In the second part of our two-part interview, Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar reveals who will pick up the mantle when he is done.
Tadej Pogačar is in a good frame of mind: he’s content with his 2022 results, and initial pre-season sensations suggest that the following campaign will be even better.
He knows, however, that should he fail, and should he not repeat the Grand Tour and Monument wins, UAE-Team Emirates have a ready-made placement poised to step into his shoes.
For Juan Ayuso, the team’s recently-turned-20-year-old Spanish prodigy, is already favourite to win next season’s Vuelta a España having finished third on his debut, just like Pogačar himself did three years ago. What’s more, the Spaniard has been very open in stating his desire to win the Tour de France.
There’s not quite an elephant in the room yet, and Ayuso talks glowingly of Pogačar, but there’s an acceptance that things could change in a year or two, especially when, not if, Ayuso wins his maiden Grand Tour.
“If I am s**t at the Tour, then he can go,” the Slovenian tells a large group of journalists at his team’s December training camp in Benidorm, Spain, giving the diplomatic response to a question that is likely to only become more familiar with the passing of time.
“For me, it’s no problem. We understand each other and you can only be good for so many years; you cannot be at the top all of the time.
“For sure, if he gets better we will exchange some races and some roles, but we are all here in the UAE team to take the team as a group together to a higher level, so we try to win as much as possible and it doesn’t matter who.”
Ayuso is, according to Pogačar, “one of the biggest machines you will see in cycling. He is super strong, super talented, and we saw in the Vuelta he finished third and he will do great things in cycling.”
The Remco challenge
While Ayuso is a new rival/team-mate to invoke, Remco Evenepoel is not. The reigning Vuelta champion, the Belgian will head to the Giro d’Italia for a second time in May, the standout favourite to win the maglia rosa, a jersey coveted by Pogačar as well. As two riders with plaudits early in their careers and with sky-high potential, they're often spoken about in the same breath.
When Evenepoel finally makes his bow at the Tour - expected to be in 2024 - Pogačar expects a five star candidate. “This year he had a phenomenal year but next year he can be even better,” Pogačar says.
“He’s going in the right direction, for sure. He won the Vuelta, so the Tour is just a little different. But I think if you can win one Grand Tour and be World Champion at the same time, you can win the Tour as well.”
Evenepoel and Pogačar are both the undisputed estrellas in their own respective teams of Galácticos, and though the questions may largely centre around Pogačar’s unsuccessful Tour defence, he’s quick - in his own humble, polite manner - to remind everyone present of just how good his 2022 was.
His16 wins included three GC victories, three Tour stages, a Strade Bianche, an Il Lombardia and a GP Montreal. “If I look back at the season, I see one of the best seasons you can imagine,” he says. “It was a really great year all around for me: a lot of wins with the team, a lot of great moments for me.”
His next campaign will begin at the UAE Tour where he’s chasing his third consecutive GC triumph. Interspersed between the winter and the Tour will be a series of one-day races, including a return to Milan-San Remo (5th this year) and the Tour of Flanders (4th on debut).
The prodigious young man lights up when asked about both races: “If you are flying in a one day race, you just go there, bam bam, attack and go home,” he says.
“Sam Remo is a long, boring race until you come to the coast, and then you just have one moment where you need to be the best, to push the best power. It’s one of the hardest races to win, and that’s what makes it so beautiful.”
It’s the Belgian Classic, however, as opposed to the Italian one, that draws the biggest compliments from Pogačar. “Flanders is one of the biggest races, the biggest crowd, and one of the best atmospheres,” he says. “Also the parcours is really particular for me with the cobbled climbs so it’s a bit chaotic and stressful for me but I like it.” The most fun he had in 2022? “Flanders. It was the best day,” he confirms.
For all the talk of other riders and other races though, there is only one event that the conversation keeps coming back to: the Tour de France. The route, with just one time trial and several mountain stages, has many backing Pogačar to regain his crown.
He’s incessant in his desire to do so. “If I don’t win the next one, I will try to go another time,” he states. “And if I don’t win the next one [after that], I will try and go another time to try and win it at least one more time.” Ayuso and co. may have to wait a little longer.
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