Tadej Pogačar and his Tour of Flanders problem

Tour de Hoody: Van der Poel and Van Aert complicate life for Pogačar and his quest to win De Ronde.

Photo: Gruber Photos/VeloNews

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GHENT, Belgium (VN) — Tadej Pogačar and his Tour of Flanders ambitions face a very tricky problem Sunday — two of them to be exact — in the forms of the watt-producing power plants of Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel.

In order to become the first Tour de France winner since Eddy Merckx in 1975 to win the Ronde, Pogačar needs to drop them both.

And if he can’t, he has to be beat them in a sprint.

Both of those scenarios complicate life for Pogačar and his Merckx-like ambitions Sunday.

“Last week in E3 we had a great race and a good battle between the rivals,” Pogačar said Tuesday. “I’m looking forward to doing it all again on Sunday.”

Friday’s E3 Saxo Classic was a spectacular preview of the quandary Pogačar carries into Sunday’s big match.

Pogačar will attack, and everyone knows it. If Van der Poel, Van Aert, and anyone else can hold his wheel, life is exponentially more complicated for the Slovenian.

“I tried to attack two times but they expected it, they raced to their assets and were on my wheel,” Pogačar said Friday. “I hope next Sunday (at De Ronde) it will be a different story.”

Attacking is Pogačar’s only option

Pogačar needs to drop as many riders as he can. (Photo: JASPER JACOBS/Belga/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the big storylines for Sunday’s De Ronde will be whether or not Pogačar can out-climb two of the most powerful riders in the peloton.

Pogacar’s aspirations across the spring classics are running head-first into something more challenging than Oude Kwaremont.

If Pogačar can’t drop them both, he risks losing in a reduced sprint if he goes to the line with either one.

Of course, anything can happen after six and a half hours of racing. The Ronde is harder than E3, and that will play in Pogačar’s favor.

The favorites are already bracing for the attacks that everyone knows will come.

Seeing a Tour winner trade punches and go to the line with the brawny cobble-bashers at Harelbeke left everyone in awe.

“With Mathieu, you expected to see him, but a Tour de France winner, it’s exceptional to see what he is doing,” Wout van Aert said of Pogačar. “He’s a true champion who gets the best out of us. It makes the stress go up going to the sprint with two riders like that.”

The “Three Kings” rode the entire peloton off their collective wheel at E3 in what’s a photo for the ages.

Will it happen again Sunday?

No one’s seen a rider with Pogačar’s unbridled ambitions and explosive skillset in generations.

The UAE Team Emirates star is hoping to hit the E3 repeat button Sunday at the Tour of Flanders, but this time with a different outcome.

To win, Pogačar needs to drop them both, and perhaps even ride alone to the finish.

“My first experience in Flanders last year was something I’ll never forget, the energy of the race and the passion for cycling in Belgium is something special,” Pogačar said. “I feel I’m ready and the team is ready, so we’ll give the Ronde our best shot.”

Can he find a way to unravel the Flanders puzzle?

Oude Kwaremont is no Alpe d’Huez

Dropping the likes of Van Aert is no easy feat. (Photo: Gruber Photos/VeloNews)

As explosive as Pogačar is on the climbs, there are two major problems facing him.

First off, climbs like Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg are not long enough or steep enough for Pogačar to drop Van der Poel and Van Aert, at least when they’re on good days.

These cobbled climbs are under 2km, not a 20-minute plus effort of the Alps or Pyrénées where Pogačar rules during the Tour.

Last year, a superb Van der Poel could equal Pogačar’s final-lap accelerations at Flanders.

Van Aert missed De Ronde last year with COVID, and on Friday Van Aert was clearly on the ropes but he still managed to win E3. After a big ride Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem, it will be interesting to see who has the legs Sunday.

Two passages over the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg double compared to just one at E3 will give Pogačar more chances twist the knife.

Pogačar is the first to admit that’s a big ask.

“Kwarement is the best climb for me. It’s the longest and there I can always try to be the best,”Pogačar admitted. “But with Van der Poel and Wou van Aert, it’s a bit difficult to drop them anywhere on any climb.”

Matching the pure power at the line

Could these three go to the line again Sunday at De Ronde?

The other part of the puzzle is he doesn’t pack the same speed or pure finishing power of either Van Aert or Van der Poel on the flats into Oudenaarde.

Pogačar is fast, but Van der Poel and Van Aert both pack more pure power.

Of course, anything can happen in a mano-a-mano sprint after more than six hours of racing, but Friday’s E3 finale and last year’s Flanders finish revealed that Pogačar could be swarmed going to the line against either of them.

These tricky problems only motivate Pogačar even more, and rivals know it.

Van Aert said beating Pogačar won’t be easy Sunday even if he admitted that his brawn and experience will count in his and Van der Poel’s favor.

“I think Tadej makes the race harder for types like me and Mathieu because maybe he has a hard time with the first accelerations, he can do it over and over again,” Van Aert said. “We can see he is a lot lighter than us.

“It’s hard for him to position and ride the same pace as us on the flats,” Van Aert said. “On the other hand, we don’t see many weaknesses with him.”

And then there were three

There’s no guarantee that everyone will follow the sprint.

And finally, any race as prestigious and important as Flanders cannot be reduced to only three riders even if they are the very top of the peloton.

Last year, Pogačar saw his podium chances disappear as he and Van der Poel were swarmed at the line by chasing riders.

Others coming into top form include the likes of Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious), Mads Pedersen (Trek Segafredo), Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), any one of Van Aert’s teammates at Jumbo-Visma, and perhaps even a rider from Soudal Quick-Step.

Pogačar’s relative inexperience in the northern classics could also be a factor.

“It was a bit hectic with positioning and I don’t do these races often, so I had to get used to it,” Pogačar said Friday. “Before the Taainberg I wasn’t in the best position, so I lost a bit of energy, but no such mistakes next Sunday.”

Pogačar’s determination to win Flanders sooner or later will make it equally as complicated for the likes of Van Aert, Van der Poel, and the rest.

They’re already bracing for the attacks everyone knows will come.

The end result, at least for everyone else, should deliver a spectacular edition of Flanders.

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