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Analysing UAE Team Emirates' 2021 Tour de France team

Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) riding to victory at the 2020 Tour de France
Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) riding to victory at the 2020 Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Last year, UAE Team Emirates weren't exactly on the radar of those looking for the 2020 Tour de France winner. Eventual winner Tadej Pogačar had just finished a minute down in fourth at the Critérium du Dauphiné and looked a podium contender, but we hadn't put together a team analysis ahead of the race.

While the Slovenian went on to claim a stunning overall victory thanks to his time trial on La Planche des Belles Filles, his team was never the strongest in the race. Italian climbers Fabio Aru and Davide Formolo left midway through, leaving David de la Cruz and Jan Polanc the only riders able to offer high-mountain help late on.

This year, the eight-man squad has been totally overhauled. Formolo is back in support of the defending champion, as is domestique Vegard Stake Laengen. However, Pogačar will be surrounded by five new support riders this July.

Rui Costa is back at the Tour after a year away, while new signing Rafal Majka will be the main super-domestique. Elsewhere, the team around 22-year-old Pogačar is equally young, with 23-year-olds Marc Hirschi and Mikkel Bjerg on board, plus 22-year-old Brandon McNulty.

They have the firepower on board then, along with a proven winner, making it a clear 'big three' alongside Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers. How exactly do they stack up though? Read on to find out.

Tadej Pogačar

  • Age: 22
  • Tours raced: One
  • Best result: Winner in 2020, three stage wins plus mountain and youth jerseys

The Slovenian is the reigning champion of the Tour de France and he's coming to the race as the main favourite for the first time after starting last year's race as a podium contender. As a result he'll be closely watched from the off in Brest, not that that would stop him if he's on top form once again.

In 2021, he already has eight wins under his belt, more than the world's top sprinters. The 22-year-old has tasted success at the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Slovenia and has only really looked fallible at Itzulia Basque Country, where he finished 1:07 down on his main rival, Primož Roglič.

Like Roglič, he has barely raced since April. The five-day Tour of Slovenia was the weakest field he's taken on all year, while there was no showdown with the absent Roglič at the Slovenian National Championships.

You'd imagine the pair – both the favourites this year – to once again be among the strongest climbers and time trialists in the race, with the 58 kilometres of time trials looking the decisive stages. Pogačar won last year's Tour on the summit finish in the final time trial, but two pan-flat tests offer a different challenge.

Marc Hirschi

Marc Hirschi at the Volta a Catalunya

Marc Hirschi at the Volta a Catalunya (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
  • Age: 22
  • Tours raced: One
  • Best result: 54th in 2020, one stage win, combativity prize

Hirschi is one of three men in the team who made their Tour debut last year, alongside Pogačar and Formolo, and he was one of the revelations of the race, winning a stage and the combativity prize and coming close to taking two more.

The former U23 world champion's year concluded with a La Flèche Wallonne victory and podiums at the senior Worlds and Liège-Bastogne-Liège before a puzzling and sudden split with Sunweb. Since making his delayed debut (hip and wisdom teeth problems) for UAE this year, though, there have been little sign of those quality performances.

Sixth place at Liège, third on a hilly Tour de Romandie stage and a very distant second at the Swiss TT Championships have been his best showings so far in 2021. The youngster will be one to watch in France, though we haven't been given an indication that he might match last year's performances.

Davide Formolo

  • Age: 28
  • Tours raced: One
  • Best result: DNF in 2020

Formolo crashed out of his Tour de France debut last year, fracturing his collarbone on stage 10. He's back for a second appearance this July, a month on from finishing 15th at the Giro d'Italia in a free role.

The 28-year-old hasn't particularly stood out in 2021 so far and hasn't taken a win since a mountain stage at last year's Critérium du Dauphiné. Despite that, he'll be another key man for Pogačar in the mountains.

As with the other climbers on the team, they'll be all-in for the team leader, though unlike Ineos Grenadiers with Geraint Thomas, Richard Carapaz and Tao Geoghegan Hart, or Jumbo-Visma with Steven Kruijswijk, it's hard to see any of the UAE domestiques mounting a podium bid should the main man fall victim to bad luck during the race.

