Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Tadej Pogačar’s pre-eminence was so marked that he looked a likely winner of the Ronde for years to come
Everyone knew what was coming, but no one could prevent it. Tadej Pogačar had signalled what his likely tactic would be at the Tour of Flanders during the GP E3 Saxo Classic, where he pushed hard on the climbs of the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont, testing out his breakaway companions and key rivals Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel.
In his pre-Flanders press conference, the UAE Team Emirates star confirmed that the latter of those two climbs offered him, as a climbing specialist, the best chance to drop riders who were likely to be faster than him in a sprint finish. At 2.6km, the Oude Kwaremont is the longest on the race route – only the Kruisberg/Hotond comes anywhere close to that distance. The tarmac section would allow his UAE teammates to lead him out prior to the longer cobbled section higher up, where Pogačar aimed to shred the group of favourites as he had done on his Flanders debut in 2022, when van der Poel was the only one to hang on, limpet-like, resulting in a sprint finish that the visibly angry Slovenian messed up.
As Pogačar has shown again and again, he’s quick to learn from this kind of setback. In this morning’s L’Équipe, UAE team manager Mauro Gianetti said that April evening last year was the first and only time he’s seen his leader upset. “On the one hand, he’d just discovered an extraordinary new challenge for his career; on the other, he felt like he hadn’t given everything and had consequently wasted an incredible opportunity,” said Gianetti, who revealed that Pogačar had spoken all through the winter about his desire to win Flanders, “a lot more so than the Tour de France.”
Coming into the Oude Kwaremont for the second of three passes, with 58km of racing remaining, UAE’s Mikkel Bjerg was the first rabbit to set the pace for the team’s greyhound. Pogačar then swept by the Dane and almost floated across the Kwaremont’s jarring surface, the riders in his wake looking cumbersome in comparison.
After Mathieu van der Poel’s surprise attack on the Kruisberg dispatched Wout van Aert, UAE repeated their Oude Kwaremont treatment, Matteo Trentin dropping back from the lead group to fill the Bjerg role. When Pogačar scampered past the Italian, his rivals, weakened by so many climbs and kilometres, could barely raise a response, van der Poel gamely attempting to emulate his 2022 performance at exactly the same point in this race, but on this occasion unable to bridge the gap. Up ahead, Pogačar carried out a fly-past of lone leader Mads Pedersen (who rode a great race, it should be added) and the title was all but his.
Those final kilometres were, of course, immensely tough. It’s rare to see Pogačar bobbing on his bike with fatigue, his mouth hanging open, but his now very well-tested ability at riding out front on his own didn’t let him down. All-round, his was a brilliant performance to cap off a hugely enthralling race, not only the fastest Ronde in history, but undoubtedly one of the best.
Reflecting on it, you can wonder what his rivals might have done differently. But I don’t think there was much they could have done that might have changed the final result. Pedersen played his tactical cards well, instigating a breakaway more than 100km out, then sneaking away on the run down towards the Kruisberg, his aim to be ahead when the favourites began attacking from behind. But to win, the Dane would have needed to hold his lead until at least most of the way up the Paterberg, the final climb.
Van der Poel also judged his tactics well. It was his burst that saw off van Aert and he went onto the Oude Kwaremont the final time aiming to repeat last season’s approach that netted him the title. However, a year wiser, Pogačar was determined to avoid that scenario.
Jumbo-Visma managed their tactics well too. Nathan Van Hooydonck got into the lead break, while Christophe Laporte covered Pogačar’s attack the second time up the Oude Kwaremont. You could argue that Van Hooydonck should have dropped back sooner once van Aert had been dropped on the Kruisberg, yet the Jumbo leader clearly wouldn’t have had the legs to stay with his rivals the final time up the Oude Kwaremont.
Let’s finish with a look ahead to the 2024 Tour of Flanders and what’s likely to be the major topic for debate going into the race. Can anyone prevent Tadej Pogačar launching a winning attack on that famous cobbled ascent once again? Pedersen did offer a potential route to this, while both van der Poel and van Aert are far from done yet. But it struck me that the key to neutralising Pogačar’s threat is by using riders who are similar in racing style to the Slovenian.
In achieving the very unlikely feat of turning Flanders into a climber’s Classic, he has perhaps highlighted a potential new objective for a handful of others, for Jumbo’s Primož Roglič perhaps. Already a winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a Flanders-fit Roglič would be much harder to shake off on the Oude Kwaremont, would match his Slovenian compatriot on the flat run-in and might beat him in a sprint. His presence in the Jumbo team might also boost van Aert’s hopes of victory.
Bearing in mind the way they picked apart Pogačar’s defences at last year’s Tour, I wouldn’t put it past the Dutch team to try this. After all, when Pogi’s at his best, there’s little use tackling him one on one.