Team Emirates’ star Pogacar aims to defend UAE Tour title at season-opener
Two-time Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar is in upbeat mood ahead of cycling’s first big race of the season which for his UAE Emirates Team is a home race, the UAE Tour.
Still only 23, the Slovenian will be the star attraction as he leads out the world’s top 18 teams for the seven-day race on Sunday.
He will also be the red-hot favourite due to the combination of two tough climb stages and a tricky 9km individual time-trial.
Having triumphed across the peaks and plains of France, he started his preparation for a third tilt at cycling’s greatest prize in the dust and desert.
“The last few months went almost perfectly,” Pogacar said of his build-up.
“Of course it was a small setback getting Covid, but luckily it didn’t disrupt my preparation too much. I’m feeling good,” he said.
He’ll need to be with several contenders for the overall leader’s red jersey such as Jumbo’s 2017 Giro champion Tom Dumoulin and Ineos Grenadier’s Adam Yates, winner of the title two years ago.
“I’m really excited and motivated to get the season started,” Pogacar said.
The race takes in the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, which projected a giant image of him after his major wins, and the site of the Dubai Expo.
There are two climb stages up the same Jebel Hafeet mountain, one with a 20km ascent and the other with a 14km climb on the final day which will feature strongly in the struggle for the overall title.
But there is also stage three’s 9km individual time-trial, where Ineos Grenadier Filippo Ganna could launch a dark horse bid for the title.
Ganna said: “We’re back after one year. Every time it’s special coming here. Every TT is different, we’ll need to make a really big effort in this one. I hope my legs are ready to do it. From the two TTs I’ve already won this year, I know I’m in good shape.”
There is also a strong field of sprint talent on the roster as Mark Cavendish, Sam Bennett, Dylan Groenewegen, Elia Viviani and others will go all in for the four sprint stages.
Cavendish remains a world-class sprinter as he claimed a stage victory at the Tour of Oman last week, following his four stage wins plus the Green Jersey at the Tour de France last year.
He’s yet to win at the UAE Tour, a race in which he took part in 2019 and 2020 but he made himself famous in this country with six stage wins at the Dubai Tour and the Abu Dhabi Tour from 2014 to 2018.
Cavendish said: “First and foremost, it’s nice to be back, especially here in Abu Dhabi where I’ve spent time with my family in the past few years in October and November.
“I know the UAE very well. At the Dubai Tour and Abu Dhabi Tour before the UAE Tour, I was always successful. I missed the race last year. I count on Michael Morkov to keep me safe and in contention with the fast guys like Dylan Groenewegen and Jasper Philipsen.”
The Dutchman Groenewegen is the other top sprinter on the start list who has already raised his arms up in the air this year as he claimed two stages of the Saudi Tour for his new team BikeExchange-Jayco, following a last minute transfer from Jumbo-Visma.
A four-time stage winner of the Tour de France from 2017 to 2019, Groenewegen is no stranger to the UAE since he won Stage 4 in 2020.
Groenewegen said: “My start of the season was really good with two wins at the Saudi Tour. Now I want to go further and win again. There are very good sprinters here. I changed teams because I was looking for new motivation. With Luka Mezgec, I have a very good lead out.”
Fernando Gaviria of home outfit UAE missed out after testing positive for Covid-19 for the third time.