Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) aren’t in a breakaway league of their own, it just sometimes feels that way. Much like with Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), the prizes on offer along the way can occasionally seem almost incidental to the overarching narrative of their rivalry.
Flèche Wallonne doubles as the latest installment in the ongoing Slovenian saga, even if Pogačar politely reminded reporters in a video call on Tuesday that he will not be racing only against his fellow countryman on the Mur de Huy at La Flèche Wallonne.
Even so, the breathless edition of Itzulia Basque Country earlier this month was, at its core, a duel between Pogačar and Roglič, with the older man emerging victorious. Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, meanwhile, will be their final competitive meeting this side of the Tour de France.
“Tomorrow and Sunday are completely different races to the Basque Country,” Pogačar said. “They [Jumbo-Visma] were really strong there, the strongest team, I guess, but tomorrow is a totally different race compared to Basque, and so is Sunday. For sure, they are one team to look out for, but let’s not forget about the other 23 teams. It’s a big field.”
There is also, at least in 2011 winner Philippe Gilbert’s view, a longer than usual list of potential victors, including a trio of past winners: Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates companion Marc Hirschi.
“Yeah, I agree, it’s a big field of great riders,” said Pogačar. “It’s a punchy finish, short and really hard. If you have good legs, then you can win. If you don’t have them, then you cannot. There’s a lot riders thinking that, so I think it’s going to be an interesting battle.”
Pogačar is lining out at the Ardennes Classics for the third time in his career, and he acknowledged that one-day racing provided something of a mental break from his usual diet of weeklong events.
“It breaks the rhythm a little bit,” he said. “I really enjoy them and I hope that maybe one day I can win some of them.”
While Roglič is making his debut at Flèche Wallonne, Pogačar placed eighth in the race last year, though he downplayed the idea that his compatriot might suffer from his lack of experience on the Mur de Huy. Roglič, after all, won Liège-Bastogne-Liège at the first attempt last October, beating Pogačar into third.
“I’ve done this race two times before, but you also do Mur de Huy three times in the race so you see the final and you see the climb,” said Pogačar. “For sure with each year, you have more experience but Roglič will not be the only one against us tomorrow. There are a lot of other riders who also know the final and know the race.”
One of those riders is Pogačar’s stable-mate Hirschi, though the Swiss rider has yet to replicate his sparkling from of last Autumn since his sudden departure from Team DSM early in the new year, and he admitted to “missing a few percentage points” after placing 35th at Amstel Gold Race.
“We have a strong team here,” Pogačar said. “Formolo is coming from a training camp preparing for the Giro so I hope he will be good. Marc is getting better and better with each race. I think we have good options and we have a lot of cards tomorrow and next Sunday.”
Pogačar has competed more often than most of his Tour rivals so far in 2021, clocking up 21 race days and racking up victories at the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico. “For sure it’s a little bit exhausting to be in shape from the first race but if you recover well after the races, I think it’s manageable,” said Pogačar, who, as ever, appears unfazed by his status since winning last year’s Tour.
“For sure there’s more pressure on me but at the same time, less pressure from me. I think it’s harder to defend [the Tour], but it’s easier knowing that I’ve already won it, and there’s nothing more you can do when you do your best.”
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