Few know if or when racing will return this season, but if the Tour de France does indeed go ahead in late August, UAE Team Emirates' Tadej Pogacar is sure that he will race with less pressure and expectancy than if the calendar had unfolded as planned.
The 21-year-old remains in pole position to lead his team at the Tour de France from August 29-September 20, but with a possible influx of Giro d'Italia contenders likely to change their initial goals to match their team's thrust for Tour glory, Pogacar is playing down the expectation placed on his shoulders.
The Slovenian capped a breakthrough season in 2019 with third overall and three stage wins at the Vuelta a España. The result – coupled with a number of other impressive rides last year – catapulted Pogacar into the conversation about possible Tour de France podium contenders.
However, in a new interview with Cyclingnews, the young climber stresses that the pressure had dissipated in recent months. A lack of racing and increase in real-world problems have put professional cycling into perspective, and Pogacar, who rarely seems to lose his cool, is wise enough to know that any racing that takes place this year will be a victory for the sport.
"I think that there's even less expectation on my shoulders now," he told Cyclingnews from his home in Slovenia. "People don't expect a lot from me after the pandemic; some don't even believe that there's going to be a Tour.
"Everything is up in the air, but if there is a Tour de France this year, it's too early to think of a GC result for me. I expect to prepare well, and that I'll do everything that I can, but I can't start talking about results. Of course, I want to race there and to be with the best, and to try to attack, but I know that it's going to be difficult. It could be even tougher because a lot of riders who were down for the Giro and the Vuelta will probably head to the Tour now. It means that the competition will be even bigger."
Although the Tour de France remains front and centre of Pogacar's race programme for the remainder of the year, the rest of his schedule has yet to be decided. It's likely that he'll surround his Grand Tour ambitions with a splattering of one-day races and then use the Critérium du Dauphiné as his main Tour de France warm-up. An altitude camp in Sestrière has been discussed internally with his team, too.
"It's not 100 per cent yet, but I'll probably start with Strade Bianche [August 1]. I'd then do either Milan-San Remo or Il Lombardia. Then it would be the Dauphiné, which is five days, and then the Tour and the World Championships – but nothing is for sure yet," he said.
Pogacar as been able to train outside in recent weeks, but he is also adamant that racing speeds will be slower due to the lockdown measures that have been set up all over the globe in response to the spread of COVID-19.
"For sure, everyone will be slower," he added. "The power will still be there, and I think that everyone is training again. We're all on the same page, so I don't think that there will be a huge difference between the riders.
"Some riders have had longer lockdowns – that's true – and I just hope that those guys haven't burned out on the home trainers. I found the trainer hard going," Pogacar admitted. "For me, being on the rollers was tough, and the longest ride I did inside was about one hour and 30 minutes.
"No one will know their form at the first few races. I'll just try to do my best for those races, but I'm of course going to try to peak for the Tour de France," he said.
Pogacar's own lockdown experience differs from most. He won the stage 5 of the UAE Tour in February but was then forced into a prolonged quarantine after a string of suspected COVID-19 cases were discovered in the rider hotel at the race.
His UAE Team Emirates squad was forced to remain at the hotel for two weeks and Pogacar was kept in quarantine in his hotel room. On returning to Europe, he spent a period of time at his base in Monaco before eventually venturing home to his native Slovenia.
"The quarantine in the UAE was really strict," he told Cyclingnews. "I couldn't leave my hotel room, which was quite hard, but since then things have started to get easier. I spent two weeks in my hotel room at the race because some guys were sick, but I think it was the best decision – to stay, rather than rush home.
"In the first few days there were two or three tests," he said. "Then there was nothing for about 10 days. Then we had two more tests. All of mine were negative, but I was calling home a lot and the hotel was good."
Even if racing does resume later this summer, there is no obvious guarantee that the pandemic will not affect events. Races move around from city to city and town to town, and cannot be held behind closed doors.
As Pogacar knows all too well, one suspected case can quickly spiral into lockdown, and even if the preventative measures have improved in recent months, and new protocols will be put in place, that doesn't guarantee that everyone will be safe.
The Slovenian is trying his best to put another possible outbreak at a race firmly out of his mind.
"I've not even thought about it," said Pogacar.
"I don't want that, obviously, but I just hope that things are going to be better now. We should be prepared for the worst, though, in case that happens."
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