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This time last year, the streets of Flanders were unsettlingly quiet.
Masked-up locals popped out from their houses to wave flags and cheer in isolated bunches, but not much more commotion was stirred under direct pandemic-time orders from government officials.
An eerie and focused silence pervaded the entirety of the Tour of Flanders, the camera bikes picking up only the sounds of whirring wheels. The year before, in 2020, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel sprinted solely before a crowd of officials and the two cyclists’ own heaving breaths.
This year, to see the masses tower up on either side of the 18 infamous cobbled climbs was to welcome back the very return of cycling, that great religious pageant that saturates everything in this region with awe and meaning.
Of these climbs, two are perhaps the most infamous: the long and brutal Oude Kwaremont, and the short and painfully steep Paterberg.
However, it was the run-in to the lesser-known Molenberg with 100km remaining in the men’s race where chaos erupted for the first time, and the race, as was said, was truly on. The Molenberg is a good choice for the discerning Ronde meddler.
It’s short, narrow, and the cobbles are particularly gnarly and bulbous. Ahead of it, there was a rather treacherous crook in the road, and at the hill’s end, no descent offered any opportunity to those weasels who wanted to bridge whatever has been opened up.
As the men moved up the Molenberg, a mischievous yellow jersey popped out at the front. This was Nathan Van Hooydonck of a Wout van Aert-less Jumbo Visma. On his wheel was Jonas Koch of Bora Hansgrohe. Their meddling unraveled the race for the first time, and in this race, in particular, that’s no small feat.
Sending out the scouts
The Tour of Flanders is a complex event, its parcours unpredictable thanks to the sectors of gnarled pave, the tight turns, and the narrow uncompromising roads.
In effect, the race is several cobbled interval efforts where the aim was to shell out one’s enemies, interspersed with periods for reorganization, mind games, tactical ploys, and adaptations to play out in anticipation of the next time wheels touch cobbles. Such a cycle had been instigated by the two men up front, who were surely used as satellite riders in order to later — hopefully — aid in their team leaders’ chances during the finale.
On another climb, the Berendries, and other teams tried a similar tactic, a counterattack. And once minor contenders like Movistar’s Ivan Garcia Cortina and Ineos’ Ben Turner set off, what began as scheming became something rather serious indeed. Mads Pedersen of Trek Segafredo and Alberto Bettiol of EF Education-EasyPost, two favorites for this race, bridged and brought with them 11 others, and eventually brought back the two out front, forming the most serious break to that point in the race.
This group, to be sure, had the very real potential to go to the line. For 40 kilometers, they tugged out a time gap hovering around a minute, and for the likes of Pedersen and Bettiol this was wager was worth making. Thus came more scheming, in this, a race of schemes.
The composition of this group also favored many teams in the peloton. The presence of satellite riders for Alpecin-Fenix’s Mathieu van der Poel, Ineos Grenadiers’ Tom Pidcock, and the Jumbo Visma duo of Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte practically ensured that those strong teams wouldn’t have to work to bring things back.
This put the teams of other favorites, namely Tadej Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates, Bahrain Victorious, and Total Energies in the annoying position of having to chase and waste resources that could have been better used for the tricky and explosive endgame. Bitterly, these teams took turns on the front.
Others took advantage of this unstable situation, attacking over intermediate climbs between here and the Kwaremont, spooking the peloton, drawing it out only to be sucked back into it. But the Kwaremont’s length and power dwarfed that of petty bike-racing politics, and though the risks of the group ahead were great, they would prove fruitless on its slopes. Many lost the race there.
The Oude Kwaremont is an indifferent, terrible hill. Its mythic status is without question, yet taken away from the religion of cycling, it is an ordinary — if inconvenient — suburban street, quiet and almost banally picturesque. However, on this holiest of days, it was a temple of suffering, a chasm of bodies screaming and waving flags parted by these men on two wheels who live only for this particular kind of agony.
When Tadej Pogačar got caught out in a split a few days prior, at Dwars door Vlaanderen, his first cobbled classic race, he vowed not to make such a mistake again. And there, he didn’t. When he glided up the Oude Kwaremont as though the cobbles didn’t exist, it became abundantly clear that the race was dealing with no ordinary debutant.
