The school of thought for fledgling Tour of Flanders hopefuls is that this, more than almost any other race, is one of experience. If you want to win, knowing the twists and turns of the sinuous route, where to position yourself ahead of the key climbs, and when to exert your limited energy in the six hours of racing, is a must.
For most debutants, that learning curve is as often steep as the bergs they conquer during the Ronde. Even for those supremely talented cobblestone specialists, the likes of Tom Boonen, Johan Museeuw, Fabian Cancellara – all three time winners of Flanders – it can take a few attempts before the top step of this unique race can be obtained.
Of course, Tadej Pogačar is not just any rider. His inimitable talent shone through on debut in 2022, forcing he and the 2020 winner Mathieu van der Poel away from the rest of the field and into a position where, at worst, the defending Tour de France champion would walk away from Flanders with a runner-up spot. And while his brilliance and his guile had seen him through the race’s toughest spots better than almost everyone else, it was a rookie error that saw the chance of a win and even the podium slip away with less than 500m of the 272.5km course remaining.
A force of dominance on long, gruelling climbs and undoubtedly the best sprinter among the WorldTour’s climbers, the Ronde, along with Milan-Sanremo, have served an altogether different challenge to Pogačar. As he found at the E3 Saxo Classic nine days ago, there is little he can do in the face of a three-up finish with Van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), while the short, sharp nature of the hellingen pose limited opportunity to shake these kings of the Classics.
Often before races riders remain coy in the face of questions about their plans of attack for the day ahead, lest a rival team catch wind. Ahead of this year’s Ronde there was no need for Pogačar to hide his strategy; he had to arrive at the finish alone.
The Oude Kwaremont, a rarity amongst the Flanders climbs with it’s more than two kilometre length, like last year presented the Slovenian’s best opportunity to distance his rivals. This year though, he had to drop Van der Poel.
After surviving unscathed through the crash-ridden opening two-thirds of the race, the second time up the Kwaremont saw him unleash an attack that put not only significant distance to the other likely protagonists of this edition, but also a huge dent into the advantage of the elite breakaway ahead.
With over 50km still to go, a solo ride to the finish remained an unlikely prospect. But he had seen enough, there had been no one who could hold his wheel over the Kwaremont and the subsequent Paterberg. A regrouping with Van Aert, Van der Poel, as well as Christophe Laporte (Jumbo-Visma) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), mattered very little within the plan so as long as he made it to the next ascent of the Oude Kwaremont in touch.
On the brutal Koppenberg the group dwindled to just The Big Three, who powered towards the breakaway, picking up and quickly dumping the stragglers who’d succumbed to the Ronde’s relentless strain.
The next moment of significance, on the Kruisberg, saw Van Aert cut loose at the hands of Van der Poel. While Pogačar appeared briefly caught out by the Dutchman’s stinging acceleration he was quickly back on terms, and with one less problem. Still, the plan doesn’t change: attack the Kwaremont.
The leading group, who’d so diligently extracted themselves from the peloton and built a significant lead, knew who would soon be joining them from behind. There was an immediate caginess, an emphasis on saving energy in the anticipation of the inevitable attack rather than attempting to hold them at bay. Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), clearly aware the group’s cooperation had vanished, fired clear in search of a solo advantage. But even the former world champion, who’d begun the Kwaremont at 19km to go with 32 seconds in hand, could do nothing when Pogačar made his definitive move.
It’s rare you see him so obviously making effort. From afar, much of what Pogačar does looks remarkably easy to him, like his body has computed and absorbed the effort before it’s even begun. But switching between an open mouth and gritted teeth, the attack on the Kwaremont looked like Pogačar at the very edge of his limits. It had to be, it was the make-or-break moment.
It was the same expression on the race’s final ascent, the Paterberg, where a 15-second gap to Van der Poel was solidified as he crested the summit alone; the remaining chasers even further adrift.
The last 13km from the top of the Paterberg rarely sees the Ronde’s decisive attack. Those together on the descent from the climb and the flat, wide road into Oudenaarde will often make it in that group for a final sprint to the line, while solo leaders are not often caught. The fatigue had clearly set in for Pogačar as he fumbled in his pocket to unsuccessfully try and find one last gel to help him along the final stretches to victory, but on this last lonely road, he had done enough. As his gap grew to the chasing Van der Poel, amongst his final efforts he had time to contemplate how he would celebrate his win in a race that he was never supposed to win.
In eras where it was perhaps much more common to see the great climbers also thrive amongst the cobbled Classics, Louison Bobet and Eddy Merckx are the only two male Tour de France winners to succeed at the Ronde before Pogačar. But he seems to thrive on defying what is supposed to be, the implied rules of who succeeds where in modern cycling. Even before his win at Tour of Flanders there was little left to say about a rider so transcendently talented, who leaves those that know, those that think they understand, so bewildered and aghast.
In his post-win interview he was asked about an ambition and the possibility of a win at Paris-Roubaix. The brain’s natural reaction is to be dismissive; a Tour de France winner showing up to win Roubaix is the notion of a bygone era. At just 24 though, there’s still plenty of time for Pogačar to keep disproving what we think we know.
Cover image by Zac Williams/SWPix