Kolkata: Tadej Pogacar, the 23-year-old winner of the last two Tour de France titles, cannot wait to get started in his pursuit of a third one in a row on Friday - but wants to do so with an uncluttered mind. No thoughts of a brush with history, or a possible duel with compatriot Primoz Roglic could sway him as the sensation carries the hopes of a formidable Team UAE Emirates once again when the Tour is flagged off from Copenhagen in Denmark with a time-trial.
‘‘I don’t think about history. I try to enjoy the moment and will see what this three weeks brings to me,’’ a calm Pogacar said at a global virtual media interaction of the team from Denmark ahead of the 21-stage event, considered the most demanding of Grand Tour events. The weight of expectations on him is undeniable, but the supremely gifted athlete knows nothing can be taken for granted in his sport and terms the first week as a ‘tricky’ one with three opening stages scheduled out of Denmark.
The 2022 edition, which will have full crowds back after the pandemic, is a far cry from his first Tour in 2020 where he turned out to be a surprise winner in a nerve-wracking finish, quite in complete contrast to the 2021 edition where he was in control right though. Roglic, the Jumbo-Visma rider with whom his rivalry has already become a talking point of the Tour over the last three seasons, suffered two crashes inside the first three stages last year and eventually withdrew after the eighth stage following a horrible performance when he finished in 175th, more than 35 minutes off the pace.
Asked if he would like to seal his victory by beating Roglic in their running duel, Pogacar came up with a generic reply: ‘‘Yes, everyone wants the competition to be at their best. I want everyone to be there but at the same time, this race is not about our rivalry alone.
‘‘I don’t think like that as there are so many strong teams and riders here. This year, we have one of the strongest teams and hence, we don’t have to worry about others. Jumbo-Visma is a strong unit and their co-captain in Dane Jonas Vingegaard is a pretty complete rider,’’ said Pogacar.
The question of pressure and being on the threshold of history came up time and again but Pogacar was equipped with a defence mechanism to ward it off. ‘‘We have got a strong team here, we shouldn’t be worried and not stress too much - we are just looking forward to the race,’’ he said.
The relaxed demeanour of the team did not go unnoticed and Pogacar had an answer ready as to where it comes from. ‘‘I think it’s due to the good environment, we trust each one. This Tour will be awesome for people on the road, on the TV. We will see in the end what character will it bring from us,’’ he said.
A turnout of nearly 30,000 fans for the unveiling of teams on Wednesday suggests the Tour will be back in its full glory, though the opening stage around the streets of Copenhagen may be hit by rain. “I don’t know what to think about the time-trial but I’m ready and I’m sure its going to be fast. It’s short and technically challenging,” he said.
The UAE Team Emirates is not just about Pogacar though as they have got a mix of climbers and flat-terrain riders to cover all the bases. Rafal Majka has shown his ability with stage victories in the Tour of Slovenia. He will lead the support crew with newcomers Marc Soler and George Bennett adding extra firepower for the mountains, alongside Brandon McNulty, while Matteo Trentin brings in the experience for the first week and assist Pogacar with stage wins.
Asked if the stage wins in Slovenia will give him a boost, Majka said at the media session: ‘‘I have been with his set-up for more than one and-a-half years and we are like a family. We have prepared well and it’s my job to be stronger into the race day by day. I am happy with my shape.’’
UAE Team Emirates for Tour de France: Tadej Pogacar, Rafal Majka, Brandon McNulty, Marc Soler, Matteo Trentin, Vegard Stake Laengen, George Bennett and Mikkel Bjerg.