Everyone hitherto out front was swallowed on the Kwaremont, and it was Pogačar who opened the mouth for them. He almost escaped, too, were it not for the efforts of a certain Mathieu van der Poel, with Tom Pidcock on his wheel. For a precious few kilometers, the Kwaremont acted as a zipper, closing that which had been opened, only for things to be unzipped again on the shorter but perhaps even more tortuous hill: the Paterberg, so steep even walking a bike up is difficult.
In the Paterberg’s wake, 30 men were reduced to five: Dylan van Baarle, Fred Wright, Valentin Madouas, Mathieu van der Poel, and Tadej Pogačar.
Despite such obvious differences in strength and likelihood of victory, the quintet worked together. In no time, up the Taaienberg and the Koppenberg and through a little strip of town, a minute formed.
What happened behind – and there was quite a bit that happened – became inconsequential. Endgame. Thirty kilometers. Only one more trip through the dual washboards of hell, the Oude Kwaremont, and the Paterberg remained.
Setting up showdown
Make no mistake: for Mathieu van der Poel, a podium finisher at Milan-Sanremo, winner of Dwars door Vlaanderen, and decorated alumnus of this very race, this was his De Ronde to lose — recovery from back injury be damned.
The previous week put those particular murmurs swiftly to bed: van der Poel was back.
And Pogačar? The cycling world had become so inured to him winning through sheer feats of strength that everyone, including me, watched spellbound waiting for this Merckxian phenomenon to inevitably claim what would be his most ambitious prize.
For Fred Wright – a strong and consistent rider in his own right, though unfortunately the weakest of the group – van Baarle, and Madouas, sagacity and resilience were most needed and the latter two had both in spades. At last year’s Dwars and in the world championship road race in Flanders, van Baarle demonstrated perceptive racecraft, was able to sus out and follow the best of moves and work to his advantages in order to secure the best result possible, be that first or second, respectively. Madouas, normally a climber, was the real unknown entity here, and one watched him with curiosity.
However, obviously, van der Poel and Pogačar were in a league of their own. During those agonizing kilometers preluding the final two climbs, it seemed all but certain that one of them would set out for glory.
On the Oude Kwaremont, the skies had grown dark and heavy with rain on the way, and the chorus of shouts had since been augmented by the smoky presence of colored smoke from flares, adding more to the much-missed atmosphere. The crowd’s fever reached its loudest pitch. Slurries of singing were caught by the camera bike’s microphone.
Wright — who later described the experience as “the hardest race I’ve ever done”— dropped like a stone. Pogačar and van der Poel separated like the final stage of some beastly rocketship while the other two fell back to Earth. But even Pogačar couldn’t dispose of van der Poel on the Kwaremont, nor could van der Poel rid himself of Pogačar. Both tried.
By the time the Paterberg loomed, that insidious, villainously steep hill, van der Poel looked done for, utterly on the limit. He practically dragged his bike by the handlebars just to stay on Pogačar’s wheel. Pogačar gave everything to ensure this would not be the case, but Pogačar, too, was on his last legs. They topped out over the hill together.
Hence, with no more cobbles or climbs to separate them, the pair took queasy, short, uneven, and distrustful turns. They needed to in order to recover from their cobbled ordeal. There was no other possible outcome – these two men had beaten each other into dust.
Each had met his match, both in one another’s wheels, and in the cobbles and the climbs themselves. Unfortunately for Pogačar, cobbles don’t lend themselves to brute force because unlike Alpine climbs, they tire the body in many ways, causing a different, more shattering kind of pain. There is something special about this pain that attracts those we call cobbled classics specialists.
Certainly, Pogačar would have preferred a different outcome than that of a match sprint with one of cycling’s best match sprinters. But he didn’t get one. As the duo neared the finish line, they slowed almost to a halt.
“Anticipation,” wrote the Slovene playwright Ivan Cankar, “is a thousand unjust deaths.” So it was for Tadej Pogačar.
There is perhaps some truth to the claim that Pogačar, after all his dominance and unceasing victories, had, in De Ronde, gotten a bit arrogant. But he also wasn’t stupid, and he never would’ve settled for anything other than first place.
