Another race, another resounding Tadej Pogačar victory. Sticking to the playbook that has seen him enjoy so much success these past few months, the Slovenian went early and went hard to win Amstel Gold Race, adding yet another of cycling’s most sought-after races to his palmarès.
Even compared to his form in previous seasons, Pogačar has started the 2023 season in jaw-dropping form. He’s won nine of the 16 race days he’s taken part in, four of them by margins of over half a minute, as well as overall victories at Paris-Nice and the Ruta del Sol. His latest sees him follow in the footsteps of Bjarne Riis, Joop Zoetemelk, and Eddy Merckx to become just the fourth man to win Amstel Gold and the Tour de France, having just a few weeks ago become only the third rider in history after Louison Bobet and Merckx to win the Tour plus the Tour of Flanders.
It’s not just that Pogačar is ripping up the rule book by winning these races — the kind of races that Tour de France champions were, until recently, expected to at most make the occasional appearances at, received wisdom being that it was impossible to excel during both the springtime Classics and the summertime Grand Tours. He’s also changing the entire way in which they are raced. Typically, Amstel Gold is a close-fought affair, a race that’s been decided by photo finishes in both the last editions. Even since the finish was moved from the top of the Cauberg (which had previously tended to host a mass sprint for victory each edition), it and the other climbs towards the backend of the race have continued to be the pivotal moment of the race, the smart tactics being to not work too hard early on and save yourself for the finale.
Not so with Pogačar. By the time he reached the finishing straight, he’d already been out in front of the race for almost 30km, and was coasting to victory with a lead of half a minute ahead of the next rider on the road, surprise package Ben Healy (EF Education-EasyPost). Far from preserving energy, the Slovenian sensed the promise of a move that went clear from the peloton 90km from the finish when he spied high profile riders like Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) present in it, and so opportunistically chose to follow it. Somehow, despite his status as overwhelming favourite, he was able to do so unmarked by other top contenders such as Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma), Benoît Cosnefroy (Ag2r Citroën) and Neilson Powless (who unfortunately had to abandon later after going down in a crash).
With distance already between himself and most of his top rivals, Pogačar committed to the move. The group of 16 soon became 11 after he accelerated during the first ascent of the Cauberg 10km later, and they worked well together to keep the chasing group at bay.
Not everything went his way. There was a long period after this climb that he appeared unhappy with his bike, holding his arm to call for his team car, but not finding it forthcoming as the narrow roads the race is famous for made it hard for the traffic to progress. At the end of the race he described himself as being ‘really frustrated’ at having to ride with ‘a sort of flat tyre’, but if he was flustered by the situation, it certainly didn’t seem to affect his bike change. He at last swapped it at the foot of the Kruisberg, and was off the back for what couldn't have been longer than a minute after serenely waltzing his way back into the group on the climb.
Only Pidcock and Healy could follow when Pogačar, happily on his new bike, made his next acceleration on the Eyserbosweg, 37km from the finish, and he proceeded to drop them both just a few kilometres later on the Keutenberg to solo the rest of the way to victory. The sight of him climbing the Cauberg — the climb that has so often in the past witnessed a mass sprint up it — all by himself, not just the second time up, but the third time too, was surreal.
Whereas in the last two editions of Amstel Gold, the winner was not known until several minutes after the finish, as the judges deliberated over photo finishes, this time he was known a whole half-an-hour beforehand.
As has been the case with so many of Pogačar’s victories, the stats reveal just how rare his dominance was. He became the first rider to win Amstel Gold with a solo attack since Philippe Gilbert in the 2014 edition. And his winning margin at the line of 38 seconds was the biggest since Bjarne Riss in 1997.
That gap would have been even bigger were it not for a sterling ride from young Irishman Ben Healy. The 22-year old had drawn attention to himself on Wednesday with an excellent ride to place second behind Dorian Godon (Ag2r Citroën) at Brabantse Pijl, but the extra length, difficulty and calibre of opposition made this result a true breakthrough. Most impressive of all, he was able to drop the much more accomplished Pidcock on a climb 14km from the finish, after earlier he’d been barely able to hold on to his wheel. Rather than getting weaker in the closing stages, Healy was getting stronger, which is a great sign for his future development.
As talented as he is, he faces the dilemma every other rider in the peloton does, no matter what they’re favoured discipline: how can they defeat Tadej Pogačar? With him down to ride Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège this week, who would bet against him becoming just the third man in history to claim the Ardennes Classics treble?