Tadej Pogačar goes solo with 50km to go. Nobody could or would follow and this was the moment the race was won.
Even before a pedal was turned many riders didn’t start. Egan Bernal was watching on TV at home, Wout van Aert probably from a hotel outside Paris and perhaps Mathieu van der Poel at a simulated 3,000m inside a hotel room in Spain. Of those who’d intended to race here several were ruled out by a stomach bug, think past podium placer Romain Bardet and likely contender Tom Pidcock.
An early break went and the race had a classic feel to it. Until suddenly as they crossed a ridge and the wind was gusting. Riders began to struggle to hold position and then a stronger blast pushed several riders across the road with Julian Alaphilippe somersaulting over the bars, a rainbow blur and many others were on the ground nursing bad injuries. Alaphilippe would get back but it cost Quick-Step team mates but their team was spared. Alpecin-Fenix lost Michael Gogl, Jumbo-Visma lost Tiesj Benoot.
Add in the crash damage of Alaphilippe and Gogl and for the anecdote and all six of riders who finished ahead of Pogačar last year hadn’t start or were now ruled out. Not that Pogačar was up against a lightweight field but objectively this had to help; we should note he was caught in the crash too.
But going solo? It briefly looked incongruous, like he’d gone too soon. Sure make a move but take some riders with you and either attack or outsprint them later, but solo? Off he went, early on the Monte Sante Marie section of sterrato, the longest portion in the race. The clue that he was all in was Carlos Rodriguez, the Spanish ace was trying to bridge across but couldn’t make it; tactically Pogačar could have linked up with him to share the work but no, all in and solo.
Eddy Merckx in his pomp looked potent, all cheekbones and sideburns; Bernard Hinault had that snarling menace about him. Pogačar? A cherub with tufts of hair poking out of his helmet who you half expected him to pull a Kinder Bueno out of his back pocket rather than a gel. Yet here he was riding away solo.
The chase group look beaten for a good while despite its size. Movistar and Lotto-Soudal did some work but it wasn’t a full pursuit, this kept the gap between a minute and 90 seconds and rival squads didn’t have plenty of riders to deploy in the chase. With Rodriguez eventually reeled in after a big effort, a solid chase group formed behind with Quinn Simmons, Jhonatan Narvaez, Kasper Asgreen, Alejandro Valverde and Tim Wellens.
Wellens had a go solo but Asgreen seemed the most persistent and eventually it was just him and Valverde left after the final Tolfe section of dirt roads and in the finish Valverde rode away to take second place, his best result in the race after two third places and other top-10s.
Shades of Paris-Roubaix with Fabian Cancellara in 2010 and Tom Boonen in 2012 as with 50km to go the winning move had gone, a solo rider was clear and the suspense dried up in the final hour. But they did those moves in their favourite race, seeing Pogačar pick of another one day race shows more range, nobody else from Jebel Hafeet last week or any of his rivals in this summer’s Tour would try such a thing and if Pello Bilbao, third on that summith finish was a creditable fifth today, it was down to economy more than extravagance.
Like the Coppi-Merckx-Hinault eras this was impressive to record but not thrilling to watch in the moment. Still there was the scenery to enjoy is always pleasant although if you thought it looked nice, visit between May and October when it’s ten times better. Plus the gap did go down towards the end, Asgreen’s chase did at one point raise the possibility of Pogačar coming back but the feeling was fleeting and there was a big contest for the other places.
Pogačar was so far ahead wiser heads were asking what races Pogačar can’t win? That list has to be brief, the Scheldeprijs for example. Races that trumpet his presence might come to regret it if today’s modus operandi becomes a fixture. But that’s unlikely, let’s remember he’s in top condition at a time when most don’t want to be. The UAE Tour is so important for his team that it’s a peak when for many other stage racers it’s a test or even a training camp; and for all the classics riders they want to be in top form a month from now and not today. Good luck to those trying to beat Pogačar in Tirreno-Adriatico next week… and on the Poggio too? It’ll be interesting to see if UAE keep kicking sand into the faces of Jumbo-Visma, Ineos and Quick-Step in Paris-Nice too.