Neither would van der Poel, who had been in this situation before and who had spoiled the day here for Van Aert in 2020, crumbled before Asgreen in 2021, and in 2019, in Amstel Gold, pulled off the steal of a lifetime based on others’ poor anticipation. He had the upper hand and he would lead it out. It could be no other way.
It should be noted that Pogačar didn’t act without reason. And there is no indication that what transpired next one can blame on his youth or his debutant status. For 272 kilometers Pogačar rode beautifully and raced a spotless race.
After the red kite
Pogačar knew that, in the final kilometer, there would be a disadvantageous winds. For him, the weaker sprinter of the two, to wait in the slipstream of van der Poel was, on paper, the right choice. But Mathieu was in control, and anything Pogačar did would be reactive. Van der Poel was the savvier gambler, and he had – whether intentionally or not – put Pogačar in an unfavorable position in the middle of the road.
The pair played cat and mouse, van der Poel staring down Pogačar with his icy blue eyes, his big form looming over the smaller man, daring him to act. This game of chicken lingered on for an agonizingly long spell. Arguably, when Pogačar saw van Baarle and Madouas get within a few bike lengths, he should have risked the gamble and started the sprint. As the adage goes, when in doubt, lead it out.
Or, he should have done what Biniam Girmay, a younger rider and also a debutant, did in Gent Wevelgem and caught a stronger rider by surprise. Perhaps Pogačar didn’t make a mistake and was just unlucky. In the end it doesn’t really matter.
The ending of this race was perhaps the least expected of the possible outcomes, save for who would end up winning it.
For whatever reason – poor tactics, hesitation, or an unfavorable gamble – Pogačar stayed on van der Poel’s wheels for too long. Madouas and van Baarle, sensing a chance at the podium and perhaps even victory, caught back up to the two leaders in their track stand, swarmed on both sides of Pogačar, and boxed him in. Pogačar tried to push van Baarle out of the way, just enough to squeeze around, but this couldn’t fix the situation.
Mathieu van der Poel, with his savvy, strength, and experience toying with other bike racers, could easily outsprint van Baarle and Madouas, and he did this with some ease. His victory was uncontested in the end, and for van Baarle and Madouas, this was the best outcome, perhaps more than they could’ve ever hoped for.
Watching this finale play out, the world slowed down, the cheers became distorted, the voice cried out in sheer disbelief. After all that, Pogačar lost it all. He didn’t even podium. He finished fourth. He raised his arms not in victory but in frustration, both at van Baarle and ultimately at himself for making such a baffling and complete error.
He lost. He just simply lost, lost in a way one cannot make excuses for. There is nothing to point to other than a simple lapse in judgment (or depending on how you look at it, a wrong risk taken in pursuit of glory) at a critical time. This loss was no different than any other loss that happens in bike racing at all levels, except that it happened to Tadej Pogačar at De Ronde van Vlaanderen.
There is no need to coddle or infantilize him for a mistake he surely will never make again. Actions have consequences, and other than those actions, his day out was perfect, splendid, and memorable for its precociousness despite his debutant status.
What he’s done for the world of cycling by reintroducing grand tour winners as serious contenders in the cobbled classics for the first time in thirty years is worth celebrating alone. Even though he lost, he still proved that he is without peer. This is something.
Mathieu van der Poel, for the second time in his career and after months of recovery from injury and a brutal day out on the bike, won the Tour of Flanders. He won it for the reasons great cyclists win bike races; he was the strongest and cleverest on the day.
Van Baarle repeated the proof of concept he had shown last year in Flanders, at worlds, cementing himself as an underrated but skillful player on these roads. Madouas, after a cramp in the sprint finished third. In the end, the Frenchman was in bewildered tears, saying, “With the speed I had, I really believed it, but the legs told me to sit down again. It’s already magnificent.”
Van der Poel’s brilliant, brash mind games and teeth-clenching endurance, van Baarle’s adroitness in the finale and his ability to recover from a bad bike change earlier on, Madouas’ triumph and the quiet, moving awe he had towards himself and the magnitude of what he’d accomplished; the impetuous riding and equally impetuous anger of Tadej Pogačar in his biggest loss to date. This is the kind of drama and storytelling we expect from the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
“It will be legendary,” Pogačar said before the start of the race. He was right. It was.