Even before last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race it was tough to envisage any of the Ardennes Classics not going the way of the currently unstoppable Tadej Pogačar. Such is his level above everyone else, and so easily has he made history with his victories so far this year, that it almost seems inevitable that he’ll become only the third man to bag the prestigious hattrick.
He’s accomplished step one, riding by his own playbook of dropping everyone strong enough to remain at the front of the race with him at Amstel Gold Race. Pogačar knew he wanted to make his decisive attack on the Keutenberg, he did it, and then no-one saw him again. It was an effort that didn’t look quite as torturous as the one he needed to break free of Mathieu van der Poel at the Tour of Flanders, but it was another demonstration of a method that has brought him constant success so far this season.
Of course, rampaging solo breakaways are not the Slovenian’s only method of procuring victories. His win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2021 came from a five-up sprint amongst fatigued climbers and puncheurs, a scenario in which he’s proven himself to be a favourite for success time and again in stage races.
Like Amstel Gold, Liège gives Pogačar even more of an edge (if he actually needed it), even if he will face-off against some stiffer competition in Remco Evenepoel. The race is brutally long, relentless in climbing, and provides perfect launchpads for a rider or a small group to leave a drained peloton in their wake.
Wednesday’s midweek offering of Flèche Wallonne is by no means a walk in the park either. It features 11 climbs over its 194.2km distance, but is constantly defined by the final ascent of the steep slopes of the Mur de Huy. And it could prove to be the hardest of the three for Pogačar to tame.
The parcours, while hard, is usually never enough to severely fracture the peloton, meaning almost every year the existing breakaway or late solo attackers face a tall order to try and stay away even to the foot of the final ride up the Mur. From there, the race is decided by the combination of positioning and perfect timing to reach the line first without blowing up. It’s why we regularly see the same rider win Flèche on multiple occasions; finding the right formula can keep paying dividends.
Unlike Liège or, in recent years, Amstel Gold, the general trend in Flèche Wallonne is for a healthy sized peloton to make it to the final ascent of the Mur de Huy. You have to look back 20 years to find the last time the top-10 was separated by more than a minute. It’s why, sadly for Pogačar, being the strongest is often not enough to compensate if you’re caught in the rear half of the bunch on the climb.
That’s reflected in the two-time Tour de France winner’s results at Flèche; a 53rd, a ninth, and a 12th in his three appearances, standing in stark contrast to Liège (18th, third, first), and Amstel Gold Race (DNF, first).
It’s perhaps too a race where Pogačar’s team will play a more important part in the finale than they usually ever have to. If he remains in the peloton rather than making his usual attempt to escape, using his experienced teammates to help him navigate to the perfect position in the bunch will be essential, as it will be for anyone hoping for a shot at winning. UAE Team Emirates will have a previous third place finisher Diego Ulissi and former winner Marc Hirschi for Pogačar to lean on, and should they deliver, it’s difficult to see anyone amongst the start list matching his turn of speed if he times it right.
It’s a race that is simultaneously predictable and unpredictable. The finishing scenario is almost always a dead cert, but guessing who will emerge from chaos in the final minute of racing is harder to decipher. That’s why it may be the most problematic for Pogačar to win. Bending the narrative to his will could be just that bit harder than in other recent races, and he may be forced to play by the ever repeating rules of Flèche Wallonne.
But all the above being said, who would really be surprised if we did see Tadej Pogačar ride the Mur de Huy alone to glory and write another page in the history books?