Tadej Pogačar’s Tour title defense on track with Tirreno victory

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SAN BENEDETTO DEL TRONTO, Italy — Two stage races. Two overall victories.

Tadej Pogacar is preparing perfectly to defend his Tour de France title.

The Slovenian won the weeklong Tirreno-Adriatico race by a comfortable margin ahead of a stellar field Tuesday, adding to his title in the UAE Tour last month.

“What a fantastic start to the season,” Pogacar said. “This is one of the biggest one-week races.”

After placing fourth in the concluding time trial, Pogacar finished 1 minute, 3 seconds ahead of Wout van Aert in the overall standings of the sea-to-sea race.

Mikel Landa finished third overall, 3:57 behind. Egan Bernal, the 2019 Tour winner, finished fourth, more than 4 minutes behind Pogacar.

The 22-year-old Pogacar won one stage in both the UAE Tour and the Tirreno, having taken Saturday’s “queen” leg that finished with a grueling climb to Prati di Tivo.

Pogacar also gained time against all of his overall rivals in Sunday’s fifth stage, which featured a circuit over a series of short climbs or “walls,” when he nearly caught breakaway rider Mathieu van der Poel.

“Stage 5 in the cold, wet weather. That’s the stage I will never forget,” said Pogacar, who rides for UAE Team Emirates.

Van Aert, who rides for the Jumbo-Visma team, won the time trial for his second stage win of the race.

Van Aert clocked 11:06 along the entirely flat 10.1-kilometer (6.3-mile) route in San Benedetto del Tronto on the Adriatic coast. European champion Stefan Kung finished second, six seconds behind, and world champion Filippo Ganna was third, 11 seconds behind – ending his winning streak in time trials at eight.

“I’m improving in this discipline every year a little bit,” van Aert said. “It was my first time aiming for GC in a stage race and I only got beaten by the Tour de France winner. I’ll try more of this in the future but for now I have the classics in my mind, starting with Milano-Sanremo.”

Pogacar finished one second behind Ganna in the stage.

Up next on the World Tour calendar is the Milan-San Remo classic, although Pogacar is not entering that race. He’ll next compete in the Tour of the Basque Country in April, followed by the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege single-day races.

“But first,” he said, “I want to rest a little bit.”

The multi-talented van Aert also won the opening stage in a sprint. He’ll be looking to defend his Milan-San Remo title.

“I felt really good this week and I saw last year that I really improved my form afterward,” the Belgian rider said. “Now I’ve got to recover as good as possible.

“But I saw a lot of strong riders this week,” van Aert added, “so I’m definitely not the only favorite.”