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UAE-Team Emirates team members (left to right) Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia, Davide Formolo of Italy and Ivo Oliveira of Portugal wave to the crowd during an event a day ahead of the Tour de France Saitama Criterium race in Saitama on Sunday. Image Credit: AFP

Saitama, Japan: Tour de France runner-up Tadej Pogacar said his plans for next year “don’t stop”, after he outduelled American Sepp Kuss to win the Saitama Criterium in Japan on Sunday.

Slovenia’s Pogacar won the Tour de France in 2020 and 2021 but he has finished as runner-up behind Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard for the last two years.

He said talks with his team over next year’s race programme were an ongoing process but the Tour de France was “one of the priorities”.

“We always have discussions — all year we’re just thinking how to race, that’s our job,” said the 25-year-old.

“We think about it from when we wake up until when we go to sleep — it’s something you always work on and you don’t stop.”

Out of contention

Pogacar got the better of Vuelta a Espana champion Kuss in a sprint finish to win his first Saitama title after almost 60 kilometres (37 miles) of street racing.

Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, who is retiring from road racing to return to mountain biking, finished third ahead of British sprint king Mark Cavendish.

Pogacar, Kuss and Sagan broke clear of the pack with around 6km to go, before Sagan dropped out of contention when Kuss attacked ahead of the final lap.

Pogacar had more left in the tank as the pair stormed towards the finish, whirling his arm in celebration as he crossed the line.

“I was waiting for that final race part, and I decided to go for only one attack today,” he said.

“It was a great success.”

Wins with excitement

Pogacar has had an eventful 2023, returning from a fractured wrist to compete at the Tour de France, and becoming just the third man to win Il Lombardia three years in a row.

He also claimed the honours in Paris-Nice, the Fleche Wallonne, the Tour of Flanders and the Amstel Gold Race.

Cavendish said Pogacar’s win in Saitama was “exactly in his style”.

“He doesn’t just win, he wins with excitement,” said Cavendish.

“He’s the idol of my little boy — he’s his favourite rider, he’s obsessed with him.

“So you know when a five-year-old is excited when someone races, that’s an exciting rider to watch.