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First, we have to praise what went right, and for the majority of Sunday’s epic edition of the Tour of Flanders, the debutant Tadej Pogačar was within touching distance of flawlessness. There was a small crash in the opening kilometers, but such episodes can happen to any rider, and when the race began to open up inside the final 80km, the Slovenian was constantly on the front foot and dictating the proceedings.
The youngster had clearly learned his lesson from Dwars door Vlaanderen when it came to timing, and that Flanders is a challenge best raced with an aggressive mindset. Pogačar’s assaults on the Koppenberg and the final two ascents of the Kwaremont forged the key moves of the race. Everything else, from the early break dominated by Trek, Jumbo-Visma, and Quick-Step, was shown to be filler once Pogačar started to race.
An inability to distance van der Poel can’t be labeled as a criticism — the Dutchman has won two of the last three editions of the race and finished second on the other occasion. However, where Pogačar’s execution can be examined is his actions in the final kilometer.
Not taking a final pull on the front with just less than 1,000m to go was never going to determine Pogačar’s eventual fate, but it did start a chain reaction that the Slovenian failed to understand, and ultimately reverse.
Pogačar’s best hope of winning against van der Poel was always going to be via a long and drawn-out sprint against the Alpecin rider. The shorter the sprint, the greater the chances of van der Poel winning through his natural raw power. Pogačar’s best window for victory was with around 250-300m to go, just before van Baarle and Maduous linked up with the leading pair. Had Pogačar accelerated just before the junction had been made, he could have possibly edged van der Poel. However, as soon as he let the chasers back into the fold, the sprint became far more complicated and Pogačar went from racing for second at worst, to an ill-fated fourth.
Van Baarle and Maduous both had momentum in the final straight, and the initial gap created by van der Poel indicated that victory was destined to be his. Yet when Maduous intelligently went for barriers, and van Baarle flicked to the opposite side, Pogačar became swamped and boxed in.
Even when van Baarle made his move there was still time for Pogačar to rescue a podium spot. The right choice would have been to change his line dramatically, even if it meant feathering the brakes, and then deviating to the wide space of road on the far left. However, as soon as he took his hands off the bars he was going to finish fourth.
Call it arm-chair tactics if you will, but this is what Robbie McEwen — one of the best sprinters of the 1990s and 2000s — had to say about it.
“He got himself so squeezed in between the two but he really did make a, what you’d have to call, with all due respect to Tadej Pogačar, a junior error coming into a sprint like that. You just can’t afford to let riders come back with momentum like that. He did it to himself, I’m sorry to say. It’s another learning experience, maybe dropping back out of University and back to primary school when it comes back to a sprint for the finish.”
Robbie knows best.
Van der Poel will only get better
Despite the fact that the Tour of Flanders was just his eighth day of competition this year, van der Poel has reached the near peak of his powers. In fact, one could easily argue that this is the best version of the Dutchman we’ve ever seen. Not only does he possess the physical ability of a rider at the top of his career, but he’s also racing with such a high level of maturity. He won his second edition of Flanders through brains and brawn, and several key moments stood out.
The first was that he didn’t appear to panic when Pogačar attempted to blow the race apart on the Kwaremont with 55km to go. Kasper Asgreen, the rider who beat van der Poel in a two-man sprint in 2021, blew his engine trying to follow the UAE Team Emirates rider. Van der Poel’s positioning when Pogačar took off on that first attack appeared suspect, but the Dutchman paced himself back to the front, and never let Pogačar out of his sight from that moment on. He matched Pogačar on the Koppenberg, and but for a split-second wobble on the Paterberg, was able to hold firm whenever the Slovenian pushed on the pedals.
The majority of the discussion around the sprint finish will naturally focus on how Pogačar lost the race. That’s fair — the cycling world has rarely seen the young rider make a mistake, so eking out that fact will fill pages of discussion until Pogačar’s ‘has his revenge’ — assuming that’s how sections of the media phrase it. However, all of that overshadows just how well van der Poel raced. He was present for all the key moves, he was the only rider able to follow the best climber in the race, and then he made Pogačar — McEwen’s words, not ours — look like a junior in the sprint finish. Yes, Pogačar flubbed his lines, but it was van der Poel who wrote and delivered that script in the final 1,000m.
