Before defending his title at the 2021 Tour de France, Tadej Pogačar finds himself defending the performance that carried him to victory on last year’s race. The Slovenian seized the maillot jaune from his compatriot Primož Roglič with a surprisingly emphatic win in the time trial to La Planche des Belles Filles on the penultimate day, a late turnaround to match some of the most dramatic in the race’s history.
In Code Yellow, a Dutch fly-on-the-wall documentary about Jumbo-Visma broadcast on NOS in December, both Roglič and teammate Tom Dumoulin seemed to evince a degree of disbelief at Pogačar’s performance. “How the f*** they did that?” Roglič asked, after conceding almost two minutes to Pogačar in the 36km test, while Dumoulin likened the 22-year-old’s riding style to that of “a miner.”
Speaking to reporters in a video conference on Monday from the UAE Team Emirates training camp in Dubai, Pogačar downplayed the apparent scepticism in the words of Roglič and Dumoulin and described his display at La Planche des Belles Filles as “not unbelievable […] just unexpected.”
“I think they talked a little bit in the heat of the moment,” Pogačar said. “It was nothing unbelievable if you look at all the aspects. I had a great day, I prepared well, I had a super good bike change, and I had a super good team navigating me through the course and through the preparation of this Tour.
"It was a key moment where it was easy to make a lot of difference.”
2021 Tour and Vuelta
Pogačar confirmed on Monday that he will target the Tour in 2021, and he is also set to return to the Vuelta a España, where he won a hat-trick of stages and placed third overall on his Grand Tour debut in 2019.
He is slated to make his first competitive outing of the year at the UAE Tour in late February, before riding Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour of the Basque Country, the Ardennes Classics and the Critérium du Dauphiné as he builds towards July. Assuming the event goes ahead and quarantine regulations allow it, Pogačar is also expected to compete at the Tokyo Olympic Games between the Tour and the Vuelta.
Asked if he was concerned about living up to expectations in 2021, Pogačar said: “That’s my fear every year, actually - not to improve, or to have bad luck. But that’s life. In cycling, that’s common, but if I stay focused and just go on with the same goals and motivation, I think I will still improve.”
During the winter, UAE Team Emirates directeur sportif Allan Peiper suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic, with its restrictions on travel and public gatherings, meant that Pogačar had been able to enjoy a quieter winter than any Tour winner in recent years.
"Of course, there were more interviews and media obligations, but I lived my life like before, not stressing about anything,” said Pogačar.
“Now I just have to be physically prepared like I was last year and have good support from the team. Being defending champion of the Tour will be much, much harder. It’s my first time defending a race title and that will be a completely new thing for me, but I think if I go there prepared well and motivated, I think we can do just fine.”
The 2021 Tour route will feature two flat individual time trials – a 27km test to Laval on stage 5 and a 31km stage in the heart of Libournais wine country on the final weekend – and the finer details of Pogačar’s preparation for the race will change accordingly. “Before, I didn’t train that much on the TT bike because I didn’t think there was time. But now I need to fit time trial training into my schedule for sure,” said Pogačar, who declined to describe himself as the favourite for the race.
“I mean, I am the defending champion and for sure I’m also a favourite, but I don’t know if I’m the main favourite. There are a lot of guys and there’s still a long way to the Tour. We will see before the Tour who will be the main favourite, who will win the most races before and come strongest to the Tour.”
Rather than feel burdened by the tag of defending champion, Pogačar suggested it was an affirmation and perhaps even a liberation. He is, after all, one of only five active riders to have won the biggest race of all.
“I will still be super motivated for next season but for sure I am more relaxed now than I was before,” he said. “I don’t forget about the past, but I don’t think all the time about the past or talk about it, because it already happened. We should focus on the next races.”
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