Three moments that mattered: A show of force, a bit of grit, and a rookie error
Pogačar was the strongest on the day, but tactics and sprint prowess won out.
Pogačar was the strongest on the day, but tactics and sprint prowess won out.
Boil down the chaos of any good bike race into its constituent parts and you end up with a few key moments. Some are tactical: a decision to attack, or follow, or pull through or not. Some are mental: the fortitude to put in three more hard pedal strokes, to hold the wheel when your body is screaming. Sunday’s men’s Tour of Flanders had both.
The race was defined by the talents of Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), who rode with an ease belying his rookie status at the race. “He was the strongest,” Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) said, right after beating the Tour de France champion. Yet the strongest didn’t win.
No major team was able to dictate its will upon the race. Groupama FDJ was the strongest collectively but lacked any single rider who could compare to Van der Poel and Pogačar, Quick-Step faced bad luck in Kasper Asgreen’s mechanical and never looked the force they once were, and Jumbo-Visma suffered crashes and the absence of Wout van Aert. The result was that Pogačar’s strength became the focal point of every favorite’s tactics. He was the eye of the storm.
Then he messed up. Not in any huge way, and victory was probably out of grasp anyway. But he ended off the podium, caught in the final meters. He made errors of judgement, positioning, and of pace into the finale and he paid the price.
He’d still be my Man of the Match, if cycling gave out such awards. It was a heck of a ride, and it seems all but guaranteed that he’ll add this Monument to his growing collection at some point in his career. He once again proved he’s the most versatile Grand Tour winner since the likes of Merckx and Hinault. But it wasn’t enough. And that’s why we love bike racing, right?
Tactically, three moments stood out. All three involve Pogačar in some way and the latter two add Van der Poel. Let’s have a look.
Pogačar learned much from his first real foray into the cobbled Classics at Dwars door Vlaanderen last week. He missed the key split there, which contained Van der Poel, due to poor positioning at a crucial moment, which left him stuck behind a crash. Multiple attempts to bridge all failed, and Pogačar said afterwards that the front group was simply “too strong” and too fast. The lesson: you can’t make up for mistakes in these races with brute force.
He was clearly determined not to let the same happen on the second run up the Kwaremont on Sunday, and then on the Koppenberg shortly after. With 55 km to go, the race truly kicked off with a tight string of climbs tightly spaced to cause a first decisive split. Pogačar entered the Kwaremont in second wheel in the main peloton, just a handful of seconds behind a medium-sized move that lacked any major favorites.
Then he punched it. The speed difference relative to the breakaway group he quickly passed was astonishing. “It was crazy what they did, proper crazy,” said Connor Swift, who had been in the move and watched both Pogačar and Asgreen fly past.
The move put every contender on notice, and put Jumbo-Visma on the back foot. Asgreen followed best. Van der Poel hesitated, riding 10 wheels back, a bit behind Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) and Stefan Kung (Groupama-FDJ). The surge to catch back up is visible in his power file, with a sustained period on the steepest part of the climb over 700 watts and peaks over 800 as he bridged just before he turned left onto the pavement. His race could have ended here, and Pogačar was the one pushing on.
Van der Poel made it across, as did Kung and Pidcock and other key riders.
The group was still too large for Pogačar’s liking, so he waited out the Paterberg (as much as one can, anyway) and then hit it again on the Koppenberg. The three climbs all fall within 25 minutes of each other on course. Three incredibly difficult, super-threshold efforts all packed together. Following Pog up the Koppenberg was one too many for all but two riders – Van der Poel and a flying Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ).
The race’s new dynamic was set.
The only point at which Van der Poel’s claim that Pogačar was the strongest in the race was actually visible came on the final pass up the Paterberg, the last climb of the day. And even then, other factors appeared to be at play.
Van der Poel made an uncharacteristic bobble about two-thirds of the way up the steep, rough sector. There’s a narrow, single-cobble-wide row of smoother surface on the right-hand side of the Paterberg and it looks like he made an attempt to hop on it, only to catch a tire on its edge. Such are the infinitesimal differences at the top of pro racing that the maneuver, and the grunt required to regain Pogačar’s wheel before the pavement (and rapid descent) over the top, seemed for a moment to be the end of his chances.
It clearly took everything Van der Poel had to regain that wheel. This was his moment, a couple seconds of pure grit and determination that save his race. His normal smooth style gave way to a jerky, shoulder-bobbing, hips-swaying attempt to get every available watt into the pedals. His Strava shows an average power of 649 watts for the 1:10 effort – not even in his top three Paterberg times, but not bad for having 260-something kilometers in the legs.
Tadej Pogačar is many things, but he is not a sprinter. He was always going to have a difficult time heading into Oudenaarde with Van der Poel as his sole companion. But Van der Poel has been beaten in this same scenario before, just last year in fact. Pogačar’s task wasn’t impossible.
Then he messed it up.
There’s an old saying in bike racing: When it doubt, lead it out. Whether or not this is actually good advice depends on a lot of factors, but more often than not, if you’re the lesser sprinter you are better off attempting to use brute force rather than out-accelerate someone with far more fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Pogačar’s first and most serious mistake was slotting into second wheel and letting Madouas and Dylan van Baarle catch them at all. It was this decision that sent him off the podium.
Robbie McEwan called it a “junior error,” speaking with VeloNews. “You just can’t afford to let riders come back with momentum like that. He did it to himself, I’m sorry to say.”
The two behind had nothing to lose. They closed fast, and at the end of 270 kilometers there was just no way Pogačar’s already-questionable sprint was going to bring him up to speed fast enough to hold them off. He got swamped, stuck, and ended up hardly being able to open his sprint at all.
This brings us to the second, smaller error. A minor detail but one that contributed to the failure to get up to speed. He was on the wrong side of Van der Poel.
When you lead out a sprint, you ride up near the barriers, left or right depending on wind direction, so that your opponent can only pass you on one side. You can just keep an eye on that side, know where they’re coming from, and you’re less likely to get jumped. Van der Poel did this. The wind was from the left, so he rode on the right. Anybody coming around would have to pass into the wind (and give him a bit of a draft, if it was a long sprint). Passing on the right was impossible because of the barriers.
Pogačar was off to the right of Van der Poel because he was trying to get the maximum draft – no error there. But he left it too long. And so when the sprint opened, the door on the right of Van der Poel closed (it was never really open) and Pogačar had to swing back and around. At this point Van Baarle and Madouas were swarming, left and right. The split second to get out of the draft and into the lane he should have been in all along was all it took for them to overtake.
Pogačar doesn’t anger easily. But he stormed past media after the finish, dropping straight down toward the team busses about a kilometer away. He was the strongest on the day. He probably knows it. But this is where Flanders and the Tour de France differ. He found that out the hard way.