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Confident Pogacar ready to deliver, Froome comeback bid to gather pace at UAE Tour

The third edition of the UAE Tour, the one and only World Tour race in the Middle East, will start on Sunday from Al Dhafra in Abu Dhabi. The reigning Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar, Quick Step’s rising star Joao Almeida and the winner of the UAE race last year, Adam Yates, are among favourites in what is likely to be a tight struggle in the seven-stage event.

Chris Froome will be part of a top-drawer line-up as the four-time Tour de France winner gets his second injury comeback rolling.

This race was cut short last year by a Covid-19 outbreak among the teams, making it one of the first international sports events to feel the effects of the pandemic.

At just 22 the Slovenian all-rounder Pogacar, who produced an outstanding rookie performance to seize victory in France last year, will be a watched man with his UAE Team under pressure to deliver on home soil. Pogacar is a star in the UAE with his image emblazoned on the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

“There’s more pressure on me to win than last year,” Pogacar said on Saturday. “It’s really important for our team. It’s our home race. But I’m the same man, with the same goals and the same motivations.”

After a pre-season that included some time spent in the UAE, Pogacar is back in the Emirates and is raring to go for the UCI World Tour season-opener.

“It’s my first race of the season so I’m excited to get started and get back competing again. My preparation has gone really well. We’ve been on Mount Teide (in Tenerife, Spain) training at altitude over the past few weeks with a good group and done a quality block of training with a great atmosphere. I was thrilled to get the stage win here last year. Obviously it will be a bit of a different atmosphere this year but we are all really motivated to race and give our all in the UAE colours.

“Between holidays and training camps I have spent a lot of time in the UAE lately and I can say that the UAE Tour is a race I would really love to win someday. If it can be this year then that would be great.”

Pogacar had to settle for second last season after winning one of the two mountain stages.

Defending champion Yates will make his first major outing in Ineos colours after leaving his twin Simon at Orica-GreenEdge, the Australian outfit they both rode for.

Froome’s quest to get back to the top has seen him leave Ineos and join Israel Start-Up Nation after he failed to make the cut at the British team for the Tour de France last season.

The Israeli team allowed 35-year-old Froome to undergo intense rehabilitation work away from the rest of the squad at a specialised athletic performance centre in Santa Monica, California.

“The hard-yards of my rehab are behind me but I’ll be continuing it for the remainder of my career,” said Froome, who has been doing four two-hour sessions most weeks for the past two months.

Froome seemed fully focussed on Saturday, mentioning the Tour de France several times.

“I’m not at all the favourite here. This is my first race with ISN and I’m here to start my progression towards the Tour de France,” he told a pre-race press conference. “This is the beginning of my campaign to be ready for the Tour de France.”

Adam has reaped an immediate reward from the move by being named Ineos team leader for the Vuelta a Espana this season.

“Everything is going great in my new team. We have come to win stages and win the race, but there’s no pressure,” Yates said.

He will have strong support from recent Tour de Provence winner Ivan Sosa and the pulsating time-trial specialist Filippo Ganna, unbeaten in a time-trial in over a year.

“The team is happy with my style and the fans are happy too,” said Ganna, who will be a contender for the Olympic time-trial in Tokyo and for stage two on Monday.

Before that Ireland’s Sam Bennett and Australia’s Caleb Ewan will renew their sprint rivalry.

The pair both ride for Belgian teams, are neighbours and enjoy a strong friendship as they divvy up most key sprints between them.

Quick-Step rider Bennett won the Tour de France green jersey for sprinters last year, while Ewan of Lotto Soudal won the green jersey at the UAE Tour thanks to two stage wins.

“The roads here are just great for racing and I’m looking forwards to taking on the rest of the guys out there,” Bennett said.

The race will feature four stages dedicated to sprinters, two for the climbers and one individual time trial for a total of 1041km of riding, with a significant elevation gain of around 3500m metres overall, mostly concentrated into Stages 3 and 5 (thanks to summit finishes atop Jebel Hafeet and Jebel Jais). From Feb.21 to 27, the route will cross five of the seven Emirates, with Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah all playing host to the race.

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