UAE Team Emirates star Tadej Pogacar said he was excited to be back "on home soil" as he lined up to defend his UAE Tour title in the opening race of the International Cycling Union (UCI) World Tour season.
The only WorldTour race in the Middle East will be flagged off with a 185-kilometre sprint-stage in Madinat Zayed on Sunday.
“I am very excited to be back in the UAE and start my 2022 season by racing on home soil,” Pogacar, a two-time winner of the Tour de France, said at the launch ceremony on Saturday.
“Firstly, I am happy to be with UAE Team Emirates, one of the fastest developing cycling teams in the world. On every occasion I am here in the UAE, I feel the tangible development of cycling.
“We are ready and trained well for the UAE Tour. We will defend with all our might to preserve the title.”
Pogacar, 23, was runner up behind Adam Yates in the UAE Tour in 2020 and reversed that result in 2021.
“It means a lot to me to have won this race last year, as I’m riding for the UAE team,” the Slovenian said.
“Every year, I see more people cycling here. I’ll try to win the title again. My winter was really good. I went to Sierra Nevada in Spain where I unfortunately got Covid but it was not serious.
“I just had four days off the bike, so I’m prepared for the first race. We also have Pascal Ackermann for the sprints, Mikkel Bjerg for the TT, and a real composed team for GC with Rafal Majka and George Bennett as well. We’ll try to do our best every day.”
Joao Almeida and Maximiliano Richeze are the other two members of the UAE Team Emirates.
The UAE Tour has drawn 17 of the 18 WorldTour teams - the only absentees being Cofidis - and they will be joined by three-second division outfits: Alpecin-Fenix, Bardiani-CSF-Faizane, and Gazprom-RusVelo.
Pogacar main rivals appear to be former Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma), Volta Valenciana winner Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), Vuelta a Espana podium finisher Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) and Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers).
The UAE Tour is also set to host a sprint battle with four potential bunch finishes on offer, and with almost all of the world’s fastest finishers in the lineup including Mark Cavendish (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco), Elia Viviani (Ineos Grenadiers) and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix).
As for the time trial, it’s hard to look past world champion Ganna repeating his triumph on the corresponding stage last year.
“We’re back after one year,” Ganna said at the pre-race conference. “Every time it’s special coming here. Every TT is different, we’ll need to do a really big effort in this one.
“I hope my legs are ready to do it. From the two TTs I’ve already won this year, I know I’m in good shape.”
Pogacar too is expected to be strong in the time trial on stage three and the two mountain top finishes on stage four and stage seven.
One of the all-rounder’s closest challengers is likely to be Ineos Grenadiers rider Yates, with the Briton hoping to stay within touching distance of Pogacar on stages four and seven.
The climber only missed out on the title after Pogacar posted a superior time trial. However, a core part of the battle may come down to the effectiveness of their respective teams.