Tadej Pogačar sat centre stage during the final UAE Tour pre-race conference and was forced to reveal his hand and confirm he will chase overall victory in this year’s race.
The weeklong stage race is UAE Team Emirates’ home race and huge images of Pogačar’s Tour de France victory adorn the skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi.
While the likes of Chris Froome, Mathieu van der Poel and others use their season debut to test their form, Pogačar knows he has to perform immediately. Last year, he won one of the stages to Jebel Hafeet but lost another to Adam Yates and so finished second overall in a race that was cut short due to an outbreak of COVID-19.
This year, he and UAE Team Emirates want the red winner’s jersey, even if Yates returns on his debut with Ineos Grenadiers. The start list also includes Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious), João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Sergui Higuita (EF Education-Nippo), Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
This is our home race, it’s really important to us,” Pogačar admitted during the COVID-19-safe press conference held 24 hours before Sunday’s opening road stage.
“Many of the race sponsors are also our team sponsors. We were a little disappointed last year but this year have another chance to win. We’ve prepared really good and so we’ll try to win the race.”
Pogačar’s life has been transformed since last year’s race. In October, he won the Tour de France by snatching victory away from Primož Roglič in the final time trial stage.
The COVID-19 restrictions have limited the pressure on Pogačar during the winter and he shrugged off any extra expectations. He is now one of the global stars of the sport, even if he seems unaffected by success.
“I think I’m still the same rider, we’ll see in the race,” he suggested. “We’re in the same situation, I have the same focus and the same goals. Not much has changed, there’s just a little bit more pressure for this race. We’ll see how it goes.”
Vaccine and training
Pogačar and all his UAE Team Emirates teammates spent much of January in the UAE for sponsor events and a training camp. He was also vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus as part of a programme in the UAE, which helped the development of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.
UAE Team Emirates were hit with several cases of COVID-19 last February during the UAE Tour. Fernando Gaviria notably spent a month in quarantine after contracting the disease and other riders and teams, including Pogačar, had to quarantine in the UAE. Dario Marini, an osteopath with UAE Team Emirates, spent nine days in intensive care.
In February, with some races cancelled, Pogačar and several teammates trained at altitude in Tenerife, Spain.
“It feels good to come back, it’s a great race and a good way to start the season,” Pogacar said.
“It’s a step forward for the whole world to get vaccinated, a way out of this COVID situation. In the team we were all happy to receive the vaccine. We’re more comfortable now.”
The UAE Tour begins with a stage suited to the sprinters, but stage 2 is a vital, 13km time trial around the exposed Al Hudayriat Cycle Track. There are important mountain finishes to Jebel Hafeet on stage 3 and Jebel Jais on stage 5.
Pogačar could gain some time on his rivals if his time trial performance is like that of the Tour de France and then can defend his lead in the fight for 10-6-4-second time bonuses awarded at stage finishes.
“We had our training camp in Al Ain, so we rode it (Jebel Hafeet) a few times but I’ve never been to Jebel Jais, so it’ll be my first time to the highest point in the UAE,” Pogačar explained.
“I think the shape is quite good. Well see in the race if that’s really that good. It was a good camp in January and then in February too. I feel good, we’ll see in a few days.”