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That’s a question that the two-time Tour de France winner might be asking himself for some time.
The UAE Emirates star delivered beyond expectations in his De Ronde debut by launching a series of searing attacks across the cobbled climbs in the final two loops in the Belgian monument that absolutely blew up the race.
He dropped everyone except the lurking presence of cobbles mastermind Mathieu van der Poel.
When the pair cleared the final Paterberg with about a half-minute on any trailing remnant of the peloton, the Hollywood script was written, or so it seemed.
Yet like any good cliff-hanger, this story wasn’t finished yet.
Everything unraveled for Pogačar in the closing 2000m of the grinding race of attrition. Instead of sprinting for at least a second-place podium, the Slovenian slayer was the odd man out.
There were so many strands in the final hour of racing Sunday that it’s hard to unravel the finish line knot.
The absolutely stunning finale reconfirmed many of cycling’s most long gospel truths — the strongest doesn’t always win, a race isn’t over until the finish line, and never, ever give up in the monuments.
On Sunday, van der Poel also reminded everyone he is the master of his universe in yet another spectacular edition of De Ronde.
Pogačar’s head was spinning after he was the odd man out. And Dylan Van Baarle and Valentin Madouas saw just rewards for never losing faith.
Here are the key moments that led to Sunday’s final scene:
Tadej Pogačar obliterates the bunch on Oude Kwaremont
The race was at an interesting crossroads when the fractured bunch hit the second of three passages up Oude Kwaremont.
The main bunch hit the decisive climb after a marked increase in urgency, and there was a relatively big group of riders about one minute ahead of the favorites group. The vise tightened when Pogačar exploded the race at the base of the Oude Kwaremont, the longest and lumpiest of the cobblestone climbs.
Also read: Pogačar vows to come back to win Flanders
It was a key moment of the race, and his surge sent a bolt through the bunch.
Van der Poel got caught out a bit of position on the initial blast, putting him under to close a dangerous gap to the Slovenian slayer.
The message was loud and clear: Pogačar was racing to win, and it was going to take a gargantuan effort to stop him.
Tadej Pogačar: “I really like this climb and the atmosphere there. It gives you goosebumps. When we saw the Kwaremont in training, and we saw that in the second to last time is when we need to go, because it is a difficult one and one of the longest climbs. It was good for me. I think I love this race.”
Quick-Step implodes up the Paterberg
Defending champion Kasper Asgreen buried himself to stay on Pogačar’s wheel up the previous climb at Oude Kwaremont, and he paid the price on the Paterberg.
Unable to follow, he searched for more spin in his legs and dropped his chain as he shifted from the big to the small chainring. Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl waved the white flag of surrender, and can now only hope to salvage its spring at Paris-Roubaix.
Van der Poel made sure he was in better position after coming up the Oude Kwaremont when the race hit the paved transition. In a signal of intention, he was right on Pogačar’s slipstream up the key climb of the race.
The pair powered clear of chasers, and the die was cast. Flanders was going to be a coming-of-age tussle between the sport’s two biggest stars.
Or so it seemed. Not everyone received the memo.
Kasper Asgreen: “On the Kwaremont I followed Tadej, but I just exploded. Tadej was super, super strong. In the end, he just slaughtered me. That was the crucial moment for me.”
Final Paterberg sets the stage for ‘MVDP’ vs. ‘Pogo’
The final lap saw a more confident van der Poel fully in control of his efforts. He and Pogačar topped the final Paterberg, and it appeared there was nothing but open road from there to Oudenaarde.
The peloton was shattered into bits in their wake. Yet dozens of riders refused to give up, and riders linked up to force the chase. Van Baarle found company with Madouas, and both shared a common interest.
The pair committed to drive to the finish to fend off a chase group that was hot on their heels in order to at least sprint for one podium spot between the two of them.
Also read: Van Baarle defends his sprint for the podium
Flanders is just about as much as grinding it out and hanging on as it is attacking on the climb, and the closing kilometers would prove yet again that nothing is ever etched in stone in one-day racing.
With a gap of 30 seconds or so going into the final 10km, it seemed only a crash or a puncture could stop the leading attackers.
Dylan Van Baarle: “It was a bit of an unexpected final. I still can’t believe what happened. You make yourself ready to sprint for third and then you end up second. I was more busy with the guys behind, to keep them behind and Madouas was the same. We just kept on driving, and then all of a sudden, they slowed and we were sprinting for victory.”
Red kite complications and maneuvers
The chasing pair hit the finishing straight amazed that the leaders were in their sights.
And thanks to their never-give-up attitude and commitment to riding together, instead of sprinting for a podium, they unexpectedly had a chance for victory.
A headwind on the road back to Oudenaarde also played against Pogačar and van der Poel because they would soon start marking each other’s wheel.
At the red kite, Pogačar and van der Poel started to jockey for position, and inevitably their speed came down with each swing of the bike.
It was a decisive moment of the race. The gap ahead of them shrank, yet Van Baarle and Madouas were not only chasing the rabbit in front of them, but also trying to out-run another group coming up behind.
That meant it was full-gas to the line for everyone, except the leading two.
Valentin Madouas: “Dylan and I said to each other to give the maximum. In the worst case we would finish third and fourth. It paid off. It’s more than I hoped for before the race. I came close to the win too but the legs talked at the finish. I could not have done anything more than I did.”
Van der Poel is the new Lion of Flanders
Like van der Poel said, a rider can do everything right in a sprint and still lose even if you’re the strongest.
Van der Poel and Pogačar weren’t exactly in a track stand, but Van Baarle and Madouas were barreling down on them at nearly full speed. Van der Poel pounced just at the right moment, and unleashed an explosive sprint at 250m to go.
The Dutch rider packs that rare engine to be able to produce huge watts after a long six-hour effort, and he ramped up his power in a hurry.
The Flanders finale saw a rare miscue for Pogačar when he hesitated and waited for van der Poel to open his sprint when the two chasers were carrying momentum and speed toward the line.
Perhaps jumping earlier would have at least assured him of a podium? We’ll never know.
Van der Poel confirmed he’s as wily as strong, and executed a near-perfect sprint. He read the situation perfectly, and kept Pogačar on his wheel, forced Madouas into a line along the fences, and Van Baarle into the wind on his left.
Pogačar could only raise his arms in frustration after being boxed in, and van der Poel raised his hands in absolute jubilation.
Pogačar was the strongest in the race but missed the podium. Van Baarle and Madouas were the most tenacious and determined, and hit the podium.
Van der Poel was D.) All the above, and then some.
In a career marked with ever more spectacular victories, Sunday’s was perhaps his most sublime. Pogačar will have to wait another year.
De Ronde has its new Lion of Flanders.
Mathieu van der Poel: “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. I think power-wise, this was my best De Ronde.”