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Tadej Pogačar setting tone for Tour de France defense with hot start to 2021

The 2020 Tour champion is picking up where he left off last season and roars into 2021 looking sharp at the UAE Tour.

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Tadej Pogačar is picking up where he left off in 2020, and his rivals should be on red alert.

It’s still early days in 2021, but the way Pogačar is barnstorming into the new season should be seen as a shot across the bow of the entire peloton. If the blonde-haired whippet of a rider might have been somewhat under the radar in last year’s Tour de France, he’s showing that he can handle things just fine being at the center of attention.

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Just look at what he’s done in the first week of 2021 at the UAE Tour.

He fended for himself well in the echelons that blew up the opening stage, was best among the GC contenders in a short 13km time trial — when he took more than one minute out of Chris Froome — and then deftly shrugged off a full-on Ineos Grenadiers onslaught by Adam Yates at Jebel Hafeet.

This kid can do it all, and he’s showing the peloton he has every intention of defending his yellow jersey in July.

Sure, it’s no surprise that Pogačar is going well in the UAE Tour. After all, it’s the “home race” for his title sponsors, and he’s all but expected to win.

And, OK, maybe the field isn’t packed with all the favorites firing at full cylinders that he’ll squaring off against the Tour later this summer, but there’s Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Sepp Kuss, João Almeida and Yates, and he’s smoked them all.

Winning matters, no matter what race, and even more so if you’re the new kid in town.

If Pogačar is feeling any pressure or off-season blues that might come with the weight of being the defending Tour champion, he’s hiding it well.

Insiders say that Pogačar has taken his Tour victory in his stride, that he hasn’t let it go to his head, and that he did his work in the off-season. In short, he remains the same rider, intent on winning every race he starts, but hasn’t let the notoriety or the weight of expectations slow him in down in the slightest.

Ineos Grenadiers couldn’t dislodge Pogačar in the UAE’s climbing stages. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

There’s no fluff in his 2021 racing calendar, and he will go from one big race to another.

After UAE Tour, it’s Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, Itzulia Basque Country and the Ardennes classics. With the way he’s racing, he could potentially win them all. Of course, he won’t, but he could, and that’s what will see sport directors at rival teams losing sleep at night all spring.

After that, it’s likely he’ll race the Critérium du Dauphiné before a full tilt at yellow.

It’s been interesting watching Ineos Grenadiers to try to take it straight to Pogačar this week, and how he’s been able to handle the pressure with the coolness of a French professor. The kid’s got racing chops to go with his motor. On Tuesday, he had to dig deep to stay on Yates’s wheel at Jebel Hafeet in a pace set by Yates that was so explosive that it blew out Kuss. Pogačar played it perfectly, coming over the top of Yates in the final kilometer to take the lead position on the twisting, narrow finish to win the stage and secure the lead.

Jumbo-Visma will move into the frame in the Italian races, where Wout van Aert will try to steam-roll Pogačar at Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico. Primož Roglič won’t cross swords with Pogačar until Itzulia Basque Country in April. The pressure will be on both of them to try to beat down Pogačar, and wreak some revenge for last year’s stinging Tour defeat.

It goes without saying that a great spring doesn’t mean anything — and even less so a win at a race like UAE Tour — if you fall flat on your face at the Tour. July is what really counts for sponsors, for teams, and for the history books.

Who will emerge as new Tour de France dominator?

Pogačar crossed the finish line with friend and rival Roglič. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Cycling is in one of those transitional periods between dominating Tour riders. Since the 1960s, every decade has seen a singular rider to emerge, and boss the peloton and hog the yellow. Those dominant riders are typically followed by a few years of one-off winners before the next major champion imposes themselves on the bunch.

The ever-more-equal peloton is entering this new phase. The 2010’s belonged to Sky/Ineos, but since Froome’s last victory in 2017, the Tour has seen three-straight one-off winners.

If history repeats itself, a rider will emerge in the next year or two and start rattling off a string of Tour victories. Many thought that was going to be Egan Bernal, but with the Colombian dealing with problems both on and off the bike, there are more questions than answers right now. So much so, the team is sending him to the Giro d’Italia, though there is still a chance he might race the Tour.

Riders like Geraint Thomas and Froome are still trying to muscle in for one more win, but the real tug-of-war for future domination seems to be set between the Slovenian compatriots. Pogačar already has one up on Roglič at the Tour.

The way Pogačar’s danced through the UAE Tour bodes well for a Tour repeat. It also sets the tone, resets the confidence, and creates momentum going into the main calendar.

Perhaps the peloton is entering a new paradigm, and with so much balance between the top teams and riders, we won’t see another generational rider dominate the Tour like Bernard Hinault or Miguel Indurain did during their respective reigns.

At 22, time is on Pogačar’s side, but it seems his 2020 Tour victory last year only made him hungrier for more.

It’s that off-the-bike coolness and on-the-bike Merckxian-like appetite for more wins that could carry Pogačar very far.

And he’s showing all the signs of emerging as the Tour’s next king of yellow with the way he’s riding into 2021.