Tadej Pogačar sets marker for Tour of Flanders, Tour de France rivals with Jaén demonstration

'I'm having a more gradual preparation for the season.' Pogačar's 'easy start' should sound alarm bells for Van Aert, Van der Poel, Vingegaard.

Photo: Getty Images

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Tadej Pogačar bounded out of his off-season, brushed aside breakaway rival Sergio Samitier, and whistled a warning shot over the heads of Tour of Flanders and Tour de France rivals alike Monday.

The Slovenian supremo galloped solo through the dirty gravel of his 2023 debut at Clásica Jaén Paraíso in what he made look like a leg-stretcher warmup ride.

“So far, so good, I couldn’t be more happy to start the season like this. It makes me really happy, the team worked so well today. It was like a fairy tale,” Pogačar enthused after the race.

Pogačar heads into an ever-ambitious calendar in 2023 sticking to his “have fun and see what happens” ethos but shouldering all the hype and expectation of his return to Flanders and the quest to regain “his” yellow jersey.

A deviation away from Pogačar’s traditional debut at the UAE Tour in favor of a pathway through Jaén and this week’s Ruta del Sol sees the undoubted dominator of the modern peloton continue to embrace experiences new.

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Paris-Nice will make another new race for the 24-year-old’s program in advance of a mouthwatering matchup with Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert on the cobbles of Tour of Flanders deep in the Flemish spring.

“I like to try new races and this year Jaén, just before the Vuelta a Andalucia [Ruta del Sol], was a good place to start,” Pogačar told Marca.

“This year I haven’t gone to the high altitude training camp yet and I’m having a little more gradual preparation for the season. Together we decided that this race was a good place to start.”

If Pogačar’s “gradual” start – an almost effortless victory not even threatened by a late puncture – is the pace to follow, racers as diverse as Van Aert, Van der Poel, Jonas Vingegaard, and Egan Bernal should take note.

Pogačar flexed his early-season muscle Monday. (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Pogačar returns to Strade Bianche next month in what will be his first high-profile test against world-class opposition.

Van Aert, Van der Poel, and Pogačar – the last three winners on the “white roads” – headline the Tuscan classic in what will be a preview of a mega-monument clash at De Ronde.

Van Aert and Van der Poel will no doubt note the Slovenian’s rocketing ride through Jaén looked a threatening redux of his crushing victory on the Strade’s sterrato in 2022.

“I think I would not compare [Strade and Jaén],” Pogačar said. “They’re similar races because they both have gravel, but the gravel is completely different in both races, and different climbs, different entrances to the gravel sections. It’s a whole different experience today.”

Pogačar sees no similarity, but the statement is the same.

Strade Bianche and victory at the preceding UAE Tour set the tone for a 2022 season of utter dominance derailed by only one very bad day on the relentless slopes of the Galibier in France.

That Pogačar drew the curtain on his 2022 calendar with his second victory in Il Lombardia and opened 2023 with Monday’s demonstration in Spain says it all.

Pogačar is back in the pedals, and he’s rolling that near-unfaultable momentum into a season loaded with opportunity for him and his newly reinforced UAE Emirates team.

“Pogačar just rode away, really,” second-place finisher Ben Turner said Monday in Jaén. “What a show.”

The “Pogo-show” could see some enthralling episodes through 2023 as Pogačar returns to racing wisened by his Tour de France overturn and his bombastic debut in Flanders.

The small-scale startlist of early season racing in Spain is no power-packed peloton of the biggest classics or the Grand Départ.

But if Monday was only the pilot screening, the full series to come should be a thrill ride.

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