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Tadej Pogačar lays the challenge to Jumbo-Visma: ‘We’re already stronger than them’

Defending champion confident UAE Team Emirates has the firepower to control the race at this year's Tour de France.

Tadej Pogačar rode in the shadows of Jumbo-Visma, yet he made his opportunities count to win the 2020 Tour de France. It will be a different story in 2021.

Going into this year’s Tour with the No. 1 on his back, the Slovenian champion is looking to take it directly to countryman Primož Roglič and his dominant Dutch squad.

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“We were already strong last year, but we had two injuries, people went home,” Pogačar said Monday. “So for sure this year if nothing bad happens, we have a really strong team and can take the responsibility onto our shoulders in fighting for the win.”

UAE Team Emirates was on the back foot before it even made it out of Nice in the 2020 Tour.

David de la Cruz crashed in the slick conditions of the opening stage, Fabio Aru abandoned in the second week, and Davide Formolo flamed out just a few days later. Short of teammates, Pogačar stole a ride on the Jumbo train and scored bonus seconds where it counted, including a daring raid in the Pyrénées, and the historic stage 20 time trial that secured him the crown as the 2020 Tour champion.

Pogačar won’t have the same freedom to move in this year’s Tour and his wheel will be closely watched. However, with new signings Marc Hirschi, Rafal Majka, and Matteo Trentin adding significant heft to the squad, Pogačar is braced for his team to do the leg-work as it takes responsibility for its defending champion.

“It was quite bad luck for our team last year, but we still proved we can be strong,” Pogačar said in an online press conference. “Coming into this year, without bad luck and even better preparation we can show the world that we can do a proper Tour de France.

“The team is improving year by year and it’s nice to have these new guys on board,” he continued. “The UAE team will be stronger and stronger every year I think. All the team staff, mechanics, masseurs – we’re all on the top level and that makes us a great team.”

But, as one reporter asked, will Pogačar, Hirschi and Co. be stronger than a Jumbo-Visma team that can throw Roglič, Tom Dumoulin, Wout van Aert, and Sepp Kuss into a Tour challenge?

“I think we’re already stronger than them,” Pogačar said.

He looked to be only half-joking.

If the chaotic 2020 Tour proved anything, it’s that no matter how strong a team is, the race is inevitably won by the strongest individual. Pogačar pointed out that his offensive tactics at last year’s race saw him earn the yellow jersey by right, rather than by accident.

“Jumbo-Visma was controlling the race. Almost the whole race they were the strongest,” he said. “But I was still attacking a lot, I wasn’t just freewheeling to the finish. I think the strongest in the end won. I don’t know if they made any mistake or if it was just a coincidence to finish like that.”

Time trial preparation takes a central role in 2021 training schedule

Pogačar dominated the mountain time trial in 2020, but the TTs of 2021 play in the favor of heavy rouleurs such as Dumoulin and Thomas. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Pogačar said he was more motivated than ever as he heads into the 2021 season, a year that will center on a Tour defense followed by a challenge at the Vuelta a España.

While the Slovenian standout isn’t short on confidence in himself and his team, he acknowledged that the solo burn of the race against the clock could prove to be his “Achilles’ heel” at this year’s Tour.

While Pogačar is no slouch in a flat time trial, nearly 60 kilometers against the clock at the 2021 Tour de France could see the defending champion on the back foot against the massive motors of rivals like Geraint Thomas and Dumoulin.

“It [the route] doesn’t suit me the best, but my preparations will be moving to the Tour,” Pogačar said. “The two flat TTs are something I need to improve. With the team, we are working on my TT position and training to train more on the time trial bike on the flat, because last year we didn’t train that much on the time trial bike because I didn’t think there was the time. Now I need to fit TT training into my schedule for sure.”

Pogačar is slated to get the wheels rolling toward his Tour defense at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and UAE Tour next month. From there, he’ll ride as Hirschi’s wingman in the Ardennes before he places full focus on the Tour.

On a Zoom call filled with questions about last year’s Tour, Pogačar said is looking forward to thinking about the future: A year that will see his team assume responsibility as one of the superpowers in the WorldTour, not as a team that rides in the wheels of others.

“I always think we should move forward, not stay in the past,” he said. “In my mind, I’m already on the next races and when we start the season. “I mean not to forget the past but not to think all the time about that, it already happened. We should focus on the next races.”