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From four riders to Tour de France podium: How UAE Emirates overcame crisis for Tadej Pogačar

When COVID and crashes threw the team into crisis, Pogačar, McNulty, Bjerg and Hirschi bonded to become UAE Emirates' 'Class of '98.'

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LIMOGES, France (VN) – Tadej Pogačar had seats to spare on his UAE Emirates busses when the Tour de France rolled into Paris on Sunday.

Down to four riders by stage 17, Pogačar’s motley mix of a rouleur, a climber, and a sickness-addled stage hunter battled adversity to help deliver its Slovenian star to a pride-saving second spot.

“We all know each other from the junior years, we all rode together back then,” UAE Emirates workhorse Mikkel Bjerg told VeloNews after stage 20.

“We’re all from 1998, so we joke we’re the ‘class of ’98.’ We’re all really good friends and we all try to help Tadej as best as possible.”

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Bjerg, Brandon McNulty and Marc Hirschi were all Pogačar could count on in the final days of UAE Emirates’ title defense.

COVID ripped through the team bubble through the opening weeks before super-climber Rafal Majka made an injury-induced exit on the eve of two decisive summit finishes in the Pyrénées.

Necessity knit UAE Emirates’ far-flung foursome of 20-somethings together as they braced back against the six-strong Jonas Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma.

“We had two riders in each of our two busses for the TT. It’s not the ideal situation! But we’ll try to celebrate when we arrive in Paris,” Bjerg said Friday.

“Now it’s more intimate, it’s only four guys and we all had to do our absolute best to compete against guys like Jumbo and the other guys.”

Hours after Majka made his exit from the race last week, Bjerg and McNulty stepped way up to deliver Pogačar a defiant victory on the Peyragudes.

“After the abandon of Rafal Majka, we went ‘there’s not many of us [left], but we’re here and we’re a strong team.’ Today, we showed our power, our energy, our desire to put everything into our legs,” team manager Mauro Gianetti said of the Tour’s 17th stage.

Bjerg’s big pull, McNulty’s mountain mayhem

Bjerg stepped beyond (or below?) his weightclass when UAE Emirates braced back in the Pyrenees. Photo: Getty

Bjerg and McNulty found fresh wind when backed into a corner ahead of the explosive stage to the Peyragudes.

With Hirschi sick, swinging, and reduced to bottle-boy, Bjerg defied his weightclass.

The strapping Dane mustered a massive pull through the valleys and penultimate climb before McNulty hammered on the front and hauled Pogačar toward the Peyragudes altiport.

“Tadej is always amazing, he always tried to motivate the team even though there were only three domestiques left,” Bjerg said.

“We just tried to step up. I took a massive pull in one of the mountain stages and the next day I was shat out the back after 5 K. We all have a price to pay for it and we suffer through this last week, us three domestiques for Tadej.”

Bjerg’s big day raised some eyebrows in a race already shrouded in suspicion. Questions were pointed at Jumbo-Visma after the penultimate TT once Vingegaard and Wout van Aert were done tearing the race apart.

Better known as a triple U23 world time trial champion, Bjerg said adversity gave him wings.

“In the last week of the Tour, anyone who has anything in the tank can show themselves,” he said. “We saw Wout van Aert on Hautacam the other day dropping Tadej, so if you really pick your moments you can really make a big difference. It wasn’t a big surprise for me personally but the way everyone responded to it personally gives me a lot of confidence. “

Did numbers make the difference?

Pogačar and Vingegaard were inseparable almost all race. (Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

Six versus four says a lot in the attrition of a grand tour.

McNulty and Bjerg both blew hard the day after their ride to Peyragudes, and Pogačar was left to spar solo with Jumbo-Visma in the Tour’s final mountain stage. Any pre-planned assault went AWOL without the artillery to assist.

But did numbers make the ultimate difference in a race that so regularly reduced down to Pogačar vs Vingegaard?

“There are many factors. Of course one of the main ones was COVID. At one point in the Tour we were losing a rider one day, then a member of staff the next day. And it went on like that,” Gianetti said when the GC was all-but settled at the close of last week.

Pogačar admitted in his post-stage press conference Saturday that numbers weren’t the only cause of his downfall.

His bullishness parrying Jumbo-Visma’s onslaught on the Galibier and Granon – a point in the race when UAE Emirates sat six-on-six with Vingegaard and Co. – ultimately cost him three minutes and possibly a third-straight Tour title.

Tension and fatigue was ratcheted further by the burden of extra COVID testing after the virus obliterated the team early in the race.

Pogačar and his “Class of ’98” learned hard lessons at Jumbo-Visma’s school of hard knocks in the final phase of the Tour.

“Of the three other guys who are still here, they were just incredible, giving everything to help Tadej,” Gianetti said. “We can imagine with [Marc] Soler, [Rafal] Majka, [George] Bennett, and [Vegard Stake] Laengen what might have happened.

Pogačar vowed he will resume his Tour de France rivalry with Vingegaard stronger and wiser. His brothers from the “class of ’98” will likely be back for summer semester 2023 with him.