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Cancellara's Classics Column: Pogacar has something to learn, Van der Poel has nothing to lose

Fabian Cancellara gives his Classics opinions following Dwars door Vlaanderen (Image credit: Getty Images)

For me, it was all eyes on Tadej Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel at Dwars door Vlaanderen. This was their first race of the cobbled period and it had the ability to change the whole narrative ahead of the Tour of Flanders

Let's start with Tadej. It was not only the first cobbled race of his season but also the first cobbled race of his career. I was extremely curious to see how it would go for him and in the end he answered some questions but not others.

First of all, condition-wise, he is ready. There is absolutely no doubt about that. He maybe even showed a higher performance level – in terms of the power he pushed – than the riders on the podium. After he missed the move on Berg Ten Houte, he attacked alone, chased alone, then did most of the work in a group that was smaller than the one at the front.

He never gave up and never stopped chasing, for more than 50km. He definitely pulled more than any of the guys in the front. When you think about it like that, it's an impressive ride. He's in good shape, most definitely.

However, he found out that good shape is sometimes not enough in these races. You need to do the right things at exactly the right time – even if you are Tadej Pogačar.

The only reason he had to work so hard was because he made a mistake. First of all he missed the important move on Berg Ten Houte. A lot of people will say that's down to inexperience but I think it's more to do with the team around him.

WAREGEM BELGIUM MARCH 30 Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia and UAE Team Emirates competes during the 76th Dwars Door Vlaanderen 2022 Mens Elite a 1837km one day race from Roeselare to Waregem DDV22 DDVmen WorldTour on March 30 2022 in Waregem Belgium Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Pogačar pushes on over the cobbles in the chase group at Dwars door Vlaanderen (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

UAE are one of the top two teams in professional cycling right now but for the cobbled Classics they are nowhere near as strong as the other races.

Matteo Trentin is a big loss. He has been racing but he has been ill and is nowhere near his top shape and that's a shame. If Matteo Trentin is there in better shape, it would be a different story. I'm sure Pogačar starts Berg Ten Houte in a better position and then he can go with the favourites – because he has the legs to do it. A stronger team around him would change a lot.

But I do think Pogačar showed his inexperience when he tried to correct the mistake on the following climb and decided to chase alone. He maybe even underestimated it. He assumed he would be able to close the gap by himself, I think. It was only 10 seconds, right? Well, let me tell you, 10 seconds is a lot on these roads. 10 seconds does not mean you can close it easily.

Racing is just different here. There's a reason why some guys attack on narrow roads over the top of climbs, when they know a big road is coming up and they know where the wind is coming from.

The wind in Flanders is like a different kind of wind. Even if it's not strong, it grinds you down. If you get caught alone on a big road then you can be in serious trouble. It's always so much harder to attack and chase from behind than it is to open the race and ride in the front group. I'm sure Tadej found all that out today.

For me, he's not a top favourite for the Tour of Flanders. He can be the surprising guy, but let's be realistic. He's done one race, and Flanders will be another level altogether.

Van der Poel and Van Aert

WAREGEM BELGIUM MARCH 30 Mathieu Van Der Poel of Netherlands and Team AlpecinFenix competes during the 76th Dwars Door Vlaanderen 2022 Mens Elite a 1837km one day race from Roeselare to Waregem DDV22 DDVmen WorldTour on March 30 2022 in Waregem Belgium Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Van der Poel drove the winning move before attacking to victory at Dwars (Image credit: Tim de WaeleGetty Images)

As for Van der Poel, Mathieu is Mathieu, and Mathieu is a top favourite. He proved he is good but when is he ever not good? This was his second big race of the season after Milan-San Remo, and he raced Coppi e Bartali last week, so he's had a good block and has set himself up for Sunday.

The fascinating thing about Van der Poel today is that he didn't really attack. Ok, he started moving with 90km to go but it wasn't a big attack. He was there on Berg Ten Houte but it wasn't him who made the move. Then in the final he didn't really attack at all. I was waiting for him to do something on Nokereberg, but no, it didn't happen. The big question is why not.

I think he had the legs to do it. I just don't think he wanted to. He didn't want to make himself the target, which is what usually happens. He used the energy instead to react to attacks from the others. It was a calm performance and he seemed to be racing without pressure.

He has won both Dwars door Vlaanderen and Tour of Flanders before, and he is only just back from a long injury. I see a rider who feels he has nothing to lose.

Which brings us on to Wout van Aert. The same cannot be said of him. On Sunday, there will be one country standing still for one cyclist. We know he wants to win, we know the team wants him to win, and we know the whole of Belgium wants him to win.

There is one question: Can he handle that?

In a way, he can only beat himself. His rivals will already be thinking about how they're going to beat him. Do they go early, do they go late? How to they isolate him from his team? If Laporte is in the front and Wout is not, then the other teams will be happy with that, but will Jumbo-Visma be happy? Will Wout be happy?

It's all about how they play the poker game. It'll be like a James Bond thriller on Sunday.

Since this column was written, Jumbo-Visma team have said that Wout van Aert is now 'unlikely' to be taking part at the Tour of Flanders.

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Fabian Cancellara is an ex-professional cyclist who raced from 2001 to 2016 for Mapei, Fassa Bortolo, CSC, and Trek. The Swiss rider was one of the top riders in the peloton during that time, picking up 88 victories during his storied career. Chief among them were three editions apiece of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo, eight stages of the Tour de France, four world time trial titles, and two Olympic time trial titles.