Rafał Majka

Majka in action at Tirreno-Adriatico

Majka in action at Tirreno-Adriatico (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
  • Age: 31
  • Tours raced: Five
  • Best result: 19th in 2018, two mountain jerseys, three stage wins

The Pole was – around half a decade ago – a rider talked about as a possible Grand Tour winner, but now looks comfortable in the prime super-domestique role at his new team.

After four years spent at Bora-Hansgrohe, Majka has accompanied Pogačar at every stage race the Slovenian has raced in 2021, helping him to three GC wins and a podium. If he's on top form in France, he should be the key man in the mountains for Pogačar, able to do the work until the GC men start attacking.

His experience will be invaluable, too. He has five Tours under his belt – more than the three total that Pogačar, Hirschi, Bjerg, Formolo, and McNulty have raced – and has taken on 17 of the 52 Grand Tours the Tour team have raced.

Rui Costa

  • Age: 34
  • Tours raced: Nine
  • Best result: 18th in 2012, three stage wins

At 34, the Portuguese rider is the veteran of the squad, with nine Tours in the books among 12 total Grand Tours across his 14 seasons as a professional. He has three Tour stage wins on his palmarès, though none since 2013, and seems to enjoy week-long stage races rather than the Grand Tours.

The 2013 world champion doesn't grab the headlines too often these days, and when he does it's usually in Switzerland, finishing second in Romandie two years ago, seventh at this year's Tour de Suisse – which he won three times in the past – and second at the GP Kantons Aargau a week earlier.

In France though, it's all about Pogačar. He and Hirschi being let off the leash a little is within the realms of the imagination, though. If UAE takes any stage wins aside from whatever Pogačar comes up with, it'd more than likely come from them.

Mikkel Bjerg

  • Age: 22
  • Tours raced:
  • Best result: N/A

Bjerg, along with McNulty, is making his Tour debut this year. The time trialist was a three-time U23 world champion but hasn't yet taken a win since turning pro last year.

He'll be let loose to have a go at the two time trials in France, but his main value will come from putting in hard yards in the peloton on behalf of his team leader. He's not a climber but is well-suited to doing the work on the flat lands and hills, as we saw at last year's Giro on several occasions.

Brandon McNulty

McNulty led Itzulia Basque Country for two days

McNulty led Itzulia Basque Country for two days (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)
  • Age: 23
  • Tours raced:
  • Best result: N/A

American all-rounder McNulty is one of two Tour de France debutants on the team. He joined UAE last year and has already impressed with a series of strong stage racing results.

Last year's Grand Tour debut at the Giro went well, with top-level time trial performances – including third in Valdobbiadene – taking him to 15th overall. This year he finished 17th at Itzulia Basque Country after holding the race lead for two days and was in contention for an uphill sprint win at the Dauphiné.

Over the next three weeks, though, he'll be another man in the team entirely dedicated to the Pogačar cause. The 23-year-old doesn't yet look like a rider who can last with the heads of state over every mountain stage of a Grand Tour, but he should be there for the team leader deep into the Alps and Pyrenees.

Vegard Stake Laengen

  • Age: 32
  • Tours raced: Three
  • Best result: 82nd in 2020

The 32-year-old Norwegian is certainly the lowest profile rider on UAE's Tour team, but he's a dependable performer, having taken part in three of the last four Tours as part of the squad.

This will be his fourth Tour and he'll be there to work exclusively for the team leaders. There's no room for sprinters Matteo Trentin and Alexander Kristoff in this team, while climbers like David de la Cruz and Jan Polanc don't get in either.

But no squad at the Tour is made up of one leader and seven climbers, not even Ineos or Jumbo-Visma. Solid domestiques who can work on the flat and in the winds are always essential, and that's why Laengen is here.

Daniel joined Cyclingnews as staff writer in August 2019 after working as a freelance journalist for seven years, including time spent working for Cyclingnews and sister magazine, Procycling.