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Chasing Tadej Pogačar: Can Juan Ayuso level up to his Tour de France-topping teammate?

Spanish teen ace hopes to win the Vueta a España in 2023 as he follows hot in the wheeltracks of his illustrious UAE Emirates captain.

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Juan Ayuso blew the doors down when he rode to third at the Vuelta a España on his grand tour debut at the age of 19. And next time round, he’s looking to go two better and top the podium when he returns to race for red in 2023.

It’s a blazing trajectory that, if achieved, would put the UAE Emirates sensation on a similar pathway to the teammate he made his “reference point,” the Tour de France-topping Tadej Pogačar.

Can Ayuso amass a palmarès to match Pogačar as he pedals through one of the longest contracts in the WorldTour?

The now-20-year-old has certainly got the ambition that will let us find out – starting at next year’s Vuelta.

“I hope to match or improve [finishing third]. The team is going to support me in it, although I know it’s complicated,” Ayuso told Marca this week.

“Winning ‘La Roja’ would be a very big step compared to 2022, but that is the ambition. I will try to win, even if it is not possible later.”

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Pogačar burst into the grand tour landscape in his rookie WorldTour season when he bulldozed the 2019 Vuelta with three stage wins and third overall.

One year later, UAE Emirates handed the Slovenian ace co-leadership alongside Fabio Aru for the post-COVID Tour de France. And the rest, as Primož Roglič knows, is history.

‘Ayuso is a major talent for the future’

Ayuso blazed to third in his Vuelta debut.

Can Ayuso follow Pogačar’s path as he heads into his sophomore WorldTour season?

Next year’s Vuelta will give an initial clue.

The next Spanish hopeful rode high in his debut three-week race at this year’s Spanish tour, busting in the top-6 for 15 days and finishing best-of-the-rest behind Enric Mas and Remco Evenepoel.

The Vuelta will be the center of the season for Ayuso in 2023, and his big-money superteam is intent to support his red jersey ambitions.

“We believe in our young talents and their qualities. I think that Ayuso is a major talent for the future and deserved what he did at the Vuelta,” UAE Emirates team manager Joxean Fernández told VeloNews.

“He did four races in 2022, was fifth in Catalunya, then he was up there in Romandie, and was in the top-10 again at the Dauphine. His fourth WorldTour race was the Vuelta and so we believe in him. We’re going to make a custom calendar for him.”

However, Ayuso won’t know who he’s got to beat to win the red jersey for some time.

Riders rarely confirm their intention to start the Vuelta until late in the racing year as early season injuries, illnesses, or disappointments shape who starts the Spanish race.

One thing that is likely is that Evenepoel and Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard won’t be lining out for the Barcelona “Gran Salida” as they chase goals elsewhere.

In the absence of Vingegaard, Evenepoel, and teammate Pogačar, Ayuso’s big time trial engine and solid climbing chops should see him with reasonable odds in his second run at the Vuelta.

And with the ever-powerful UAE wreckin’ crew behind him, anything could be possible – like Pogačar proved in the 2020 Tour de France.

Chasing Pogačar

If you’re going to use any rider as a reference, Pogačar’s a good choice.

Ayuso has been vocal in his praise and active in his half-wheeling of Pogačar.

The two indulged in KoM competitions on training camps in recent winters as Ayuso looks to match, if not better, the two-time Tour de France champion in both the near and long-term future.

Ayuso will be paying close attention to the rider he made both a talisman and training partner when UAE Emirates congregates for team camp this month.

“You can learn a lot from him. He’s a phenomenon, but I don’t compare myself. In the UAE we have a great team and we have to take advantage of it,” Ayuso told Marca.

“I have learned above all to be calm [from him]. I look at how Tadej and Marc [Soler – ed] carry on and how they deal with situations, whether they are favorable or not.”

Ayuso heads into 2023 just one full year into a bank-busting contract through 2028, a deal that will see him through to just his 26th year.

Alongside Pogačar, the rider from Barcelona is at the center of UAE Emirates’ long-term vision of dominance. If Ayuso’s grand tour victory doesn’t come in Spain next year, he’s got plenty more time to try for it.

A busy team bus

Almeida and Ayuso (third wheel) raced together at this year’s Vuelta.

However, Ayuso may not enjoy the type of clear tarmac that Pogačar profited from in his rise to the top of the peloton.

The 2020 and 2021 incarnations of UAE Emirates didn’t boast the same stage racing stable that next year will include João Almeida, Adam Yates, and the now-blossomed Brandon McNulty.

The coming season will see Pogačar returning to the Tour to resume his rivalry with Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma, leaving Ayuso, Yates, Almeida, and McNulty to split leadership at the Vuelta and Giro d’Italia.

A Vuelta co-captain could be both a blessing and a curse for Aysuso.

A wingman will ease the pressure from the 20-year-old’s coathanger shoulders, but could cause the type of complications that unfolded between him and Almeida in Spain this summer.

Further forward, 2024 will offer the Spaniard a rookie run at the Tour de France, but leadership space will still be short as all of UAE Emirates’ GC candidates ride out long-term contracts.

The depth of Ayuso’s own team could prove him as much of a problem in years to come as Jumbo-Visma, Ineos Grenadiers or Evenepoel.

Whether Ayuso can match the feats of Pogačar is uncertain, but it will be a decade-long story that will be well worth a watch.