Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by Zac Williams/SWpix.com
If I were I betting woman I would put money on Tadej Pogacar to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday, not because he is the defending champ but because he lost La Fleche Wallonne.
Pogacar faded to 12th in the one-day classic on Wednesday, losing pace on the Mur de Huy where winner Dylan Teuns got the better of Alejandro Valverde, who I can only assume has the elixir of life at home given he’s still at the pointy end of such races and against such competition at 41. It’s more mind blowing than Pogacar winning two Tour de France titles before his 23rd birthday.
But anyway, I digress.
Pogacar has barely put a pedal stroke wrong this season and that is perhaps partly why he was hyped as a contender in the lead-up to the race he has only twice competed in before, finishing ninth in 2020 and 18th in 2019.
He won the UAE Tour on 2022 season debut, then went on to win Strade Bianche, won two stages, the race title and points classification at Tirreno-Adriatico, was fifth at Milan-San Remo, 10th at Dwars door Vlaanderen and fourth at the Tour of Flanders.
The industry has become so accustomed to the Slovenian winning that when he doesn’t it’s almost a bigger news story. The headlines generated from his post-race interview at La Fleche Wallonne suggested as much. ‘Tadej Pogacar provides a mortal reminder on the Mur de Huy,’ read one. ‘Tadej Pogacar shrugs off suggestions of weakness after fading in La Fleche Wallonne,’ said another.
And indeed, at least regarding the latter, he did, already looking ahead to his title defence.
“I’m fully motivated for Sunday. I don’t see this as a weakness. It’s a one-day race and this happens. Sometimes you can’t do your best, sometimes you can do really good, but I don’t think that this was a weakness,” Pogacar told journalists at the finish.
I was reminded of a conversation I had with UAE Team Emirates sports director Fabio Baldato at the Tour of Oman in February.
I’d asked the Italian for his opinion on the prodigy, who he worked with for the first time at a handful of one-day races at the end of the 2021 season, including Il Lombardia, which Pogacar won, having placed fourth behind compatriot Primoz Roglic three days before at Milano-Torino and third the day before that at Tre Valli Varesine.
“He was third at Tre Valli [Varesine],” Baldato recalls. “He was working hard, he was a little bit tired but after Milano-Torino, there he lost the race, he was not at the level of Yates and the other.
“I was looking in his eyes and he said, ‘No worries, Saturday [at Il Lombardia] I will be there.’ He wanted to be there, he knew he was not far from them, it was a hard day, he was beat, but already, he was thinking, ‘I show you in two days [at Lombardia] what I can do.’
“He always wants to compete. He wants to be the first. Everything he does he’s got to win.”
The other observation Pogacar made on Wednesday was that La Fleche Wallonne, not dissimilar to Milano-Torino you could say, was a hard race, a hard final.
“I did my best. I pushed myself over the limit and I came to the front row with 200m to go. I was quite excited to be there, and I thought that I could do good but then the lactate hit me, and I barely got to the finish. It’s all good.” Like I said, if I were a betting woman…