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The Dutch star won his second title inside three years after fending off searing attacks from the two-time Tour de France champion to win a four-up sprint at the line.
“Today was maybe power-wise my best De Ronde,” van der Poel said. “Pogačar was impressive on the climbs, and I was happy to manage to stay on the wheel.”
In a thrilling race filled with tactics, attacks, and desperate chases, van der Poel kept his cool in every situation.
It wasn’t always easy to be ice cold when Pogačar was turning up the heat.
“De Ronde is a race that suits me well and it’s an honest race and the strongest riders are always at the front” he said. “It’s hard to drop somebody because everyone is tired. I think today was the same story.
“I don’t feel any stress or I don’t get nervous, I just focus on my sprint, and today I was pretty calm and I tried to launch my sprint at the right moment,” van der Poel said. “I don’t think I made a mistake last year. Kasper [Asgreen] was stronger in the end.
“At this race, you can do everything right in a sprint, but you can still get beaten.”
This time, van der Poel did everything right, and came up a winner in another thrilling race that saw the multi-faceted Dutch star square off against the Slovenian star in what was a dream matchup for race organizers.
Pogačar vs. van der Poel: The attacks that blew up the race
With pre-race favorite Wout van Aert sidelined by COVID-19, all eyes were on Pogačar and van der Poel. The pair did not disappoint.
Pogačar tried to blow up the race on the final two passages up Oude Kwaremont, including a watt-boggling acceleration on the penultimate lap that set up the dynamics for the final hour of racing.
Van der Poel had to dig deep to stay on the wheel, and luckily for him, Oude Kwaremont quickly tops out to more favorable roads for the big Dutch rider. Had the climbs been a tad longer, Pogačar might have been driving home alone.
But Flanders isn’t Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Il Lombardia, the other two monuments that Pogačar quickly added to his palmares in 2021.
De Ronde is about holding on, digging deep, and never giving up.
The Koppenberg looked to be the race-breaker. Pogačar surged again and van der Poel followed his wheel. Two other riders were clear over the top, and it looked like the deal was done.
On the final lap, the die was cast, and the race looked to be a two-rider tug of war.
“Especially on the last time up Kwaremont and Paterberg, I was happy to keep his wheel and I was really on the limit there,” van der Poel said. “On the Koppenberg, Tadej was the first to attack but I also attacked.”
Whatever was left of the lead group fractured in their wake, but it was still a long way to the finish.
Chasing groups never stopped chasing, and Dylan Van Baarle and Valentin Madouas caught them in the closing 200m.
Van der Poel was watching, and the two chasers carried momentum and blocked out Pogačar, leaving nothing but open road for him to kick to his second De Ronde title.
“Only saw them in a blink when they were coming and then I started my sprint,” he said. “I was really watching Pogačar, the finish was right there, so I sprinted.
“Dylan knows when two guys are going to the line they will look at each other. It’s always a poker game,” van der Poel said. “It was the same today. It’s normal that no one will go full-gas in the last kilometer when you have someone on the wheel.”
For van der Poel, the victory confirms himself as the king of the roads of Flanders.
“De Ronde is the race that suits me best,” he said. “The climbs are not too long and it’s always maximum power.”
When asked if a rider like Pogačar can come to Flanders and try to win, can a rider like himself go to the Tour de France to go for yellow, van der Poel cut off the question before it was over.
“No,” he said with a laugh. “I am not thinking about that at all, and I do not think it’s possible.”
Up next is Amstel Gold Race and Paris-Roubaix before a likely start at the Giro.
He still has some unfinished business with the “Hell of the North.”