The first time Tadej Pogacar tode the Tour of Flanders, he cramped up in the heat. The year was 2018, he was just 19 years old, and he was riding the U23 race for the Slovenian national team. He finished 15th.
This week Pogačar has been tackling the cobbles of Belgium as snow lines the ground and the mercury struggles to climb above zero. A teenager no longer, the double Tour de France winner is fresh off victories at the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and Strade Bianche, and is arguably the best cyclist in the world.
Yet Flanders is one of the most technically demanding races on the calendar. It rewards experience, not so much for the severity of the cobbled climbs but because history dictates that the winner requires an intimate knowledge of the capillary network of concrete lanes that crisscross the Vlaamse Ardennen.
He or she must possess a sixth sense for when to move up to the front of the peloton and the technical finesse required to stay there. Pogačar is a senior Ronde rookie. By rights he shouldn’t stand a chance. Yet according to bookmakers and Belgian press, he is one of the favourites for the men’s race on Sunday.
Can he actually win?
His display at Dwars Door Vlaanderen was certainly impressive. UAE Team Emirates directeur sportif Fabio Baldato was following from the car behind and believes that on the evidence of last Wednesday, where Pogačar finished 10th, he most definitely can.
“Waregem [Dwars Door Vlaanderen] came down to one moment, he was stuck, lost 50 positions, and the race went. That’s the kind of thing that we need to try to avoid [on Sunday]. He has the legs, the head and the mind [to win].”
Pogačar may have missed the six-man winning move when it went with 70km to go in Dwars Door Vlaanderen but his immediate solo effort almost saw him bridge across to the leaders. Speaking after reconnoitring the cobbles with his team leader on the Friday before the Tour of Flanders, the experienced one-day racer Matteo Trentin said that Pogačar’s sheer strength almost makes up for his tactical naivety.
“He’s strong enough to recover position and get to the place he has to be if something goes not too well,” Trentin said.
Pogačar himself acknowledged his inexperience but said that his breaking his Flemish duck at Dwars Door Vlaanderen meant he stood in better stead for Sunday’s bigger test.
“Maybe I am out of my comfort zone; it’s different racing, more nervous, I’m not used to it yet,” he said. “I really like it, it’s motivation for me for sure, new challenges.”
Of course Pogačar won the Tour on debut and won Strade Bianche last month (pictured above) with a brash, fearless solo attack with 50km to go. His fifth at Milan-San Remo, where he and UAE ripped the race to shreds, represented a paradigm shift in how La Classicissima is raced. He is not someone to over think things. When asked why he was racing, he replied “Why? I dunno. It was in my plans since December, we decided back then to ride it.”
Pogačar would become the first rider since Eddy Merckx to have claimed La Grande Boucle and Vlaanderens Mooiste in a career, and only the third to do so this side of the Second World War (the first was Louison Bobet).
Yet Pogačar has form, having won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia last season while defending his Tour crown, the latter on debut. Liège, la Doyenne, is a race he believes suits him better than Flanders due to the longer climbs but in his favour this weekend, he says, are the elements. The forecast is for cold weather; an extra hour of racing compared to his midweek outing on the Belgian kasseien plays into his hands too.
“These climbs are really short and at the you still need to push and you cannot recover,” he said. “The race is full of climbs and really tricky and nervous but I think the distance will help me a little bit, the cold weather also.”
Fabio Baldato, who twice finished second in Flanders in his career, is quietly confident of his wildcard team leader.
“What I really like is he comes with the motivation to go for the victory. He’s excited. He wants a new challenge, wants a new adventure, not just to focus on one thing,” he said.
“In his head there’s a little bit of confusion, but he’s ready to go. It’s more about avoiding problems. Every corner, every small road, you need to go through to get to the important part. If we can all bring him to the last 40km, then his legs and his talent will be there.”
Image credits: Getty Images