The world champion looked to be on the way to victory with a strong acceleration only for the Tour de France champion to kick from off his wheel to win by half a wheel.
David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) crossed the line third.
“I’m without words. I love this race, and to win like this against those names is incredible,” Pogačar said after the race.
When asked if he was “the king of cycling,” Pogačar countered, “I don’t know about that … but I am living cycling dreams.”
Pogačar could not race Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday after a COVID-positive in the team bubble. The UAE-Emirates team was cleared to race Friday night, giving Pogačar the opportunity to better his third place at last year’s race and win his first monument.
“We were really disappointed we could not start Flèche because we had really good riders for the race, it would have been a good opportunity,” Pogačar said. “We were really motivated for today, so we’re really happy it went like this. Now, time with family and rest. The restart and prepare for the Tour de France.”
The final five that contested the sprint had gone clear after a searing attack from Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) at around 14-kilometers to go on the final climb of the race.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), racing on his 41st birthday, was forced into leading out the sprint going into the final kilometer. Woods moved first before Alaphilippe came up from fourth-wheel with a stinging surge. However, Pogačar chose the perfect wheel to follow and came around the Frenchman in the final 50 meters to snatch victory from beneath his nose, scoring a narrow win.
“I knew Alaphilippe would go longer, so I stayed behind him and I was just lucky in the end that it was a good wind for me because I was coming with speed,” Pogačar said. “It’s unbelievable.”
The result will make for a grim deja vu for Alaphilippe, who lost out on victory at last fall’s Liège after his wayward sprint and early celebration saw him finish fifth.
Defending champion Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) couldn’t match the pace when the race lit up on the Roche aux Faucons climb and led a strong chase group, but never made it back into contention.
Early moves start on the Stockeu
Astana-Premier Tech started the early attacks at 80km to go with a pair of riders hitting out over the Côte de Stockeu only to be pulled back. Veterans Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) and Greg Van Avermaet were next to try short attacks.
Another wave of moves over the long Rosier climb saw a trio go off in pursuit of the day’s early breakway of seven, with Mark Padun (Bahrain Victorious), Mark Donovan (Team DSM) and Harm Vanhoucke (Lotto Soudal) chasing down the early escapees.
Ineos Grenadiers play the numbers but miss the selection, Roglič dropped
After Deceuninick-Quick-Step had done much of the controlling all day, Tao Geoghegan Hart and three of his Ineos Grenadiers cohorts cranked the tempo in the bunch over the climb of the Redoute, reeling in scattered riders from the day’s early attacks.
Ineos kept numbers on the front through to the Côte des Forges at 25km to go before Geoghegan Hart, Richard Carapaz and Adam Yates again surged to pull clear a strong selection of around 10.
Carapaz attacked soon after the front group came together and went away solo. The Ecuadorian built a strong gap but was caught on the final climb of the Roche-aux-Faucons as Deceuninck-Quick-Step and UAE-Team Emirates cranked up the pace.
The winning selection was made at the top of the steep climb. Woods put in a searing turn of pace on a tough ramp with Pogačar, Alaphilippe, Valverde and Gaudu countering. The fivesome initially dangled just seconds ahead of the bunch, but Gaudu and Alaphilippe picked up the pulling to make the escape stick.
Roglič struggled to respond to the acceleration as two UAE-Team Emirates riders sat on his wheel.
The Jumbo-Visma leader put the motor into the chase, but with the attack group of five working together well and UAE Emirates disrupting the chase for Pogačar, the defending champ saw his chances dashed, finishing 13th.