Pogačar vs. van der Poel: Monumental Match-Up or Is There a Twist in the Tale?

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Sunday’s prestigious Monument, the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, is the last of the season’s Ardennes Classics and the oldest of them all as it will be celebrating its 110th birthday this year. So it’s only right that it will pit arguably the two best road racers on the planet against each other.

Both Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) have shown in past seasons, and especially this spring, that they are both capable of long, unsurpassable solo rides of 50 km and more. The Slovenian two-time Tour de France winner took this year’s Strade Bianche with an astonishing 81 km solo breakaway while van der Poel’s triumphant 60 km solo ride in Paris-Roubaix was every bit as dominant and impressive.

So, one possible scenario has the two superstars riding together for the final, say, 50 km of the 254.5 km race, with the victory decided on the last of the 11 classified short but steep climbs along the route, the legendary Côte de La Roche aux Faucons (1.3 km @ 10.1%, with ramps of 15%). In which case, Pogačar – who is the superior climber – looks to have the advantage.

Or van der Poel will surprise everyone with his newly acquired climbing chops and the race will come down to the final descent and short sprint to the finish line. In that case, the Dutch rider may have a slight edge from his rapid leadouts for teammate Jasper Philipsen.

There is a third, less likely scenario in which the two riders and their teams will be so preoccupied with the other that they will neutralise each other and allow someone like, say, Tom Pidcock of INEOS Grenadiers to steal the show. The 24-year-old Briton is in fine form, having scored an impressive win in last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race – ahead of van der Poel who was apparently not riding for the win – and did not lose much energy in Wednesday’s bitterly cold and rainy La Flèche Wallonne, as he and his entire team abandoned well before the finish.

But that seems unlikely, if only because Pogačar and van der Poel are simply stronger riders and they are both motivated by making their marks in cycling history books while Pidcock – ambitious as he is – is just trying to win races. The UAE Team Emirates leader and his Alpecin-Deceunick rival both want to become the fourth rider in history – after Eddy Merckx, Roger DeVlaeminck and Rik Van Looy – to win all five Monuments: the Milan–San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro de Lombardia.

Mathieu van der Poel
Van der Poel’s triumphant 60 km solo ride in Paris-Roubaix was dominant and impressive. © Profimedia

Pogačar lacks only Paris-Roubaix and Milan–San Remo for the quintuple. He appears to have all the tools and diverse skills to conquer those difficult one-day races and, at 25, has the time to do it. Van der Poel also lacks two races, the Liège and the Lombardia but he is 29 and may have only three or four years of top-level riding left. If he wants to win all five, then a victory this Sunday will bring him closer to his goal.

But more than anything, I believe, the two riders are motivated by the wish to beat the other and achieve some personal supremacy in one-day racing. Pogačar won the race in 2021 and a victory would give him six Monument wins, equaling van der Poel’s haul. And I think there is still a sting in his psyche from last year’s crash in the race, which hurt his chances in the Tour and more or less ruined the season for him.

The question is, with the memory of that crash perhaps still weighing on him and the Giro d’Italia just two weeks away, will he be riding a little more cautiously than usual? That’s hard to envisage just because the word caution does not seem to be in his personal dictionary. Pogačar is fresh, not having raced since the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya a month ago and looks to be in the best form of his life. In addition, with its 11 ascents, the race favours the climbers, and he is a better climber than van der Poel, which the Dutch rider acknowledged in comments after the Tour of Flanders.

In the Liège, Pogačar will “find a course that is made for [him],” he said. “It will be difficult… But the race still has to be run, [and] you never know what can happen.”

I think I know what will happen on Sunday: the race will be tense, dramatic and even thrilling, and Pogačar will win. A more important prediction is that made by my weather app, which says Sunday in Liège will be cool and mostly dry, with a high of 10°C, moderate winds with gusts of up to 24 kph and a chance of occasional showers in the afternoon. Not great but as we’ve seen this week, it could be much worse.