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Inexperience proves costly for Pogacar at Dwars door Vlaanderen

Tadej Pogacar
Tadej Pogacar on the cobbles in Dwars door Vlaanderen (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

An old friend was waiting for Tadej Pogačar when he descended the steps of the UAE Team Emirates bus in Roeselare's Grote Markt on Wednesday morning. Allan Peiper stepped away from his day-to-day role with the team for health reasons during the off-season, but the Australian made the trip from his home in Geraardsbergen to meet with his protégé ahead of Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Peiper was Pogačar's mentor through his early races as a professional and his was the calming voice in the Slovenian's earpiece during his first Tour de France victory in 2020. His words of reassurance before the start here carried weight. After all, Peiper, resident in Belgium for four decades, knows just about everything worth knowing about racing amid the cobblestones, grey skies and church steeples of Flanders.

Even the soundest of advice can only carry a man so far through the tumult of a Flemish spring, however. Experience is the best teacher of all in this corner of the world, as Pogačar acknowledged when he reported to sign on for his first cobbled Classic. "I don't know what to expect from myself," Pogačar told reporters. "I hope to have a good race, with good legs. And I hope not to get lost in the bunch before climbs and cobbles."

Those words proved prescient. Pogačar's strength is rarely, if ever, in question, and he delivered some striking shows of force across the afternoon here, but an error in positioning proved ruinous to his chances. The Slovenian was caught on the back foot when the decisive six-man move featuring winner Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) went clear on Berg Ten Houte with some 70km left to race, and he never made it back to the front.

It wasn't for want of trying, of course. Pogačar made a spirited lone pursuit of the leaders over the top of the following Kanarieberg and he went once again on the Côte de Trieu, at one point seemingly on the cusp of bridging across to Van der Poel, Pidcock et al. The original misstep, however, would prove insurmountable. Pogačar had Jan Tratnik (Bahrain Victorious) and Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) for company, but the leaders inexorably drew away from them. He reached Waregem in 10th place, 2:08 down on Van der Poel.

"It was a hard race the whole day. At the key moment, there was a crash and I had to stay behind. I missed the front group," Pogačar said when he braked to a halt at the finish. "I tried to come back with an effort, but they were too strong in the front, too fast. Then we tried again and again, and in the end, it was a good race."

Tour of Flanders

Pogačar's decision to tackle Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders is one of the most intriguing sub-plots of this year's Classics campaign. His victories at the UAE Tour, Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico have made him an automatic favourite for the Ronde despite his inexperience on this terrain, and his presence surely influenced the tactics of his rivals here. When Van der Poel, Pidcock, Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal) and Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma) realised Pogačar had missed the split over Berg Ten Houte, they didn't need to think twice about striking up a smooth working alliance.

"It's racing, I couldn't avoid that crash there. I lost a few positions because of that crash there. I should move more to the front, but on the climb, it was full gas and I couldn't…" said Pogačar, who smiled when asked if he had drawn any lessons for the Ronde from his first taste of the cobbles here.

"Oh yeah for sure. Already in the first hour, when there were a lot of attacks for the original breakaway, it was a bit hectic. I got the feeling that it's going to be chaotic until the final and it was," Pogačar said. "For sure it's going to be something like that on Sunday or even more."

Pogačar's miscue at Berg Ten Houte will no doubt have heartened some of his Ronde rivals, who must have wondered if he was beatable at all after his remorseless annexation of Strade Bianche earlier in the month. "If you don't make it in the front in Berg Ten Houte, then I think you miss a bit of experience of Flanders routes," said Campenaerts. That thought was echoed by Pidcock. "He doesn't fully understand where the key points are yet, which is completely understandable," he said.

The trouble, of course, is that Pogačar appears to be a preternaturally quick learner. One imagines the lessons of Dwars door Vlaanderen will be digested quickly, even if he was circumspect about his prospects at the Tour of Flanders. "I don't know," he said. "I was not in the front today so I don't know if I can be in front on Sunday."

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Barry Ryan

Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.