If I were a betting woman I would put money on Tadej Pogačar to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday, not because he is the defending champ but because he lost La Flèche Wallonne.
Pogačar faded to 12th in the one-day classic on Wednesday, losing pace on the Mur de Huy where winner Dylan Teuns got the better of Alejandro Valverde, who I can only assume has the elixir of life at home given he’s still at the pointy end of such races and against such competition at 41. It’s more mind blowing than Pogačar winning two Tour de France titles before his 23rd birthday.
But anyway, I digress.
Pogačar has barely put a pedal stroke wrong this season and that is perhaps partly why he was hyped as a contender in the lead-up to the race he has only twice competed in before, finishing ninth in 2020 and 18th in 2019.
He won the UAE Tour on 2022 season debut, then went on to win Strade Bianche, won two stages, the race title and points classification at Tirreno-Adriatico, was fifth at Milan-San Remo, 10th at Dwars door Vlaanderen and fourth at the Tour of Flanders.
The industry has become so accustomed to the Slovenian winning that when he doesn’t it’s almost a bigger news story. The headlines generated from his post-race interview at La Flèche Wallonne suggested as much. “Tadej Pogačar provides a mortal reminder on the Mur de Huy,” read one. “Tadej Pogačar shrugs off suggestions of weakness after fading in La Flèche Wallonne,” said another.
And indeed, at least regarding the latter, he did, already looking ahead to his title defence.
“I’m fully motivated for Sunday,” Pogačar told journalists at the finish. “I don’t see this as a weakness. It’s a one-day race and this happens. Sometimes you can’t do your best, sometimes you can do really good, but I don’t think that this was a weakness.”
I was reminded of a conversation I had with UAE Team Emirates sports director Fabio Baldato at the Tour of Oman in February.
I’d asked the Italian for his opinion on the prodigy, who he worked with for the first time at a handful of one-day races at the end of the 2021 season, including Il Lombardia, which Pogačar won, having placed fourth behind compatriot Primož Roglič three days before at Milano-Torino and third the day before that at Tre Valli Varesine.
“He was third at Tre Valli [Varesine],” Baldato recalled. “He was working hard, he was a little bit tired but after Milano-Torino, there he lost the race, he was not at the level of Yates and the others. I was looking in his eyes and he said, ‘No worries, Saturday [at Il Lombardia] I will be there.’ He wanted to be there, he knew he was not far from them, it was a hard day, he was beat, but already, he was thinking, ‘I show you in two days [at Lombardia] what I can do.’”
“He always wants to compete,” said Baldato. “He wants to be the first. Everything he does he’s got to win.”
The other observation Pogačar made on Wednesday was that La Flèche Wallonne, not dissimilar to Milano-Torino you could say, was a hard race, a hard final.
“I did my best,” he said. “I pushed myself over the limit and I came to the front row with 200m to go. I was quite excited to be there, and I thought that I could do good but then the lactate hit me, and I barely got to the finish. It’s all good.”
Like I said, if I were a betting woman…