Tadej Pogačar threw his arms in the air as he crossed the line at the Tour of Flanders, but it was a gesture of remonstration rather than celebration. Boxed in and forced to settle for fourth-place in the four-man sprint, he was clearly unhappy as his gesticulations continued beyond the finish line.
The Tour de France champion perhaps spurned a glorious opportunity to win a third Monument title on his debut at the Ronde, and he was in no mood to speak to the media in the immediate aftermath, wheeling straight past camera crews and reporters.
Some 45 minutes later, after a shower and a chance to digest the disappointment, Pogačar put on a brave face. Not just that, but there was barely a flicker of regret - nevermind anger - as he smilingly fielded questions from the steps of his team bus.
"I think I love this race," Pogačar told the assembled reporters, including Cyclingnews.
"All in all, it was a great experience. It was a really amazing race. The team was super and perfect. We lit it up in the finale, me alone with Mathieu [Van der Poel], and the atmosphere on the climbs was incredible."
Pogačar had dominated the race with repeated accelerations on the critical climbs, first blowing the race apart on the Koppenberg before going clear with Van der Poel on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. He was unable to drop the 2020 champion on the Paterberg and the pair rode to the finish in Oudenaarde together.
However, what looked like a two-up sprint for glory suddenly turned into a four-man contest as they played cat-and-mouse, allowing Dylan van Baarle and Valentin Madouas to join from behind. Van der Poel opened the sprint but Pogačar slipped back and soon found himself boxed-in behind Van Baarle and Madouas, trailing home in fourth and clearly not pleased.
"In the moment, I was really disappointed because I couldn't do my sprint. I was boxed-in, but that’s cycling. Sometimes you’re boxed-in and sometimes you have open road," Pogačar explained.
"I was not really mad about it to anyone. It might have seemed that way but I was frustrated with myself because I couldn’t do the best 100 metres to the finish."
Half an hour later, Cyclingnews learned that UAE director Fabio Baldato had gone to visit the race jury to review footage of the sprint and investigate a possible infringement of the rules. He said it was "on the limit" but the matter went no further.
Pogačar might have missed out to Van der Poel anyway, but for him to be absent from the podium entirely seemed like something of an injustice given the way he shaped the race.
The Slovenian, whose UAE Team Emirates teammates were prominent all day, hit the front for the first time on the Kanarieberg with 70km to go, before launching his first true acceleration on the first ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, where he breezed past a select group that had formed several kilometres before.
After going over the Paterberg in the first few, he hit the gas again on the savage Koppenberg, and this time only two could follow: Van der Poel and Madouas. He forced the issue again on the Taaienberg and they caught the leading duo of Van Baarle and Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious).
On the final ascent of the Kwaremont, he accelerated early and rode the group off his wheel one-by-one, with only Van der Poel able to hang on.
"We saw that there was a tailwind on the Oude Kwaremont and we said that I needed to go there on the second last or last time, to try my best," Pogačar said.
"It's a difficult climb, one of the longest, and so it was good for me. I like the Oude Kwaremont; the atmosphere gives you goosebumps."
Pogačar bossed it again on the Paterberg - the final climb - and for a second it looked as if he might shake Van der Poel, but he was forced to ride with the Dutchman to the finish.
"[Van der Poel] came next to me and I tried to accelerate but there wasn’t enough in my legs to drop him," he added. "He was on fire today, really good. We were more or less the same on the climbs. I tried to beat him in the sprint but it wasn’t my day."
Perhaps most surprisingly, Pogačar revealed he did it all on feel, having lost his bike computer in a crash in the early kilometres of the race.
"I lost my SRM head unit and so was relying on my radio and my sports director, Fabio Baldato. In the end it was perhaps even better [racing] without the numbers, and not so nervous.
"It wouldn't have changed anything. Here you cannot rely on the numbers, you need to go full gas on the climbs. We have directors talking in the radio and he talked us through the sectors and corners really well. It didn't matter."
This was only Pogačar's second appearance at the cobbled Classics as a professional, following Wednesday's appearance at Dwars door Vlaanderen. He missed the move that day but showed he's a quick learner and that the Tour of Flanders is within his grasp one day, having already won Monuments at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia, not to mention two Tour de France titles.
As he prepared to get back on the bus, the Belgian TV reporters were keen to know if Pogačar will be returning in the future.
"Yes," came the simple but decisive response.
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