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Understanding the audacity of Tadej Pogačar’s decision to race Tour of Flanders

Tour de Hoody: Slovenian superstar could become first Tour de France winner since Eddy Merckx to win De Ronde if he delivers Sunday.

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WAREGEM, Belgium (VN) — The presence of Tadej Pogačar at the start line Sunday at Tour of Flanders represents more than rewriting the script for modern elite men’s road racing.

The two-time Tour de France winner is at once a throwback to cycling’s golden age, and the latest incarnation of what racing this decade will look like.

The 23-year-old is at the leading edge of a new generation of multi-dimensional racers who don’t peak for select races or specialize in only one facet of the sport.

Instead, the UAE Emirates star’s decision to race Flanders represents the latest confirmation of what the likes of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Tom Pidcock have been proving over the past few seasons.

This is the dawn of a new era, when racers line up to win every race they start, and do it across specialties, and the entire racing calendar — and even across disciplines.

“Tadej is special. He is a rider who can win everything,” said UAE Emirates sport director Fabio Baldato. “He’s won Strade Bianche, Lombardia, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. So of course he can win Sunday. He’s got the head and the legs to win.”

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What makes Pogačar’s decision to race the Tour of Flanders even more remarkable is how matter-of-factly he’s taking on one of the most feared and challenging races on the entire WorldTour calendar.

De Ronde’s bumps, bergs, cobbles, weather, distance, and intensity make it among the hardest races of the year. Only Paris-Roubaix can out-rattle the demands of Flanders.

Pogačar shrugs it off with natural nonchalance with the same ease he flies up the Alps or the Pyrénées.

“Maybe I am a bit out of my comfort zone,” Pogačar said Friday. “It’s different racing, it’s more nervous, and I am not used to it. I really like it. It’s a new motivation for me, for sure. Flanders is one of the biggest races of the world, and I am happy to do it.”

First Tour de France winner in decades to take on classics challenge

Gianni Bugno, shown here in the 1995  Tour de France, is the last Tour podium finisher to win Flanders. (Photo: PASCAL PAVANI/AFP via Getty Images)

To understand Pogačar’s presence at Flanders it’s important to put it in perspective.

For decades, grand tour riders and especially confirmed Tour de France winners on a hot streak avoided racing the Belgian classics like the plague.

That’s no surprise.

In modern cycling, the Tour de France is what drives the sponsorship marketplace, fuels the media and fan interest, and represents the pinnacle of professional cycling.

When riders start reeling off yellow jerseys, sponsors, and sport directors won’t let their stars go anywhere near the Belgian classics.

A big champion might venture onto the cobbles near the tail-end of their careers in order to check off the professional bucket list, or ride in lesser races to get race-speed experience on pavé ahead of their inclusion in a Tour route.

Heightening the audacity of Pogačar’s presence Sunday is that he is starting his very first Tour of Flanders with every intention of winning. This isn’t some ego trip or a publicity stunt to make sponsors happy.

Pogačar reconned the Koppenberg and Paterberg under snowy conditions and cold Friday when he didn’t have to, unless he’s deadly serious about his intentions.

He’s here to win.

“It’s a new challenge for me and I am enjoying my days in Flanders,” Pogačar said Friday. “I will do my best and try to do everything I can to be at the front. With the shape I have now I think I can be. We will see.”

Those words sound like they’re spoken from someone with nothing to lose.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite with Pogačar.

As the two-time defending Tour champion, he could lose everything. One bad crash, one misjudged corner, or one lapse of judgment could send put in for a hard landing on the Belgian cobblestones.

That might mean weeks if not months before he can race again.

Also read: Tadej Pogacar and his first taste of the cobblestones

Yet when asked if the question of risk versus reward was worth it for Pogačar, Baldato insisted that racing Flanders is no more dangerous than the Tour de France.

He added one important caveat — if you’re strong enough to be at the front.

