Tadej Pogačar at Dwars door Vlaanderen

Tadej Pogačar’s Flanders plan: Get to the final 40 km and then unleash hell

'Maybe I am out of my comfort zone,' says the Slovenian before his De Ronde debut.

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The Tour of Flanders wasn’t on television in Slovenia when Tadej Pogačar was growing up. “It wasn’t like Holy Week here in Belgium,” he says, sitting in a newly built hotel 30 minutes in the middle of nowhere south of Gent, sandwiched between a giant car park and soccer fields. The glamorous life of a double Tour de France winner.

This morning, as the snow was melting, UAE Team Emirates went out to ride the roads they will race on Sunday. It’s a race where experience is paramount, and the 23-year-old hopes to remember some of the corners and climbs in two days’ time, but confesses it’s a lot to take in before his debut De Ronde.

Inexperience aside, as that barely seemed to matter when he won the Tour on his first try two years ago, there are a few big questions for Tadej Pogačar. Firstly, why is he here in the first place? It’s rare that reigning Tour de France champions are found competing on the Flanders cobbles.

“Why? I don’t know,” Pogačar puts it plainly. “We decided back in December to ride it and I’m pretty happy to be here. They’re hard climbs with the cobbles but that’s not everything in this race. It’s all the roads, all the corners, everything. You need to be really careful for all of it. I think today I saw roughly how it should be on Sunday.”

The phrase that keeps coming up during his press conference is how Flanders is a new challenge for him, a race and environment he hasn’t properly experienced before. He did race the U23 edition once, finishing 15th, his memories of that day being mostly of cramp and it being hot. When you’ve won all you already have at his age, keeping it fun and interesting is important.

Tadej Pogačar on his Tour of Flanders recon

And it will be fun, in a way. The cobbles of Belgium are a stage for the unexpected to occur. A crash at Dwars door Vlaanderen earlier in the week gave him a taste of how your chances of victory can slip at a moment’s notice, with Pogačar then having to fight back just to secure a 10th-place finish. That’s what concerns him most. To be caught out of position at a point when the race then disappears up the road without him.

“Waregem was just one moment, a crash next to him, losing fifty positions and then the race went. It’s a scene we need to avoid. He had the legs and the mind to do it,” his sports director Fabio Bataldo explains. “We can see from the first recon in Waregem he’s excited. He wants to have a new challenge, go for new adventures. He’s not just focused on one thing. He really likes all cycling from the Belgian Classics to the Tour.”

“He’s ready to go and it’s more about avoiding problems. Every corner, every small road, he just needs to go through to get to the important part. If as a team we can bring him to the last 40km his legs and his talent will be there.”

And there it is. For all of the understated humility we’ve come to expect from the Slovenian boy king, how he wouldn’t describe himself as a four-star favourite as the Belgian newspapers have, there is the plan from the mouth of UAE Team Emirates itself. Deliver him safely to the finale and then watch him explode the race.

“Maybe I am out of my comfort zone,” continues Pogačar, coy as ever. “It’s different racing, it’s more nervous, and yeah I’m not used to it yet but I really like it. It’s motivation for me.”

For his competitors, motivation is the last thing Tadej Pogačar needs.

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