Tadej Pogacar: I need to finish alone to win the Tour of Flanders
On the road at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic and then in newsprint ever since, Tadej Pogačar has spent the week leading up to the Tour of Flanders in the company of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert. If he is to beat them to the Ronde on Sunday, however, the Slovenian knows that he will finally have to lose them somewhere on the road to Oudenaarde.
There is precious little to separate the Big Three as the big day arrives, but in the event of a deadlock, both Van der Poel and Van Aert would probably back themselves in a sprint. Although Pogačar packs a decent turn of speed himself, especially in an endurance race like this – witness his efforts at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 – his likeliest road to victory here is a solitary one.
“I have to have the best legs after a long race,” Pogačar told reporters at the Park Hotel in Waregem on Friday afternoon. “For me, the crucial thing will be to come alone to the finish, that’s how I can win. But that makes it even more hard.”
In Harelbeke last week, Pogačar looked the sharpest of that elite trio on the Paterberg and Kwaremont, but he had to settle for third in a three-up sprint. At last year’s Tour of Flanders, the UAE Team Emirates leader stretched Van der Poel on those same climbs, only for the Dutchman to prove the quicker in Oudenaarde.
Tour of Flanders favourites - The big three and the best of the rest
Mathieu van der Poel returns from Spain physically and mentally fresh for Flanders
How to watch the Tour of Flanders – live streaming
Wout van Aert's bike: will this bike win the Tour of Flanders?
It seems inevitable that Pogačar will look to unleash another onslaught on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg on Sunday. The only question, it seems, is whether the torrent arrives on the first or second time over that key combination.
“It’s a really, really long race, and a lot can happen before the final. I need to save a lot of energy and choose the right moment to go,” said Pogačar. “I don’t have anything in mind. We will see on Sunday how the race goes, how are the legs.”
Such is Pogačar’s assurance on the cobbles, it’s easy to forget that he is stepping a long way from his comfort zone whenever he travels to the Flemish Ardennes. Riders of his build typically don’t compete toe to toe against the heavyweights of the cobbles, but then nothing about Pogačar’s career to date has been typical.
“I weigh a few more kilos now than at the Tour. Two days ago, it was 67kg,” Pogačar said. “I’m not so much lighter than them. And you need power either way. On the flat, for sure, you feel the difference a bit. But on the climbs, even if it’s just two minutes, power is power, so if you’re strong, you can go.”
With that in mind, Pogačar acknowledged that the longer Oude Kwaremont perhaps offered his best chance of shedding himself of his rivals at the Tour of Flanders, even if he came within a few metres of dropping Van der Poel on the wickedly steep Paterberg last year. “The Paterberg is also a really nice climb,” Pogačar said. “But it’s a little bit too short, I would say, for my style.”
The sheer length of the Tour of Flanders itself, on the other hand, is something that can play to Pogačar’s advantage. A year ago, after all, the Monument distance helped to smooth out some of the wrinkles that had complicated his cobbled debut at Dwars door Vlaanderen a few days earlier, while his one misstep in Harelbeke last week was an error of positioning on the Taaienberg.
“Sunday is a much longer race, with so many more tired legs, so it makes the final a bit less stressful,” said Pogačar. “In my experience, last year at Dwars was more difficult in terms of positioning than the Ronde, and E3 was also much more complicated.”
Pogačar smiled when it was put to him that he had never won a one-day race when both Van Aert and Van der Poel had started. “It’s not unusual, they also didn’t win a Grand Tour where we all started,” he shrugged.
The 24-year-old later added a succinct appraisal of the likely tactical approach from his rivals. “Jumbo-Visma have a strong team, so I think they will play as in all the classics up until now,” he said. And Van der Poel? “He will probably just go and attack on some random climbs.”
Pogačar, one imagines, won’t be hesitant about following. Tour de France champions may have been historically reluctant to test themselves on the cobbles and hills – only Eddy Merckx and Louison Bobet have won both the Tour and the Ronde – but Pogačar had no reservations about returning to the rough and tumble of the Flemish Classics.
“I like the races. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “I feel good, my shape is good. It would be a waste if I just stayed home and watched it on TV.”