For the winner, the way he won was irrelevant and, as he told Eurosport after the finish, had always been the plan. The essential was to win. “You don’t get bored of crossing the line first,” he said. “I really enjoy that.” The UAE Team Emirates leader has had a great deal of enjoyment this spring. He has now had 18 racing days this year and won 12 of them. As one commentator noted, he is a “Merckxist athlete.”
In a way, the 24-year-old Slovenian was not only battling a strong field of riders, he was also racing against history. Because since 2004, the race has ended every year with a large group of riders contesting that final uphill sprint, with victory decided, as it was again this year, towards the end of the final climb, the legendary Mur de Huy, an ascent of 1.3 km with an average gradient of 9.6% with a maximum slope of almost 20%. In the end, both Pogačar and history won.
That history also did not stop a group of eight riders from breaking away from the peloton just after the start of the race. They built up a lead of 3 min 50 sec before UAE Team Emirates accelerated the bunch to slowly reel them in. But with 55 km to go, Soren Kragh Andersen (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Jacob Hindsgaul (Uno-X) and Georg Zimmerman (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert) attacked from the break. Hindsgaul was soon dropped, and with 50 km to go, Kragh Andersen and Zimmerman had a lead of 1 min 30 sec over the peloton.
The lead dropped slightly but remained constant until after the second of three ascents of the Mur de Huy, when Samuele Battistella (Astana-Qazaqstan) and Louis Vervaeke (Soudal–QuickStep) broke out of the peloton, as the gap to the two leaders gradually diminished. When Vervaeke and Battistella joined Kragh Andersen and Zimmerman at the front with 31 km to go, the peloton was a mere 19 seconds behind.
At the base of the Mur de Huy, Vervaeke still had a small lead over the peloton, which numbered about 80 riders, but he was soon caught. As the slope grew more difficult, several riders – including Michael Woods (Israel– Premier Tech) and Romain Bardet (Team DSM) – attempted to put distance between themselves and Pogačar, who was content to remain in the saddle until his time came. When his time came, no one could resist him. Mattias Skjelmose (Trek-Segafredo) came second and Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) finished third. Though Pogačar finished several meters ahead of them, after easing up, all three riders were given the same time of 4 h 27 min 53 sec.
Both also-rans were delighted with their performance. “I told Danish television I would be more than grateful with second place behind Tadej and that’s what happened,” Skjelmose said. “I was not close but closer than I thought I would be.” Landa said he was “super-happy” with his third place. “Someone has to be second or third, no?” he said. “The first of the mortals. It is what it is. [Pogačar] is superior, a super-good rider and it’s difficult to beat him.”
A visibly exhausted Pogačar said the race had been “super-hard,” adding: “I left it all on the [final] climb.” He said that he was inspired by the excellent work of his team, who were also praised by Skjelmose and Landa. “A few times I was watching the guys in front of me and thinking [that] I have to pull it off or all their work was for nothing,” Pogačar said. “Already [with] 20 km to go, or even with 50 km, it was really nervous, but the team did a great job keeping me in the front.”
On Sunday, he will try to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège and become only the third rider, after the late Davide Rebellin (2004) and Philippe Gilbert (2011) to win the Ardennes-week hattrick of the Amstel Gold-Flèche Wallonne-Liège. That task will be complicated by the addition of another rival, none other than the world road race champion, Remco Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick Step). Evenepoel has not raced since the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, nearly a month ago, while Pogačar has had two hard races in four days. It should be an interesting contest.