The men’s race at the 2022 Tour of Flanders was the longest in over 20 years. Hundreds of villages, thousands of twists and turns and eighteen fearsome climbs, all spread out across 272.5 kilometres of Belgium. Tadej Pogačar did everything right for 272.4 of them. Fourth across the line behind Mathieu van der Poel, he was just 100 metres away from making history.
You have to go back decades to find editions of De Ronde that even feature Tour de France winners, let alone editions that are dictated by them. The last winner of both races was Eddy Merckx; the last winner of a Grand Tour and Flanders was 1990 Giro d’Italia champ Gianni Bugno, who triumphed in Belgium in 1994.
This race was a throwback to a bygone age. Yet the WorldTour peloton is learning to expect big things of Tadej Pogačar.
Maybe on another day a fit and firing Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl and Jumbo-Visma would have made life too difficult for him to thrive on the bergs and cobbles, but as it was the Belgian mafia were missing in action this year. A last minute Covid-19 positive eliminated Wout van Aert and a spring of sickness meant Quick-Step were a shadow of their usual selves.
The result was a cagey race, with no one team willing to grab things by the scruff of the neck. With an hour to go Pogačar was still in position in the bunch and attacked on the penultimate time up the Oude Kwaremont, moving up on the rough cobbles to the side of road, the theatrical soundtrack provided by thousands of fans, the likes of which the race has seldom seen before.
It wasn't clear precisely how many fans were out on the roads after two years of Covid-19 restrictions, but it was enough for the Belgian police to pre-emptively shut all the roads in the key triangle of the Flemish Ardennes containing the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg and Koppenberg.
Pogačar’s move was premeditated too – he knew he had to go long (he also attacked with 50km en route to victory at Strade Bianche in March) and he knew that there would be a tailwind to help him. The big move shed Jumbo-Visma’s deputies Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte and the subsequent Koppenberg got rid of Kasper Asgreen, a dropped chain ending his and Quick-Step’s race.
This was also a Ronde finale of tactics and intrigue. Fred Wright and Dylan van Baarle were able to skip up the road to take their positions in the lead group with two climbs to go. Van der Poel, so often the aggressor in the Classics, realised he merely had to follow Pogačar. By the last cobbled ascent, the Paterberg, only he and Pogačar were left; a titanic effort kept the Slovenian’s back wheel in sight and gave the pair a clear run to the line.
The contrast between them on that final climb a stark reminder that until Pogačar came along, this sort of thing just didn’t happen in these sorts of races. Van der Poel is himself a sensation, a classics behemoth, all meat and muscle. Pogačar is the guy that wins back-to-back summit finishes in the final week of the Tour. Van Aert would probably have been up there too, Van der Poel later argued, but nobody quite knows what kind of a rider he is anyway.
Mathieu van der Poel wrestles with his bike to stay in touch with Tadej Pogačar (Credit: Kristof Ramon)
Such is Pogačar’s strength, however - in terms of pure power (although he crashed after 20km, lost his SRM head unit and rode the remainder of the race on feel, not watts) and his ability to learn – that we are rapidly having to reassess just what is possible in the men’s WorldTour of the 2020s.
“He didn’t make the same mistakes [as at Dwars Door Vlaanderen], being too far down in the bunch at the approach of the climbs,” said Stefan Küng, recalling Pogačar’s first outing on the Belgian cobbles four days before De Ronde. “Obviously he has what it takes to be up there physically. I mean, chapeau. But I think this guy doesn’t surprise us any more.”
For what it’s worth, Van der Poel said in the post-race press conference that he thought it would be possible for Pogačar to contest even Paris-Roubaix, although the flat secteurs pavés aren’t as natural a fit to his talents as the bergs of Flanders. As it stands, those Roubaix cobbles don’t feature on Pogačar’s programme until stage five of the Tour hits the cobbles in July. The Classics specialists can breathe easy for now.
For all his undeniable strength it wasn’t clear what Pogačar’s end game was going to be when he and Van der Poel rode together into Oudenaarde, much less what it was when Valentin Madouas and Dylan van Baarle caught up for the final sprint. His frustration with his fourth place was evident, banging his bars and riding off to the team bus in fury. “It wasn’t congratulations that he was saying after the finish line,” said van Baarle.
UAE sports director Fabio Baldato reportedly went to check a replay of the sprint with the race jury after seeing Pogačar’s remonstrations, but all involved decided there was nothing doing and the result stood.
“In the moment I was really disappointed because I couldn’t do my sprint. I was boxed in,” a diplomatic Pogačar later said. “That’s cycling, sometimes you’re boxed in, sometimes you have open road. I was not even really mad. It seemed like this, but I was frustrated with myself because I couldn’t do the best 100m to the finish.”
The Tour of Flanders is always a question of strength and experience. In the poker game at the end of this year’s edition, Van der Poel had both and knew it. Pogačar might be the best rider since Eddy Merckx and may well win this race in years to come. But in Oudenaarde today, in Mathieu van der Poel, he just came up against someone better.
Cover image: Kristof Ramon