Super-domestiques: how Mikkel Bjerg and Brandon McNulty defied the odds at the Tour de France

It’s a race which has been rife with mishaps for UAE Team Emirates, but this didn’t stop them from dominating stage 17 – one of the toughest in the race so far

There will only be one rider who stands on the top step of the podium in Paris. Which rider that is won’t be determined until the final rider crosses the line in Rocamadour at the end of the time trial on stage 20. Regardless of how the final results stand at the end of the race, though, and whether it is Tadej Pogačar or Jonas Vingegaard who takes home the yellow jersey in Paris, they have not done it alone. As stage 17 proved today, even Tadej Pogačar, with all his skill and strength, can benefit from team-mates, even if they come to his aid at the most unexpected time, and are the most unlikely of helpers.

Discussion about the weakness of UAE Team Emirates’ squad for the Tour started long before Copenhagen’s grand départ. Marc Hirschi and Marc Soler had both failed to finish the Tour de Suisse, while Vegard Stake Laengen and Mikkel Bjerg tested positive for Covid-19 during Pogačar's home race, the Tour of Slovenia, a few weeks later. This left the two-time Tour winner heading to the race with only four team-mates that hadn’t been ravaged by illness a few weeks before the start.

As the second week of the 2022 Tour de France rolled round, UAE Team Emirates riders were dropping like flies. It began with Laengen’s abandon after stage seven and, after that, went from bad to worse. George Bennett returned a positive Covid-19 test before stage 10, meaning Pogačar was down one key man for the mountains. Stage 16 was a series of unfortunate events for the team in white and red: Marc Soler spent the day vomiting and battled to the finish line to discover he was outside of the time limit and could not start the following day.

On the same stage, while Pogačar had one team-mate unable to hold down so much as an energy gel at one at the back of the race, he had another taken out by a snapped chain at the front of it. In a freak accident, Rafał Majka’s chain gave way as he was out of the saddle pulling on the front during the stage’s final climb. At first, there was relief that Majka’s misfortune didn’t take out Pogačar, who was on the Polish rider's back wheel as he swerved across the road in an attempt to stay on his bike.

But it was announced by the team this morning that Majka would be unable to start in stage 17, tearing his muscle in the involuntary spasm the sudden loss of traction caused as his chain gave way beneath him. So, going into the final duo of monstrous Pyrenean stages, Pogačar was left with just three team-mates. One was Marc Hirschi, a rider who has finished outside the top 100 of nearly every single stage in this Tour, a long way from being able to help at the front of the race. The others were Mikkel Bjerg and Brandon McNulty.

Image: Getty images

Bjerg is a powerhouse, his weight is knocking on 80 kilogrammes and the best results of his career so far are three world championship titles in the U23 time trial. McNulty can climb, he’s proven it as a key domestique for Pogačar in last year’s Tour, and a stage win at Paris-Nice earlier this season. However, he hadn’t been able to do any big pulls in the mountains ahead of stage 16. 

So, before today’s stage rolled out in Saint-Gaudens, there was little belief that this rag-tag bunch of remaining UAE Team Emirates riders could make a difference in the big Pyrenean mountains that lay ahead. Pogačar would have to do it alone, one mountain domestique, a flagging Marc Hirschi and a heavy time triallist couldn’t put up a fight to the likes of Jumbo-Visma and the Ineos Grenadiers, or could they?

As the race approached 53 kilometres remaining, we saw an unfamiliar sight on the front of the bunch of GC favourites. It was Mikkel Bjerg in his UAE Team Emirates colours, mouth agape, sweat dripping from his brow, head bobbing with the effort. The Danish rider’s injection of pace began to drop other teams' key domestiques. One by one they went, starting with Adam Yates of Ineos Grenadiers, a pure climber who would normally have been much stronger than Bjerg on these types of parcours.

It was then Brandon McNulty’s turn to take over the pace setting, and his monstrous turn throughout the final climbs of the day reduced the GC group to just four riders: himself, Pogačar, Geraint Thomas and Jonas Vingegaard, perfectly setting up his leader for an attack where he could attempt to take back time on the yellow jersey holder. The move from Pogačar came near the top of the penultimate climb, but Vingegaard was vigilant, able to hold on to the Slovenian’s back wheel. McNulty then clawed his way back to the duo on the descent, and was there, ready to pace, once again on the final mountain of the day.

In an incredible show of strength, the American rider sat on the front of the trio until just 300 metres of the brutal, 130 kilometre stage remained. When Pogačar launched his attack, Vingegaard stuck with him, Pogačar slowed down, bluffed, and forced the yellow jersey to make his move next. When he did, and began to flag, the Slovenian rider then sprinted again to win the stage. He celebrated with his arms aloft as the cameras flashed to capture the moment.

Image: Pete Goding/Agence Zoom

It’s this photo we’ll see, one of Pogačar with his hands in the air, a grin wide across his face, the crowd roaring him on, but this doesn’t tell the story of the stage. It’s not the 23-year-old’s fault, of course – he thanked his team-mates numerous times in post-race interviews – but it shows us that the results at the end of a bike race never really tell the full story. 

Brandon McNulty and Mikkel Bjerg, against all odds, kept believing that they could make a difference in this Tour de France. For their leader, they sacrificed everything, dug deep and were not deterred by the almost unbelievable misfortune their team has faced in this race so far. It’s another reminder that cycling is a team sport, with so many intricacies that we could never get just by a glance down a list of ordered names at the end of the day. It’s why we love the Tour de France, the teamwork, the stories, the sacrifice. The way riders defy what we might have thought impossible – dominating a Tour de France mountain stage with just two teammates to help – proving that mindset, self-belief and determination can prevail, contrary to all expectations.

Cover image: ASO/Charley Lopez

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