165 starters reduced to duel. The third time up the Paterberg couldn’t separate Tadej Pogačar from Mathieu van der Poel. A sprint into Oudenaarde loomed and try as you might to cite factors as to why Pogačar might win, van der Poel had his rival right where he wanted.
The Ronde was back to its popular glory, spectactors allowed for the first time since 2019. No other one day race plays a role like it, one million people were forecast to be roadside, how many other events get such crowds in the world? If the crowd was out, so were plenty of riders. Wout van Aert led the non-starters and another absentee was the wind, predicted gusty conditions were moderated by the weekend.
The race began with an early crash from Tadej Pogačar but the race settled into the expected format. The early break had Stan De Wulf as a potential relay point for his Ag2r leaders plus breakaway specialist Taco van der Hoorn but otherwise the nine were on a day trip; if they weren’t going to win, at least enjoy the day out. Once upon a time a breakaway like this would get 10 or even 15 minutes and crucially some hope. Now it just gets four minutes.
The first time up the Oude Kwaremont was the halfway point and the race came alive. You could see it on TV, a striptease as riders began to peel off layers of clothing and the peloton just looked busier, like an ants’ nest that got poked and riders were being flicked into the ditch.
There’s a blog post titled “optionality” for another day, for now a paragraph to note there’s a value in being up the road in the cobbled classics that isn’t there in other races. Attack with 90km to go in, say, the Tour of the Basque Country, and you’re burning matches like a bored arsonist. Not so in Flanders where you’re taking a front row seat and buying an option on future events. In Dutch it’s anticiperen, to get ahead of events. With 92km to go and the Berendries cleared, a big danger move of 13 riders formed with two Quick-Steppers, two Jumbos, Mads Pedersen, “Big” Ben Turner and rather than list all of them, it’s easier to cite the fossil-fuelled chasers of UAE, Total and Bahrain because they’d missed the move. The move was dangerous in a secondary manner, its menace forced leaders stuck behind to react.
Then UAE got to work. With 55km to Matteo Trentin led into the Oude Kwaremont and if he was being deployed here it had to presaged a Pogačar attack because the Italian was his last helper going. The Kwaremont’s not steep, it’s not even long if you’re a Tour de France contender but it was plenty and the Slovenian soared up the straat as if it was the Col de Romme. Only Kasper Asgreen could follow as Pogačar gripped the brake hoods and his head shaking sideways like someone coming to the end of their spinning class. A constellation of stars was close behind and they regrouped for the Paterberg moments later and for a change it was another Slovenian in Jan Tratnik who stormed up. Two riders who’d missed the split were Dylan Teuns and Valentin Madouas but they made it back after the descent just as Dylan van Baarle and Fred Wright drifted clear.
Next came the Koppenberg, the hardest climb and Pogačar launched again. In Milan-Sanremo his multiple attacks on the Poggio came to nothing here the terrain was more suited to multiple efforts and only Valentin Madouas and Mathieu van der Poel could follow, Mads Pedersen just had to watch them ride away.
Van der Poel, Pogačar and Madouas swept up van Baarle and Wright to make a quintet but it looked like two stars and three stowaways. This was relative of course, they were in the lead while others, including whole teams, were floundering behind. But surely it was going to be Van der Poel or Pogačar? Van Baarle is consistent but an infrequent winner; Madouas has the makings of a French version of this as he thrives in the sixth hour of a race. Fred Wright is promising but wasn’t going to steal the show. The quintet built up a minute’s lead and behind the chase was more a series of competing efforts to get clear.
On to the final Kwaremont climb and sure enough van Baarle, then Wright and then Madouas were dropped to leave the two stars. They duelled up the Paterberg and for the briefest moment van der Poel looked to be losing ground but he just got his line wrong. He closed the gap and the pair began the long run to the finish. Van der Poel was now on favourable terrain.
Now you might think taking van der Poel to the line was madness for Pogačar. But he’d pushed on the Paterberg and didn’t fancy trying again on the flat road. Besides after 270km it’s not an ordinary sprint and Pogačar can win sprints too, if not because of wild watts but because he’s still got something left in the tank. Besides a year ago van der Poel came to the finish with Kasper Asgreen and got smoked by the Dane. Was another Poel-idor moment coming? You could ask these questions like someone at the circus wondering if the tightrope walker was going to slip. It could happen. But in this Flemish circus van der Poel knows the ropes it was Pogačar who risked the greater fall. Van der Poel had won here before and he packs the bigger sprint.
The plot twist was van Baarle and Madouas closing in. They’d been at 30 seconds on the final stretch to Oudenaarde, within sight and working well together but all they could see was the third step of the podium. Only the two leaders began to look at each other, then slowed, then a stand-off as Pogačar wanted to stay second wheel. Suddenly with 250m to go they were swamped. There’s a joke about two hikers who spot a bear in the woods and one bends down to tighten up the laces on their boots, “you can’t outrun a bear” says their companion, “I know,” says the one who’s finished adjusting their boots, “I just have to outrun you”. Van der Poel went from having to launch the sprint into the wind to having the advantage of being a bike length ahead and surged clear just as the chasers drew level and Pogačar got mauled. You don’t need a whole bunch to get boxed in, just one rider in front, one to the left and another to the right. Pogačar complained and his UAE team went to the commissaires. It’s hard to see foul play, he was just overtaken on both sides and blocked in traffic. This must be the first time he’s lost his cool, the usually unflappable rider was all theatrical hand gestures in the finish zone. Understandable given he’d not just seen the Ronde slip through his fingers, he’d fallen off the podium.
A lively race that began to stir from the halfway point, became nervous with 90km to go and then a tense final, thrilling in the moment because if van der Poel was the obvious pick for the sprint, it was never certain and more so given Asgreen had got the better of him a year ago. Yet this was not a sophisticated race, it was reduced down to the two superstars, the two strongest. For all the micro-moments of positioning, crashes and mechanicals, the big moves went at obvious points on the circuit: the Kwaremont-Paterberg-Koppenberg tripel is decisive. It was less art and more a Hollywood action movie albeit with a Dutch director given the ending, entertaining but not subtle. Pogačar didn’t unpick an intricate Flemish lock, he kicked the door down on the Kwaremont and only van der Poel was left.
For Van der Poel, a triumph. Sanremo’s podium showed he could handle the distance, his riding in the Coppi e Bartali and Dwars Door Vlaanderen showed the power was back and he combined it all to get another big win. For Pogačar a loss compounded by finishing fourth despite being the strongest in the race yet perhaps there’s value in Pogačar stuffing up the finish? He can’t win everything, every time. Plus coming this close means he’ll want to return because he knows the win is within reach and that’s already an enticing prospect.
The sport is being recalibrated to Pogačar’s standard, not long ago a grand tour winner simply didn’t venture onto the pavé; Vincenzo Nibali had a go at the Ronde and Alejandro Valverde’s top-10 in 2019 was remarkable at the time. Yes Geraint Thomas had two top-10s as well but he wasn’t a grand tour guy in 2014 was he? Statisticians will record Claudio Chiapucci had a top-10 in the 1990s but historians will know he didn’t shape the race; we go back to 1994 for Gianni Bugno’s win as a comparison point or failing that to the seventies and… oh no, not another comparison. We’ll have to leave it there.