Pogacar on his way to winning stage 20 of last year's Tour and, with it, the race overall.

‘I need to improve’: Pogacar will work on time-trialling ahead of his Tour defence

Tadej Pogacar won last year's Tour de France with an incredible uphill ITT. To defend his title, he'll need to improve in flat ITTs.

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Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) went into the 2020 Tour de France as something of an outsider for overall victory. No one was doubting his ability – by that point he’d come third at the Vuelta on debut, with three stage wins no less – but it wasn’t clear how he would perform on the sport’s biggest stage.

As we now know, the then-21-year-old ended up winning the Tour thanks to a truly remarkable penultimate-stage individual time trial, where he took well over a minute out of all of his GC rivals.

In 2021, when Pogacar returns to the Tour de France, there’ll be no doubts about his ability to win. He certainly won’t be an outsider.

“Being defending champion of the Tour will be much, much harder,” Pogacar told reporters in a video press conference from the UAE-Team Emirates training camp on Monday. “It’s my first time defending a race title and that will be a completely new thing for me. But I’ll be fighting to be on the top step again at every race I enter.”

In December 2020 a Dutch documentary from inside Team Jumbo-Visma showed both Primoz Roglic and Tom Dumoulin expressing incredulity about Pogacar’s performance in the stage 20 ITT at last year’s Tour. Dumoulin finished second that day at 1:21 while Roglic was fifth, at 1:56, dropping from the maillot jaune into second overall. Pogacar was philosophical about his rivals’ comments.

“They would have been disappointed letting the victory slip from their hands so close to Paris,” Pogacar said. “I think they talked a little bit in the heat of the moment. 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.”

While the 2020 Tour had just that one uphill individual time trial, the 2021 Tour route is a different story. This time around there are two, flat individual time time trials – one spanning 27 km on stage 5, the being 31 km on stage 20 – and Pogacar admits he’ll need to up his game to be competitive on those days (and therefore overall).

“[The Tour route] doesn’t suit me the best, but my preparations will be moving to the Tour,” Pogacar explained. “The two flat TTs are something I need to improve. With the team, we are working on my TT position and training to train more on the time trial bike on the flat, because last year we didn’t train that much on the time trial bike because I didn’t think there was the time. Now I need to fit TT training into my schedule for sure.”

Pogacar will begin his 2021 season at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana on February 3 before heading to the UAE Tour later that month. In the lead-up to the Tour he’ll race the Ardennes Classics in support of new recruit Marc Hirschi before heading to the Criterium du Dauphine as his final Tour de France tune-up.

At this stage Pogacar is planning to back up his Tour defence with a return to the Vuelta in August, the race where he made his Grand Tour debut with such gusto in 2019.

While 2020 was a career-defining season for the young Slovenian, he’s firmly focused on the big year of racing ahead. “I always think we should move forward, not stay in the past,” he said. “In my mind, I’m already on the next races and when we start the season. I mean not to forget the past but not to think all the time about that – it already happened. We should focus on the next races.”

At each of those next races, Pogacar will be among the headline acts; the Tour champion on his path towards a title defence. There’ll be plenty of talk about whether he can replicate his impressive performance from last year, and whether he can continue to improve. He is only 22, after all.

“That’s my fear every year, actually – not to improve, or to have bad luck,’ he said. “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.”

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