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Tour de France

Tour de Hoody: Will echelons be the only chance for rivals to attack Tadej Pogačar?

Some see a relatively young and inexperienced UAE-Team Emirates as a possible opening to attack Tadej Pogačar if the wind kicks up later this week.

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Tadej Pogačar is the Superman of the Tour de France. He can scale tall mountains, and bound over time trials.

How do you beat him?

That’s the puzzle his rivals are trying to figure out.

Some believe they’ve found a weak underbelly to his otherwise impenetrable armor: His relatively young and inexperienced team.

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On paper, UAE-Team Emirates lacks a bit of depth and experience on the flats compared to the likes of Ineos Grenadiers or Jumbo-Visma.

UAE-Team Emirates brings a mixed squad, heavy on climbing and youth, including Tour rookies Brandon McNulty and Mikkel Bjerg.

With Marc Hirschi nursing an injured shoulder and a few others on the team banged up from a rough four opening stages, some look ahead to stages across the flats of central France as a possible opening to attack Pogačar’s flank.

“We have Mikkel [Bjerg] and Vegard [Stake Laengen], and I’m not so bad on the flats,” said UAE’s Brandon McNulty. “Maybe we are not the strongest, but hopefully we can hold our own. And we have Tadej Pogačar, he can do everything.”

Remember, in 2020, the only day the Slovenian sensation lost any significant time was when the bunch split on the road in stage 7 in Lavaur.

Pogačar gave up 1:21, a gap that some thought doomed his GC ambitions, yet it only served to embolden him to attack even more. His rivals continue to curse the day they let him ride away over the top of the Peyresourde the very next day to re-enter the fray.

On paper, however, Pogačar could be susceptible to attacks on the flats. UAE-Team Emirates lacks some big brawlers, while Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma pack brawny, classics-style riders like Luke Rowe and Wout van Aert who are adept at racing in the echelons.

Add Deceuninck-Quick-Step, and maybe Bora-Hansgrohe looking to set up Peter Sagan, and things could get ugly very fast.

Where could there be echelons? So far, despite crashes on narrow roads, the weather has cooperated in France’s Brittany region.

Teams are looking at transition stages on Thursday and Friday as a possible opening. The rolling farmland often serves up windy stages, but the only problem is — at least for anyone looking to attack — is that forecasters are calling for very little wind this week.

Another chance might come later in the race down on the Rhône Valley in two stages following the double-climb at Mont Ventoux, where the wind almost always is howling.

Sepp Kuss on Pogačar: ‘He doesn’t have too many weak points’

For his direct rivals, Pogačar is quickly proving difficult to knock off balance.

“I don’t think he has too many weak points,” Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss said Tuesday. “It just comes down to the team you have, and the positioning in the moment [for echelons]. We’ll see if there is wind that day. I think it will be nervous, everyone will want to be on front. You can lose a lot of time every day in the Tour.”

So far, Pogačar’s teammates have done a superb job at keeping the defending champion out of trouble. He’s been caught up in some pileups but has not crashed heavily.

With four challenging stages across Brittany in the bag, all eyes turn to Pogačar and what he going to do in Wednesday’s 27.2km test against the clock.

Poised in sixth overall, at 39 seconds back, Pogačar could vault into the yellow jersey as soon as Wednesday.

So far, Pogačar avoided the major crashes, and goes into Wednesday’s decisive individual time trial in stage 5 with everything to gain in his title defense at the 2021 Tour de France.

“I am pretty excited about the time trial. I saw the course Tuesday before the Tour started,” Pogačar said Tuesday. “It’s quite a hard course, it’s very powerful. The first two-thirds of the course you need to push really hard. You need to know when to push and when to rest.”

With some of his direct rivals who were counting on the time trial to cause some damage, including Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) and Roglič, both suffering through crashes and injuries, the advance could be in Pogačar’s court.

Some of his rivals are expecting the worse.

“I think Pogačar is the strongest time trialist in the world,” said Jumbo-Visma boss Richard Plugge. “He showed that last year, and he will take one-and-a-half minutes on us in the time trial, so I don’t think there is a weak spot on that side.

“We have to see where we can beat him,” Plugge said. “First we have to look at ourselves and see how we are doing these next stages.”

The wind gods might be in Pogačar’s favor this week, but if things open up in the south, you can count on his rivals trying to turn the screws if there are gaps in the bunch.

With the way Pogačar is expected to climb and time trial, it might be their only chance.