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The Dramatic Development of Tour of Flanders

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Perhaps the most surprising takeaway from Sunday’s dramatic Tour of Flanders is that two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar is not perfect. In fact, he still has a lot to learn about road racing, especially strategy over the last kilometre of a race. Because his beginner’s mistake in the final 500 m of the race not only cost him the victory but a place on the podium as well.

Following an intriguing mano a mano over the final 20 km between the 23-year-old UAE Team Emirates leader and the eventual winner, Alpecin–Fenix’s multi-discipline star Mathieu van der Poel, the two found themselves 30 seconds ahead of the pursuing pair of Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) and Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ), with just 500 m to the finish.

Riding in the lead, van der Poel slowed, inviting Pogačar to take the initiative. But the Slovenian rider declined and the two barely advanced as they continued to play “cat and mouse” while van Baarle, a Dutchman, and Madouas, of France, bore down on them and caught up. That inspired van der Poel to begin his sprint as van Baarle and Madouas, both already in sprint mode, swooped past, leaving Pogačar to start his sprint late. By the time he caught up, there were less than 200 m to go and no way through or past the three riders in front of him.

Van der Poel was the strongest at the end, edging out van Baarle and Madouas in that order for his second victory in the race, with a visibly frustrated Pogačar finishing a disappointing fourth in his Tour of Flanders debut. Well after the race, he was spotted by a TV camera expressing his frustration to others. It was clear that he had desperately wanted to win the race. “I was really disappointed because I couldn’t do my sprint. I was boxed in,” the Slovenian told Eurosport after he had calmed down. “But that’s cycling: sometimes you’re boxed in, sometimes you have an open road. I was not mad [at] anyone; it may have seemed like this but I was just frustrated with myself because I couldn’t do the best 100 m to the finish.” Van der Poel told Eurosport that Pogačar, “was really impressive today. It was a bit of shame he was not on the podium today because he would have deserved it.”

The Dutchman’s experience in the final sprint of this race was no doubt a factor in his win. “It’s the third year I’ve been going into the final kilometre with one other guy,” he said. “It’s always a poker game. It’s normal, no one is going to go full gas in the last km with someone on their wheel.”

Pogačar had tried mightily to shake van der Poel on the climbs that featured in the last 20 km of the race but the Dutchman stubbornly clung to his back wheel. “It hurt every time that he accelerated,” the van der Poel admitted. “I tried to rest as much as possible when I had the chance. Tadej was incredibly strong. I was at my limit.” Van der Poel’s victory – his second in the last three years in the Tour of Flanders – was all the more impressive in that it was just his eighth race day this season after a long pause due to a back injury. “I worked so very hard for this one,” he said.

Pogačar was also hampered by the loss of his power metre in a crash about 20 km into the race. But he said that was not a factor in the outcome. “In the end, maybe it was better without the numbers,” he said. “It wouldn’t have changed anything [if he’d had it].” The outcome was no doubt affected by the absence of the pre-race favourite, Wout van Aert, who had tested positive for Covid just a few days before the start.