Tadej Pogacar leads the UAE Tour even before tackling the gruelling climb of Jebel Hafeet after he finished fourth in the pan flat individual time trial on stage 2. The UAE Team Emirates rider is now an iconic sportsman in the country since his portrait was displayed on Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower, to celebrate his Tour de France victory last year. The Slovenian now rides with the mentality of defending his territory.
"I'm pretty familiar with this country," said Pogacar who even experienced the self-isolation of his team in Abu Dhabi following the first positive cases for COVID-19 in the world of cycling one year ago. "I always get a warm welcome in the UAE. It's so nice to come back here. Every time I feel more comfortable. For sure I will come back a lot of times."
He's fully aware of the importance of the UAE Tour for his team's sponsors as some of them support the only WorldTour event in the Middle East as well. "I knew before the time trial that my shape is good at the moment but at the end, I did a really good time trial and I'm super happy with the result. Having the leader's jersey is very good for us. We can go into the next stages with confidence."
"It was pan flat today but I actually like that a lot," the famous climber also commented. "I train on the flat just as much as on the mountains. Sometimes I prefer the mountains but sometimes I also enjoy riding on the flat, especially in time trials, which is a very nice discipline. I really like to race on the TT bike. I knew of my abilities to time trial on the flat before today."
Pogacar enjoys a five-second lead over Almeida, who also made the front echelon on the windswept opening stage and gave up six seconds to Pogacar in the time trial on stage 2.
"Honestly, it went a bit better than I expected," Pogacar continued. "I did a really good job despite the wind. I was more focusing on myself and doing the best time I could rather than think of João Almeida's abilities. It didn't matter for me before the start how good he'd do. I knew he'd be good. I actually didn't expect anything. I was just riding for myself. I think I've done my best TT for this short period of time. It was a really performance from my perspective."
The race heads to the queen stage at Jebel Hafeet where Pogacar placed second to Adam Yates on stage 3 and won stage 5 in 2020 as there were two uphill finishes at the same place.
"It is not a lot but it is an advantage", he noted of his gap to Almeida. "The most important is actually to have an advantage now. I'm in the defending position and he needs to attack. It's easier to control than to have to make up time. But there are still five stages left and many things can happen. There are still possibilities of crosswinds like yesterday. Tomorrow it's the hardest mountain top finish. I hope for the best legs I can have."
UAE Team Emirates held a pre-season training camp in Al Ain at the foot of Jebel Hafeet. The climb was Pogacar's daily bread. "It is a bit of an advantage to know Jebel Hafeet from last year and from our training camps over here", he said, "but up the hill it's a matter of power more than knowledge of every meter of the climb. At the top, the best rider wins. I just want to be first at the top."
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