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Tadej Pogačar on first crack at cobbles: ‘I had a feeling it was going to be chaotic, and it was’

After turning mountains into molehills across Europe, did Pogačar finally meet his match in the bergs of Belgium? Don't count him out Sunday.

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WAREGEM, Belgium (VN) — Tadej Pogačar is turning mountains into molehills ever since he burst onto the scene in 2019 as a precocious WorldTour rookie.

Back-to-back yellow jerseys at the Tour de France only confirmed that it’s going to take a lot more than Alpe d’Huez or the Col du Tourmalet to slow down the  23-year-old Slovenian protege.

On Wednesday, at the high-speed rally race otherwise known as Dwars door Vlaanderen, Pogačar seemed to hit a series of speed bumps in Belgium’s lumpy bergs that he could not master with pure brawn and willpower.

Yes, his UAE Team Emirates jersey was in the familiar position of all alone in the shot, but this time, he was the one chasing the wheels, not riding everyone off of his.

“To win Sunday? I don’t know,” Pogačar said at the line about the Tour of Flanders. “I wasn’t at the front today, so I don’t know if I can be on the front on Sunday.”

The fact that the two-time Tour de France champion didn’t win Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen wasn’t a surprise.

After all, the 23-year-old hasn’t raced on these Belgian roads since his U23 days. He’s racing here and again Sunday in part to get a taste of bashing the cobbles at race speed ahead of their return in the Tour de France later this summer.

What was a surprise is that he missed the winning move and later could not bridge across despite two valiant efforts to close the gap to Mathieu van der Poel, Tom Pidcock, and the front group.

For a rider who is nearly unbeatable these days, Pogačar almost looked — dare we say — like a mere mortal.

Pogačar is so good and so prolific, the click-bait headline these days is when he doesn’t bend the peloton to his will.

So what happened? Had Pogačar finally met his tactical match? Or was it a rare moment of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

“There was a crash and I stayed behind and I missed that front group. I tried to come back but they were too strong and too fast in the front,” Pogačar said at the line. “Then we tried again and again, and in the end, it was a good race. It’s racing. I couldn’t lose some positions in that crash and I should have moved more to the front. On the climb, I was full-gas and I couldn’t.”

A few were clucking that Pogačar had overreached by trying to take on the narrow and lumpy Belgian roads of the northern classics. It’s Belgian brawlers like Wout van Aert and Greg Van Avermaet who thrive here, not skinny GC stars.

Sure, it’s one thing to blow everyone away when the road tilts up to the heavens for miles on end, it’s quite something else to turn on the watts in a drag race in the trenches across the cobblestones and bergs.

Van der Poel wasn’t so convinced. Even if Pogačar suffered a rare misfire Wednesday, the Dutch superstar knows Pogačar will be a factor in his Flanders debut Sunday.

“I didn’t know what was happening with Pogačar, but it was impossible to come back to our group. We were seven or eight really strong riders. I immediately knew the race was done there,” van der Poel said.

When it crackled on race radio that Pogačar was trying to bridge across, the riders at the front only stepped on the gas. Everyone knew their chances to win would greatly be enhanced if Pogačar wasn’t there.

“For sure he had the legs to follow, maybe he was a bit too far behind,” van der Poel said. “It was impossible to come back because were pacing all fast in the group and everyone took their role. It was impossible to catch us. I don’t know what went wrong if it was placing or what happened, but for sure, if he is in the front, he is on our group.”

By racing this week, the Slovenian is doing something no modern grand tour champion has done in decades.

Pogačar is turning back the page by even showing up at these northern classics, and he’s rewriting the tried-and-true GC blueprint on how to approach the Tour de France. It’s not all high-altitude training camps and peaking for July with Pogačar. He races to win every time he shows up.

“I learned a lot. Already in the first hour, there were a lot of attacks for the regional breakaway and I already got the feeling that it’s going to be chaotic until the final, and it was,” Pogačar said. “For sure it’s going to be like that on Sunday even more.”

Even if he missed the winning move, Pogačar also reminded everyone yet again that he races to win every time he toes up to the line. After missing the winning move, he tried a searing solo attack to bridge across. When that didn’t work, he linked up with some other riders in another bridge effort that fell short.

He risked a lot Wednesday, and he will risk even more Sunday. Flanders is the real deal, a race so challenging that it puts everyone in their place.

On Wednesday, a rare tactical hiccup might have cost him the chance for victory. On Sunday, with more than six hours of racing and 272km, there’s no place to hide.

Even on his “bad” day, Pogačar finished 10th on Wednesday. Class still bubbles to the top no matter what.