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Tadej Pogačar and UAE Team Emirates ride into 2021 ‘better, calm, confident’

Team directors speak of Pogačar's progression, Hirschi's potential and how he was signed, and the squad's COVID vaccination.

UAE Team Emirates is poised to assume its position as cycling’s next superteam in 2021.

Speaking from the team’s Emirati training camp on Friday, team director Joxean Fernández Matxin spoke of a more “better, calm and confident” Tadej Pogačar and the huge potential of Marc Hirschi, who arrived at the squad in a surprise signing last week.

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Matxin’s description of a better-than-ever Pogačar makes for a symbol of the team as a whole.

UAE Team Emirates splashed the cash over the off-season to sign Hirschi, Matteo Trentin, and Rafal Majka, and has become the first WorldTour outfit to be vaccinated against COVID. With a Tour de France champion, powerful new squad and COVID protection in its pocket, the team is set to once again take on the likes of Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo Visma in 2021.

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Like last year, 22-year-old Pogačar stands at the top of the ladder in the stacked UAE roster, with a Tour defense a certainty. Matxin said the youngster’s upward trajectory from WorldTour rookie and Vuelta a España standout in 2019 to the Tour’s yellow jersey in 2020 is set to continue.

“He has not changed at all,” Matxin told Spanish outlet Marca. “I see him better, calm and confident. The team requires more of him for photos and autographs but he does it with sympathy and pleasure. As I have said before, he is perfection made a cyclist.”

Hirschi, also 22, has followed a similar exponential curve to his Slovenian teammate. This year, Hirschi exploded onto the cycling scene in a stellar two-month spell that saw him rip up the Tour and then prove himself one of the strongest hilly classics riders in the bunch.

Matxin hinted that there would be space for the stage-hunting talents of Hirschi on a Tour de France team that will undoubtedly be built around Pogačar’s jersey defense. The Spanish director has known Hirschi for a number of years and said he sees him playing a central role in the powerful UAE squad.

“He is a rider who is going to help us to be even better,” Matxin said. “He’s going to be the protagonist in one-day races, in the Ardennes, on the Tour … we can create a high-quality schedule. He is a very important racer and he knows how to win, he has character, he is an attacker. He is willing and we understand each other perfectly.”

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Earlier this week, details emerged from the UAE camp as to how the deal was forged that saw Hirschi transition from being on-contract with Team DSM to signing a three-year deal with UAE Team Emirates.

“The first contacts took place just before Christmas,” team general manager Mauro Gianetti told RTS. “Marc’s [Hirschi] manager, Fabian Cancellara, contacted me to ask if I was interested. Who wouldn’t be interested in such talent?  I could not let it pass.”

Gianetti’s long-term deal with Hirschi could see the team guiding the Swiss star toward stage racing. Though Hirschi has recently stated his desire to remained focused on one-day racing, he was open to exploring his grand tour potential, and UAE Team Emirates is keen to support that interest.

“Hirschi can also shine in the general classification of a Grand Tour,” Gianetti said. “You should not limit him to 22 years, that would reduce his qualities. He’s an innate talent, he can aim high. I think that with another style of calendar, he can also shine in the general classification in one of the ‘big three.'”

UAE-Team Emirates’ long and difficult relationship with COVID

Gaviria contracted COVID-19 in March and then again in October. Photo: James Startt

UAE Team Emirates became the first pro cycling team to receive a coronavirus vaccine earlier this month when some 60 riders and staff received their first of two Sinopharm jabs.

The news drew some criticism and questioning of the propriety of athletes being immunised ahead of care and critical workers. However, Matxin said the team was merely tapping into the resources available to them while they were in the Emirates at their pre-season camp.

“If I’m not mistaken, I think that 70 percent of the country is already vaccinated and that here is voluntary,” he said. “They have not treated us in favor, it is something that in this country everyone has access.”

The team has been one of those most seriously and regularly impacted by COVID through the cycling season.

In March, the squad elected to quarantine in the days after the UAE Tour closed down due to sweeping fears of the pandemic, only to learn soon afterward that sprint duo Fernando Gaviria and Max Richeze had contracted the virus. The team was then subject to a COVID scare at the July Vuelta a Burgos before Gaviria was again struck by the illness at the October Giro d’Italia.

“The team has been affected and we are aware of the importance it entails,” Matxin said of the virus. “We had one of the first affected cyclists, we were the first to test positive, the first to quarantine ourselves and now the first to get vaccinated. We are aware of its importance and it is something that must be solved. We did not overdo self-protection with quarantine, time has proved right. I hope everything goes better from now on.”

Matxin, Pogačar, Hirschi and co. will return to the UAE Tour next month, alongside the rest of the WorldTour peloton. From there, cycling’s new superteam will march toward the Tour de France behind its Slovenian leader.