Riders admit the race is on for second behind Tadej Pogačar: ‘Someone has to be first among the mortals’

What can anyone do against Pogačar? 'With the way he is racing right now, second is a victory for everyone else.'

Photo: Getty Images

It’s not often that professional racers will admit they’re racing for leftovers, but that’s what happened Wednesday after Tadej Pogačar surged to another victory at Flèche Wallonne.

“I told Danish TV this morning I would be more than grateful to be in second place behind Tadej,” said runner-up Mattias Skjelmose. “With the way he is racing right now, that’s a victory for everyone else.”

That admission is rare inside the hyper-competitive, ego-fueled WorldTour peloton, yet it’s also an objective assessment of Pogačar’s growing superiority.

And there were plenty more.

The UAE Team Emirates superstar is all but unbeatable, and everyone is now openly admitting it.

“Of course, we are always racing for the win,” the Trek-Segafredo rider quickly added. “I was in good position in the final climb up the Mur and I was closer than I thought I would be. I don’t think we could have done something else.”

Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) was a surprise third, and he also admitted that racing to win against Pogačar is becoming a quixotic task.

“Someone has to be second or third. To be first among the mortals is not bad,” Landa said. “This is what it is is. He is superior and it is difficult to beat him. Pogačar is so strong right now he’s hard to beat.

“You have to keep fighting, and stay close to him, and some day someone can beat him. He’s human, too.”

What can anyone do against Pogačar?

That’s a growing concern for many rivals as he stampedes across the opening months of 2023.

Pogačar’s won or finished on the podium of every one-day classic or stage race he’s started this year. The lone exception was fourth at Milan-San Remo.

What’s worse, at least for his rivals, is he’s getting used to winning nearly every day he races.

“You never get bored of crossing the line first,” Pogačar said Wednesday. “I enjoyed that today and I am really grateful I am living this moment now with such great shape. I am trying to exploit it as much as I can.”

Coming on the heels of long-distance attacks that delivered him victories at Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold Race, some expected Pogačar to try to rewrite the Flèche Wallonne script.

Instead, UAE Team Emirates controlled the tempo, and Pogačar turned on the turbos at just the right time with about 200 meters to go on the Mur de Huy to drive a wedge to the chasers for his inaugural win at the mid-week classic.

The comparisons to Eddy Merckx continue to pour in as many see Pogačar as a generational rider.

And now he’s writing his own records.

With the victory, he becomes the first male rider to win Flanders, Amstel Gold, and Flèche Wallonne in the same season.

That’s something even Merckx didn’t do.

Yet Pogačar at least showed signs of perhaps a minor crack in his armor.

The very steep finale up the Mur de Huy perhaps doesn’t favor him as much as the slightly less steep and more explosive climbs featured at Flanders, Amstel Gold, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Pogačar left it late on the Mur, only jumping at about 200 meters to go.

“I was not surprised he waited, and the smartest thing was to wait,” Skjelmose said. “When you are so strong as he maybe he wants to win in a more spectacular way. He kept it safe and won in the sprint on the Mur. You also need to be a great champion to keep yourself calm when you have great legs.”

Though no one really challenged him once he surged, some left the race at least with a glimmer of hope.

“I think this is where he is beatable on this climb. Today it was not me, I was not good today,” said Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers). “I went very deep on Sunday and I just haven’t recovered.

“I think I can win this race on my day for sure. I just didn’t have the strength when it really mattered today. Hopefully, we can recover before Sunday.”

With victory Sunday at Amstel Gold Race and Wednesday at Flèche Wallonne, Pogačar is in line to complete the sweep of the so-called “Ardennes treble,” a mark only set by Davide Rebellin and Philippe Gilbert to win all three in succession in the same season.

The hype will only grow this weekend with a matchup against generational rival and defending champion Remco Evenepoel (Soudal Quick-Step) at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday.

Landa said maybe the others can use that to their advantage.

“I expect a hard race Sunday,” Landa said. “Remco is coming, and maybe it’s a big fight between them, and we can use that as a surprise.”

The peloton has to find some way to try to win.

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