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Pello Bilbao on Tadej Pogačar: ‘You have to catch him out or surprise him’

A late-race puncture proved costly to the Basque climber at Strade Bianche, and he's hoping his luck turns this week at Tirreno-Adriatico.

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LIDO DI CAMAIORE, Italy (VN) — Tadej Pogačar is on such a tear that his rivals admit that he’s almost unbeatable.

The Slovenian star has won every race he’s started so far in 2022 — the overall at the UAE Tour and Saturday’s spectacular Strade Bianche — and he’s poised for another one at Tirreno-Adriatico.

His rivals are growing ever more exasperated on how to beat him, and say only bad luck or a mishap might be the only way.

“How to beat him, that’s complicated,” said Spain’s Pello Bilbao. “You have to catch them out or surprise him when they might not be paying attention because if not, when you’re mano-a-mano, and they can smell the finish line, and they’re in the closing kilometers, it’s incredibly complicated to try to win there.”

The Bahrain-Victorious star might be one of the few who could come close to matching Pogačar this week.

The 32-year-old Basque climber is also coming into 2022 in hot form, and he climbed onto the podium in third to Pogačar at the UAE Tour last month. Bilbao overcame a late puncture Saturday to hit fifth at Strade Bianche.

“To beat him is difficult, but everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “We have a strong team here and we will wait for that moment. We have a lot of cards to play, and let’s see if it works.”

Pogačar snatched the advantage Monday, and even though he was eight seconds slower than arch-rival Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) in the 13.9km time trial, he took nearly a half-minute or more out of all of the other major rivals.

Even Evenepoel said beating Pogačar this week won’t be easy.

“I don’t know if those eight seconds, they will not be enough probably,” Evenepoel said. “I think the only way or the only day that I can hope to beat him if he has a really bad day.

“Or that he didn’t recover from last Saturday, but he is such a strong and spectacular rider, he probably won’t have a bad day this week.”

Pello Bilbao: ‘Strade Bianche was absolutely brutal’

Pello Bilbao overname a late-race puncture to finish fifth at Strade Bianche. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Bilbao finished 1:10 behind stage-winner Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), and ceded 52 seconds to Pogačar on the first day. Not a great way to start the race, but Bilbao said he was still feeling the impacts of Strade Bianche.

“Strade Bianche was a race that was absolutely brutal, and I still do not feel like I am 100 percent recovered,” Bilbao said. “My time trial was not my best, but I tried to get through the next few stages to see if I feel better when it counts at the end of the week.”

Bilbao, who is targeting Itzulia Basque Country and the Giro d’Italia this year, rode an exceptional edition of Strade Bianche on Saturday.

He was caught up in the crash that took down world champion Julian Alaphilippe in such spectacular fashion, but was not seriously injured or ceded too much time.

Bilbao said he was patiently waiting as Pogačar was up the road in a daring solo move to play his counter-attack when bad luck struck right before a decisive moment of the race.

“I was involved there in the crash with Alaphilippe. I had some luck that I had a bit of margin and I could brake without falling too hard. I could get up pretty fast and keep pushing on.

“Later, I was on the wheel of Tim Wellens, and we went full-gas down a sector and on a bridge, right before the Sante Marie sector, I suffered a puncture on my front tire,” he said. “That cost me any chance to chase after Tadej, and it’s a shame, because I was waiting for that precise moment, and I knew it was going to be key.”

Bilbao swapped out bikes with teammate Jan Tratnik, and pushed on, eventually reeling in the likes of Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) on the final climb into Siena to just miss the podium with fifth.

Bilbao wonders what might have happened without the ill-timed puncture.

“With this puncture, it was impossible to do any better,” he said. “With the form I have right now, I hope to take advantage of it this week.”

Bilbao is hoping the luck turns, and it will be his turn to set the tone.