The defending champion heads into this summer’s Tour with a whole new weight of expectation and a newly bolstered team behind him as he looks to take his second yellow jersey.
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But it’s not all-new this summer. UAE-Team Emirates believes Pogačar is just as impulsive and effervescent as ever, and that his yellow jersey rival is the same man it was some 10 months ago.
“I think it could be another head-to-head between Roglič and Pogačar this year,” UAE-Team Emirates director Allan Peiper said.
This year’s Tour looks set to become a heavyweight fight for the podium between Pogačar, Primož Roglič, and a supercharged Ineos Grenadiers.
Despite the threat posed by a four-strong press from Ineos Grenadiers, Peiper believes it’s only Roglič standing in Pogačar’s path to a title defense.
“When it comes to the four riders that Ineos have put forward, my question is ‘Do any one of those riders have the capacity in the time trials and in the climbs to match Pogačar and Roglič?’” Peiper said to a small media group Monday.
Two strong riders vs one strong team
Ineos Grenadiers comes to the Tour with a vengeful look this summer. Last year, the squad’s reign over the yellow jersey came crumbling down when Pogačar and Roglič stole the show after Egan Bernal bombed out with injury.
The British squad brings four GC candidates to France this summer, with three of them – Geraint Thomas, Richard Carapaz, and Richie Porte – all scoring stage race victories in recent months. Tao Geoghegan Hart adds further firepower.
However, as far as Peiper is concerned, a strong team is nothing without the strongest rider. With Ineos Grenadiers not packing one true “finisher,” it’s all about Slovenia at this year’s Tour.
“Even though Ineos has got four leaders, do they have a leader that can do that after the team strangles the peloton on a climb and leave Roglič and Pogačar behind. That’s the question,” Peiper said.
And should the team stay true to the aggressive approach promised by David Brailsford, Peiper remains equally confident in his “all for Pogačar” play.
“I would say that leaves your leaders quite vulnerable,” Peiper said of Ineos Grenadiers using a multi-rider offense.
“Designating one leader that you that you’re behind and that your whole team is working clearly towards that goal of having him win the race would be more secure than trying to play out three or four riders.”
Peiper is rightly confident in Pogačar after seeing his captain sweep victories at the 2021 UAE Tour, Tirreno Adriatico, Tour of Slovenia, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Although Roglič similarly stormed through the spring and packs more experience over three weeks, Peiper has no doubt who tops the hierarchy ahead of the Grand Départ on Saturday.
“Tadej won the Tour last year, he’s won the most races this year, and the most important races out of the favorites,” he said. “I don’t think you can shy away from the fact that he has to be the favorite.”
Newly strengthened squad, same effervescent Pogačar
It won’t be all that simple for Pogačar, who heads into his title defense in the unique position of having never had to defend a yellow jersey.
The young ace only stepped to the top of the GC after his stage 20 hammer blow last summer, and the rest of the time he was left to race as he wanted. He used his early freedom to devastating effect, making massive gains with a wily attack over the Peyresourde, and lighting the fuse in several late-stage showdowns with Roglič.
As the red-hot favorite, Pogačar won’t be given the same breathing space this summer. But despite all the pressure on his slender shoulders, Peiper said that Pogačar’s explosive exuberance remains untainted.
“He’s the defending champion and his contract has changed and the expectation of the team is higher, so he’s not quite as free and easy as he was,” Peiper said.
“But his personality really leads to being able to deal with that. He’s the kind of kid that gets out of bed in the morning and is smiling. He’s never bitching and is always positive. Those traits have the ability to deal with stress.
“But racers are racers, they want to race, and this kid really wants to race, He’s a little bit the same as Alaphilippe has been the last years – just having fun racing.”
The one question that hangs over Peiper and Pogačar is the strength of UAE-Team Emirates’ backing band.
Last year, the Emirati eight was struck with illnesses and injuries through the Tour, and Pogačar was largely left to fend for himself. The team announced Tuesday a strengthened selection for France, with Brandon McNulty, Rafal Majka, Marc Hirschi, and Mikkel Bjerg all set to add horsepower to Pogačar’s title defense heft.
“With those four coming in, and some of the other riders such as David Formolo who was here last year, we’ve got a team that’s a lot stronger, a lot more powerful,” Peiper said.
“Probably the only thing we lack is group experience in how to individually know what we can do defending a jersey and as a team.”
A whistlestop practice run at the Tour of Slovenia gave much of UAE-Team Emirates’ tough eight an opportunity to bond and develop its classification-defending pedigree.
Whether that’s enough last in the pressure pot Tour de France is a different matter. But as far as Peiper is concerned, he’s got Pogačar, and so UAE-Team Emirates will have yellow.