min 07sec, just ahead of another local rider, Pello Bilbao of Bahrain Victorious.
McNulty came second on the opening day time-trial and has been riding as a foil with Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar, who is now fifth overall at 43sec.
“For sure we were aiming for the stage win without thinking too much about the leader’s jersey,” McNulty said after the stage.
“I feel good and ready to face the last two stages. Tomorrow could be another tricky stage, and Saturday will be an epic day. We’ll do our best to defend the leader’s jersey,” he said.
The 23-year-old from Phoenix, Arizona is a former mountain biker who joined UAE Team Emirates in 2020 when team chief Joxean Matxin described McNulty as an all-rounder with huge potential.
“Brandon is a world-class talent. He has two key qualities that few riders his age possess, the ability to combine both climbing and time trialling at a high level,” said Matxin.
The stage win itself was a close call and Bilbao was sure he had won it and refused to accept defeat until he had seen the replay.
“Even I was sure Pello (Bilbao) had won and when I saw him celebrating I congratulated him,” Izagirre said.
“But then they told me I’d won in fact, so I feel incredible.”
Bilbao can console himself however with a potential shot at the overall title as he is now fourth in the standings at 36sec.
After a clean sweep of the podium at the Tour of Catalonia, British outfit Ineos have been less prominent in this race, but Adam Yates is still in the reckoning in sixth at 1min 02sec.
Friday’s penultimate stage has less scope for a shake up, with just two minor climbs, but Saturday’s short but ultra-mountainous final stage promises fireworks.