Jumbo-Visma unraveled by relentless racing
The Dutch outfit remained a major threat coming into the race, even with the loss of Wout van Aert from their roster. Teisj Benoot and Christophe Laporte had been in barnstorming form since the start of the year, but after COVID-19 took out their principal weapon there was always a question around Benoot’s and Laporte’s credentials. One of them had just two wins to his name, while the other was a decent but unprolific sprinter just a few months ago. Yes, Benoot had won Strade Bianche but there’s a massive difference between 200km in early March, and the nearly 300km on some of the most unforgiving terrain that cycling has to offer. If there wasn’t a significant difference then, Benoot — as good as he is — would have won more races by now.
Laporte’s crash late in the race certainly had an impact in Flanders, but so too did sending both Nathan Van Hooydonck and Mick Van Dijke up the road in a break. It effectively isolated their two leaders after Affini had burned himself out. Laporte came back and snatched a respectable ninth, while Benoot battled to 13th. This was far from a disaster but the two riders found themselves on the back foot for most of the final two hours of racing and never looked like being major players once the Pogačar started blowing up the race on the second ascent of the Kwaremont. Jumbo-Visma were always chasing and eventually that left them empty-handed.
This has still been a hugely impressive spring for Jumbo-Visma, and if van Aert can regain his health for Paris-Roubaix then they’ll be the team to beat yet again.
Quick-Step’s woes continue
This has been an abysmal campaign for Patrick Lefevere’s team, with Fabio Jakobsen’s win in Kuurne papering over the cracks. Illness has been the go-to excuse for the Belgian squad but every unit in the WorldTour has suffered on that basis. One team boss told VeloNews on Sunday night that both of his entire rosters at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico had come down with the bugs that have ravaged the European peloton this spring.
If Bahrain-Victorious and Groupama-FDJ — two squads that looked weaker on paper than QuickStep coming into this main block of racing — can animate a major race then why not Belgium’s number one team? The fact is that several teams have stepped up in terms of their recruitment, while Lefevere’s team has spread themselves too thin as they build around Alaphilippe and Evenepoel. The team hasn’t bolstered their classics core in a number of years, and the likes of Zdeněk Štybar and Yves Lampaert have stagnated, either through age or a lack of form. It all means that if Kasper Asgreen is off-color there isn’t anyone to step up. The results provide irrefutable answers with their best result through Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and Flanders coming through Jannik Steimle’s 14th place in Wevelgem. That’s not good enough for a team of such classic pedigree.
What will frustrate the management most of all is that despite Asgreen’s clear lack of top-condition, no one else managed to fill the void, and the collective strength that was the mark of this team has been replaced by a collective sense of disappointment.
This is not a bad team, far from it, in fact. They have still won a remarkable 17 races this year, and they could still better their 60-plus tally from 2021. However, the spring classics have been a write-off thus far. It’s perhaps a blessing that Paris-Roubaix has been moved a week later but at this point, it’s still difficult to see where the turnaround will come and who can instigate it.
New faces on the road and in the commentary box
Van der Poel and Pogacar going head-to-head wasn’t a massive surprise but there were a number of stand-out performances from a strong supporting cast.
Valentin Maduous has been one of the revelations of the cobbles campaign with the 25-year-old Frenchman epitomizing Groupama-FDJ’s ever-improving classics squad. Maduous was present in every key move and was the last rider to crack when Pogačar made his final acceleration on the last ascent of the Kwaremont. Marc Madiot’s man raced impeccably and even when he was distanced he still had the sense and grit to work with van Baarle in limiting their loses. Had they not done that then the fight for the final step on the podium would have come down to a two-up sprint rather than the pulsating four-man effort. Along with Stefan Küng, Olivier Le Gac, and Kevin Geniets the team has a formidable unit heading it Paris-Roubaix.
Fred Wright also deserves high praise for his spirited effort. The British rider and his teammates were at the front when it mattered most with several key attacks in the final 45km. Wright was re-signed by Bahrain-Victorious over the winter and through the demonstration he provided on Sunday, it was a wise decision.
Van Baarle is no spring chicken at 29, but he came back from a double mechanical and still secured second. He has looked very consistent over the spring and could well pull off another major result as the spring opens up.
Finally, a word on Robbie McEwen. The Australian was let go over the winter by a home broadcaster, but has made an instant impression at Eurosport over the last few weeks. It’s’ not just his expert knowledge of the Belgian roads and culture, but just the way he can explain the race situation to both newcomers and more educated fans without alienating or confusing either group. He naturally compliments whoever he’s in the commentary booth with, and should be invited back throughout the rest of the spring and at the grand tours.