Simply unstoppable: Clinical Pogačar is a master of the Monuments

With all the talk of a tussle with Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogačar made like work of the entire peloton to take a sixth Monument victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège

In a spring characterised by one-sided performances and crushing victories, there was a sense that Liège-Bastogne-Liège might be different. It was billed as a heavyweight contest between the two outstanding riders of the season so far, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), at last going head-to-head having obliterated the rest of the opposition throughout their respective programs this spring. Van der Poel had been unstoppable on the cobblestones, winning a hat-trick of Classics at Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, while Pogačar was on a stunning run of winning on five of his nine race days this year, triumphing at the Strade Bianche classic and claiming four stages and the GC at Volta a Catalunya.

Both have looked unstoppable, but at Liège-Bastogne-Liège there could only be one winner. The question was: who would it be?

The answer turned out to be a lot clearer, and decided a lot earlier, than those hoping for a competitive showdown had hoped. Pogačar put his UAE Team Emirates domestiques to work throughout the day to make it a hard race, then followed the template set by Remco Evenepoel the past two years by attacking on the Côte de la Redoute. Then having successfully opened up a gap, he soloed the remaining 35km to victory in a manner we’ve already seen so many times this season, his gap getting bigger and bigger despite the efforts of the chasers behind him. It was a victory even more dominant than Evenepoel’s, bettering the Belgian’s winning margins of 1:06 and 48 seconds by finishing a huge 1:39 ahead of surprise runner-up Romain Bardet (Team DSM-Firmenich-PostNL).

It was as one-sided a performance as any of the previous this spring. There was not even a single attack out of the peloton after the day’s break went clear in the morning, with none of the potential favourites trying something ambitious and unorthodox to put Pogačar under pressure. It was as if they were resigned to defeat even before Pogačar had made his inevitable attack, with the way UAE Team Emirates controlled the race only affirming their lack of hope. His final margin of victory wasn’t quite as high as the 2:44 he won Strade Bianche by earlier this spring, but it was the biggest this race has seen since Bernard Hinault’s epic at the 1980 edition, 44 years ago. And Hinault is one of the star riders Pogačar, for whom this was a sixth career Monument victory, passes on the all-time list. What the race lacked in excitement, it at least made up for with history. 

While the distance in terms of time between Pogačar and Van der Poel was substantial today, with the Dutchman arriving at the line in a group a whole 2:02 later, only two places in the rankings separated them. The Dutchman was part of a large 25-man group that made it to the line together behind Bardet (who rode an exceptional race to slip clear in the finale, claiming his highest ever finish at a Monument), and managed to win the sprint to take third place. 

Yet at no point in the race did he look mounting a serious challenge to Pogačar. Whereas Van der Poel has been an intimidating presence all spring, carrying an aura of invincibility with him, today he was always on the back foot. In fact, early in the race it appeared as though he might have been taken out of contention already, when he was caught on the wrong side of a crash and found himself in a group over a minute behind the peloton. It was reminiscent of his early days racing on the road, when he’d often miss out on wins, or making winning far more complicated than it ought to have been, through bad positioning, and something he’s been so impressive in avoiding in recent years.

Van der Poel kept a clear head while this was happening, and rode sensibly, holding back and patiently waiting for his teammates to gradually pace him back into the peloton; unlike others caught out such as Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) who attacked and put their nose to the wind in pursuit, and appeared to pay for it later. This conservative racing was his approach all day, and unusually for Van der Poel, he didn’t actually launch a single attack all day. It was as though he believed his only chance of winning a race with so much climbing in it was to hold back and preserve as much energy as possible, relying instead on his fast finish rather than his explosive attacks. And the way the race panned out justified his approach; despite being dropped on the Redoute, lacking the legs to follow the purer climbers, he later managed to make his way back into the main chase group, and had enough left in reserve to win the sprint for third place. 

His problem was of course the presence of Pogačar, and such conservative tactics were always unlikely to get the better of the Slovenian in this kind of form on this kind of terrain. In reality Van der Poel was always up against it today, as this kind of hilly parcours that is Pogačar’s bread and butter the same way that the cobblestones are for Van der Poel. Winning today would have been a coup to match Pogačar’s win over Van der Poel at the Tour of Flanders last year, a result that remains the only time one has managed to get the better of the other away from their usual comfort zone. 

Today’s result sees Pogačar draw level with Van der Poel on six Monuments each, and deepen a rivalry that is coming to define the sport even more than that between Van der Poel and Wout van Aert and Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard at the Tour de France. Astonishingly, the pair now account for eight of the last 10 Monument victories, and, going back further, 11 of the last 16. There’s barely a major one-day race that exists now in which they aren’t among the top favourites for — and so we wait with bated breath for their next expected meeting at the Olympic Games later this year.

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