A Belgian pact, Pogačar’s perfect Sunday, and Alaphilippe’s appetite for pain

The top contenders desire a mano a mano contest for the rainbow jersey.

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Tadej Pogačar slides into view and sits on the right of three seats facing the press. Jan Tratnik follows him in, quietly whispering to his team leader that maybe he should move up to the middle seat, as is customary at these things.

Pogačar obliges, he shuffles along one seat in his Slovenian tracksuit and crisp white baseball hat. He takes a sip of water. The boy king, whose crown momentarily slipped this summer, remains as humble as ever.

A less natural humility has been instilled in the rival Belgian camp, with Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel realising they have little chance of beating the likes of the Slovenian and Mathieu van der Poel should they continue to squabble at these international meetings where they adorn the same jersey. At their pre-race press conference, Van Aert jokes that he and Evenepoel have said their marriage vows and agreed to ride together in search of the rainbow jersey, no matter whose shoulders it ends up on.

Like the Belgians, Pogačar hopes the race evolves attritionally, numbers whittled down until only a few remain. “That would be the perfect scenario to bring a good result,” Pogačar imagines. “We all think about the gold medal, a perfect result comes from a perfect day. We need to wait until Sunday and see how the race goes and hope for the best. We are capable of doing things, it will be an interesting race.”

A mouthwatering prospect with this quartet of Belgians, Pogačar and Van der Poel.

Then there’s Julian Alaphilippe, the two-time reigning champion. Not quite at 100% after his Vuelta a España crash, the Frenchman has played down his own chances, saying he is not the leader, but one of a few leaders in Thomas Voeckler’s stacked squad.

And it is the strength of the European heartlands that Pogačar feels has removed any pressure from his and his teammate’s shoulders. After all, they will number only six on the roads of Wollongong on Sunday, missing the likes of Primož Roglič and Matej Mohorič.

“If we are under pressure I don’t know,” Pogačar admits, unruffled as ever. “For sure we are down to six guys already and Belgium, France, Italy, Netherlands, Great Britain, they have more guys than us and a strong team so maybe the pressure is on them. We still think we are one of the strongest teams here, we can do as good as the bigger nations for the medals.”

The two-time Tour de France winner, and recent vanquisher of Van Aert in the sprint at the GP de Montréal, laughs when asked what exactly his tactics will be in the road race.

“You will have to wait and see on Sunday what we do, it’s racing,” an eyebrow is raised. “We need to do our own thing, of course we don’t say what we will do as that doesn’t make sense. We will look more at ourselves than others, we will try to do our own race.”

Van Aert’s teammate Evenepoel says he feels better than he did a week ago, having spent a lot of energy claiming a first Grand Tour general classification in Spain, but you get the sense that his red jersey may have quietened his ambition, at least for a few weeks, allowing his elder teammate to finally trade in his silver Worlds medals for a gold one.

“I know Wout’s abilities, he knows mine,” Evenepoel says. “We can work together perfectly in the final of a tough match. I agree with Wout. Stay together as long as possible and don’t waste stupid forces. Mount Pleasant may not be the toughest climb, but it’s a long course. And it’s a World Championship, so you can always ride faster.”

A mantra that has delivered Alaphilippe the rainbow jersey for the past two years and while he has had a season to forget, saying he had to stop himself from putting his bike in the garage and hibernating until 2023, his rivals will heed the warning that the Frenchman is willing to suffer in pursuit of what would be an awe-inspiring third straight title.

“I am not one hundred percent, but I am willing to hurt myself and give the best of myself for the team,” Alaphilippe promises. “We have the right profile in the team for this gruelling course, although we may be less favoured than in the past years. In the Vuelta, I felt that my condition was getting better and better. Until I lay on the ground…”

Between the course and the top favourites who will be on the start line, the only guarantee is that there will likely be numerous riders lying on the ground come the finish line on Sunday.

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