“If you’re at the front of the race, it’s the same as the Tour de France,” Baldato said. “If you’re in the front you avoid the problems. There is no race as dangerous as the Tour de France. You have to pay more attention here.

“I can see how excited he is to race and it’s a big motivation for the team to try to help him go for the win,” said Baldato, twice a runner-up at Flanders. “He wants a new challenge and he wants a new adventure. He is not just focused on one thing.”

Baldato is convinced that Pogačar could win Sunday. He cited UAE Team Emirates teammate Matteo Trentin as a key asset for his chances.

“Experience is also important here, and we are very lucky that he has Matteo Trentin by his side. He is like have a sport director inside the race,” Baldato said. “This race for Tadej is more about avoiding the problems. Every corner can be a danger to even get to the important part of the race.

“If the team can bring him to the last lap with 40km to go, if we can bring him there, he has the legs and power to go for the win.”

On Wednesday at Dwars door Vlaanderen, Pogačar said he was caught out behind a crash in the bunch when the decisive moves pulled clear. Despite two hard efforts to bridge across, he could only manage to finish in a chase group at two minutes back.

The effort still netted him 10th, a result that for some riders would be a spring highlight.

Tadej Pogačar is part of cycling’s new race-to-win ethos

Pogačar punched to fifth at Milan-San Remo last month. (Photo: Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

So far in his career, Pogačar is proving to be the master of all terrain. He can drop the peloton with 35km in the Alps and beat the world’s best time trialists against the clock. He’s not bad in a reduced bunch sprint and he goes the monument distance.

Local pundits gave him a four-star rating among favorites, the same as van der Poel, while Wout van Aert, who likely won’t race, was the only one to receive five stars.

“I don’t know if I am a favorite,” he said. “I would not put myself as a four-star favorite for Sunday. I will do my best and try everything I can to be at the front.”

Also read: Tom Pidcock is champing at bit for run at Tour of Flanders

Pogačar is clearly a rider apart.

He’s at the pinnacle of professional cycling, but he’s not content to put everything on the yellow jersey and settle for that.

He’s willing to roll the dice and try to win everything. Cycling hasn’t seen a racer with such ambition and such a broad skillset in decades. Racing bikes is not a business venture for Pogačar.

Unless you’re born in Flanders, it’s the Tour de France and the historic mystic of the yellow jersey that moves hearts and minds.

Like Mads Pedersen said Friday, he races the classics almost by default.

“The classics are great for me because I am not skinny enough to do the grand tours,” Trek-Segafredo’s Pedersen said Friday. “I have to go with the classics. As a kid, you’re dreaming of the Tour. I think everyone is. The Danes, we know the Tour and that’s our dream, and we quickly find out we are too heavy to do well in the Tour.”

Pogačar said Friday he never heard of the Tour of the Flanders or the Belgian classics until he was well into his junior racing days. It was the Tour de France, not the Tour of Flanders, that was broadcast live in Slovenia when he was growing up.

He’s a quick learner, and now fully realizes the importance and significance of De Ronde. He’s paying respect to the race and to racing’s legacy by being here this week.

Pogačar is that generational champion who has the natural engine, the innate ability to race a bike, and an instinctual yearning to be first across the finish line.

While it usually takes a racer decades to develop the skillset necessary to take on races as demanding and challenging as both the Tour and Flanders, Pogačar is born into it.

What Pogačar is doing Sunday is truly remarkable.

The last Tour winner to also win Flanders was, yep, you guessed it, Eddy Merckx, who the last of his three Flanders titles in 1975

The last Tour podium finisher to win Flanders was Gianni Bugno — twice on the Tour podium with second in 1991 and third in 1992 — who won Flanders in 1994. Since then, not one grand tour winner or podium finisher has finished in the top three at Flanders.

De Ronde has long been the stomping grounds of the classics specialists and big, brawny riders with more meat on the bone than the typical GC rider.

On Sunday, a remarkable racer from Slovenian might be adding his name to that list.