After training at Mount Teide in recent weeks, Tadej Pogačar begin his 2021 season at the UAE Tour on Sunday. The UAE Team Emirates rider had originally been due to start his campaign at the Challenge Mallorca, but the race was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2020 Tour de France winner attended a team training camp in the United Arab Emirates in January, and he has since trained in Tenerife ahead of the UAE Tour, where he will lead a strong UAE Team Emirates selection that also includes Fernando Gaviria and new signing Rafał Majka.
"It’s my first race of the season so I’m excited to get started and get back competing again," Pogačar said in a statement released by the team.
"My preparation has gone really well. We’ve been on Mount Teide training at altitude over the past few weeks with a good group and done a quality block of training with a great atmosphere."
Pogačar performed strongly in last year’s UAE Tour, winning atop Jebel Hafeet and placing second overall behind Adam Yates in a race that was cut short due to an outbreak of COVID-19. The race entire race caravan was placed in lockdown in their hotel in Abu Dhabi, while four teams – including UAE Team Emirates – spent extended periods in quarantine before being allowed to leave the country.
New protocols for this year’s race saw all riders and staff fly into the United Arab Emirates aboard charter flights from Paris and Milan as part of a bid to create a protective bubble around the race.
"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," said Pogačar.
"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."
Fernando Gaviria spent six weeks in quarantine in Abu Dhabi after testing positive for COVID-19 at last year’s UAE Tour, but the Colombian returns to the event in 2021 together with lead-out man Max Richeze, who also endured a long stint in quarantine last year.
Gaviria’s 2020 season ended prematurely when he was again diagnosed with COVID-19 during the Giro d’Italia. He began his 2021 campaign at last week’s Clásica de Almería, and he will hope to add to the stage win he picked up at the UAE Tour in 2019. He will again be able to rely on the support of Richeze in the sprints.
"Gaviria has a good track record here also and will be our main man for the sprint finishes," said manager Joxean Matxín Fernández.
The UAE Team Emirates squad also features Majka, Davide Formolo, Jan Polanc and Mikkel Bjerg, who will be among the contenders in the 13km individual time trial on stage 2.
"Pogačar will be our leader but the reality is it’s a squad that can adapt to any situation and we will have different cards to play, especially on the climbs," said Fernández.
"Our aim will be to pick up where we left the race last year: with a victory. Whether it’s the GC or a stage or both, we are searching for that first win of 2021 and to achieve it on home soil would be fantastic."
The seven-day race includes summit finishes at Jebel Hafeet on stage 3 and Jebel Jais on stage 5, while the field includes Adam Yates, Filippo Ganna (Ineos), Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation), João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo).
New signing Marc Hirschi had originally been due to line out at the UAE Tour, but the Swiss rider will instead make his debut for UAE Team Emirates at the Boucles Drôme Ardèche on February 27-28.
"It was a nice surprise to see his name down on the entry list from his UAE team," organiser Guillaume Delpech told Le Dauphiné liberé.
Hirschi enjoyed a break-out 2020 season, winning a stage of the Tour de France and Flèche Wallonne, but his contract with DSM was surprisingly terminated in early January. He signed for UAE Team Emirates shortly afterwards.
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