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The 21-year-old will make his Tour de France debut this year has risen to become one of the most promising stage racers of the pro peloton with a third-place at last year’s Vuelta a España and run of strong performances through 2020.
With Aru’s grand tour experience, the climbing chops of Jan Polanc and David de la Cruz, and the versatility of on-form Davide Formolo backing him, Pogačar has a serious shot at the podium this summer, and is arguably the “best of the rest” behind the leaders of Team Ineos and Jumbo-Visma.
Away from the mountains, Alexander Kristoff gives options for bunch kicks, while Formolo, having powered through the Italian classics and Critérium du Dauphiné in August, provides a threat for the race’s hard breakaway days.
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Fabio Aru, Tadej Pogačar, Davide Formolo, David De la Cruz, Alexander Kristoff, Vegard Stake Laengen, Jan Polanc, Marco Marcato.
Pogačar picked up where he left off this winter after his breakout 2019 season, taking a first- and second-place in week-long races through February. Since returning to action this summer after the COVI-19 pause, the 21-year-old has looked solid, if perhaps unspectacular, finishing in the top-15 at both Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo, and riding a consistent Critérium du Dauphiné, finishing in fourth.
While Pogačar’s star is undoubtedly burning bright, Aru’s is flickering. It’s been a long time since the Sardinian won the Vuelta a España and took second in the Giro d’Italia in 2015, and a series of illnesses and surgeries left him far from his best for several years.
There have been hints of Aru’s former glory so far this season, but let’s face it, he’s no Tadej Pogačar. That said, on his good days, the 30-year-old will prove a valuable wingman for his young teammate.
Away from the pair’s leaders, the team packs experience and climbing talent.
Formolo, De la Cruz, and Polanc should prove a strong support crew for Aru and Pogačar. Formolo boasts grand tour top-10s and the ability to last through the toughest of stages and conditions, as his second place at a sun-baked Strade Bianche attests. De la Cruz is arguably one of the peloton’s top domestiques in the bunch, and on his day, Polanc is capable of climbing with the best.
Marcato will bring the team the big motor for the flatlands while also having the sprint skills to support Kristoff, while Laengen has the versatility to pull on the flats, work in the sprint train, or take on the steadier climbs. Now in his 15th pro season, Marcato will also bring experience and leadership.
Though Kristoff will have Mercato to guide him in the bunch kicks, the grizzled Norweigan is more than capable of freelancing. However, when up against out-and-out fastmen such as Caleb Ewan and Sam Bennett, the 33-year-old may struggle. Give him a tough rolling stage such as stage 12 or 19 however, and you can’t rule out the potential for him to add a fourth Tour de France stage to his illustrious palmarés.
Pogačar is well up there alongside Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic), and Mikel Landa (Bahrain-McLaren) as one of the GC riders most likely to be elbowing for space on the podium alongside Jumbo-Visma and Team Ineos by the time the race reaches Paris.
The youngster has got the outright talent and race-head to do it. But does he have the experience and composure?
The Slovenian will line up in Nice next week for his first-ever Tour de France, and with that will come a whole new burden of pressure and expectation. He’s handled the media spotlight well in his rapid rise so far, but will he hold it down when racing for the podium in the biggest bike race in the world? It could prove a make-or-break for his team’s chances.
In the era of eight-man grand tour teams, it could be argued that UAE-Team Emirates has gone over-heavy on the rouleurs in their roster. More than ever, every man counts toward a team’s overall objective, and it could be argued that one of Marcato or Laengen could have been substituted for an all-out climber to support Pogačar and Aru in a mountain-packed race – particularly given Kristoff is more than able to support himself through stages.
Pogačar will provide a tantalizing storyline in this year’s Tour. He’s one of the brightest young talents in the peloton, and the race could determine whether his Vuelta success marked the start of a trend for many years to come.