UAE Team Emirates may be without their team leader and reigning champion Tadej Pogačar for Sunday's Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but the team have quickly adapted their tactics ahead of the race and are set to go on the offensive in the Slovenian's absence.
Pogačar announced on Saturday morning that he would miss the race, having flown to Slovenia following La Flèche Wallonne after his partner's mother passed away. Brandon McNulty was called up in his place, while Marc Hirschi will now lead the squad at Sunday's race.
The Swiss rider said at Saturday's team presentation that the team will hope to make moves earlier and ride more offensively than they otherwise would have, had Pogačar been racing.
"It's especially sad that Tadej cannot be here, but obviously there's more important things than cycling in life," Hirschi said. "We'll try to make the best for the race. It's changed a little bit our tactics. For sure, we have a strong team here and we have to ride tomorrow offensively.
"With Tadej in his shape, it was all about Tadej, to bring him to the climbs and control the race," Hirschi added. "Now we are more in position to create situations to go early, because we have a lot of riders that actually can go deep in the final and so you will play our cards and to ride offensive."
Hirschi and McNulty will be part of a strong squad for the 257km La Doyenne, with Marc Soler, Diego Ulissi, George Bennett, Jan Polanc, and Vegard Stake Laengen also racing. While they may no longer have an outright favourite for victory, the team can still prove highly influential in the race, and Hirschi is not to be underestimated by the top favourites.
Team principal Mauro Gianetti said that the human side was very important, and that there was no question of Pogačar being given time away from racing.
"It's very, very difficult for him and of course for us. The human side is very important," he said. "You know, we have a good team, we are here to win the race, but at the same time Tadej needs to take a break and dedicate his energy and his head in another in another situation.
"Of course, this was the last goal of his spring, but the season is long. In this moment, it's not the most important for us in the team. We take care of our riders."
Now Hirschi will take the reins, having already been given free reign to make his own attacks while Pogačar was still set to race. The 23-year-old enjoyed a solid, if late, start to his campaign following hip surgery, taking the win at Per Sempre Alfredo, finishing third at Settimana Coppi e Bartali, and scoring top-10s at the GP Industria, GP Indurain, and Amstel Gold Race.
However, he wasn't among the top finishers at the recent Brabantse Pijl or La Flèche Wallonne, finishing outside the top 20 at both races. He explained that his hip had given him some trouble in the past week or so, noting that issues could last up to a year after surgery.
"In Amstel I felt very good and then Brabantse and Flèche not super. So, I just hope I can have the good shape like Amstel and just hope I stay with the best in the last climbs. I hope I have the legs to stay with the best.
"I still have some adaptation from the hip. It can actually last quite long, up to one year, until it feels completely normal. But for sure the hip feels much better now. But I have some muscular issues in the last days. I hope it's going to be solved for Sunday, but it's just muscles that have to get stronger."
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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