'Maybe I am out of my comfort zone' — Tadej Pogačar ahead of his first Tour of Flanders

Two-time Tour de France winner says it is going to be a "crazy race" on Sunday

Tadej Pogačar
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Imagine you are the almost universally accepted best cyclist in the world, for a second. Imagine you have just come off the back of one of The Great Years in road racing, and you have started off the new season in blistering form, where you left off.

Now imagine that you want to test yourself further, try something you've never done before, throw yourself into the biggest one-day race in the world. You're still a favourite, because you're the best cyclist in the world, but you can't be the out-and-out favourite because you've never done this before.

That's Tadej Pogačar. The 23-year old UAE Team Emirates rider already has a palmarès that most people can only dream of. Yet here he is, in a swanky hotel in the not very salubrious outskirts of Waregem, facing his first ever Tour of Flanders on Sunday.

This is bold. Tour de France champions do not tend to ride the Ronde, let alone challenge for the thing. But that is exactly what Pogačar is here to do.

He knows this, his team knows this, we all know this - the Slovenian could win in Oudenaarde on Sunday. It would be huge, but it would not be too much of a shock.

The two-time Tour champion modestly says: "I would not put myself four stars for Sunday, but I will do my best, try and do everything I can to be in the front. If I do everything right I can be there for sure, the shape is good, we will see."

His directeur sportif, Fabio Baltado, is a bit more certain: "He has the legs, he has the head, the mind to do it. I say yes."

Flanders is different from the Tour, or Liège-Bastogne-Liège, however. It is a different beast for the Slovenian to contend with, the world of cobbled climbs and sharp turns, a race of 270km too. He might have ridden the U23 version once, but that was in 2018, a different world. All he remembers is being hot, and suffering from cramp.

"Maybe I am out of my comfort zone," Pogačar admits. "It's different racing, it's more nervous. I'm not used to it yet, but I really like it, it's motivation for me for sure to do new challenges and the Tour of Flanders is one of the biggest races in the world, so I'm really happy to do it."

The 23-year old is asked why he is here by one journalist.

“Why? I don’t know,” Pogačar says. “We decided back in December to ride it and I’m pretty happy to be here.... They are hard climbs with the cobbles but that’s not everything in this race. It’s all the roads, all the corners, everything. You need to be really careful for all of it. I think today I saw roughly how it should be on Sunday.”

Tadej Pogačar

Pogačar chases alone at Dwars door Vlaanderen

(Image credit: Getty Images)

He raced Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, finishing 10th after missing the key split in the race; the sight of Pogačar chasing off the back of the lead group was a novel one, and not one that he wants to repeat.

"I had the idea of how it should look, and it was like this," he says. "Nervous, hectic, some crashes, left right, fighting for positions, sprinting up the small climbs. It was more or less what I thought it would be but it was still a bit of a shock for the body and the mind."

When asked his biggest fear for Sunday, Pogačar replies: "For something to happen like in Dwars, to be caught behind, not to be in position when the race goes."

His team think he's ready, however, and aim to bring him to the crucial moments of the race in order to help deliver him to glory.

“He’s ready to go and it’s more about avoiding problems," Baltado says. "Every corner, every small road, he just needs to go through to get to the important part. If as a team we can bring him to the last 40km his legs and his talent will be there.”

His teammate Matteo Trentin hopes to be there to help guide Pogačar: "Of course you need experience and you need to know the roads. We did a recon, but the Ronde, you need five days to do the whole recon.

"We did today, we did good in Dwars, and he's good enough to get back in position and be the place he needs to be if something goes not too good. We can start with good morale."

Pogačar is certainly clear what he needs to do, to be switched on at all times. Might be easy to say, but harder to do in a race of over six hours.

"The race here I think you need to be ready almost for all the kilometres," he says. "When you get to the parts that we reconned today, I think that's where will the race will start, and all those climbs you never know. Which climb it will go, but you need to be in front on all these sectors. Try and be attentive and watch others."

One of the biggest news stories in Flanders is the possibility of Wout van Aert not riding on Sunday, with his Jumbo-Visma team saying it is "unlikely".

However, Pogačar does not think it will change the race's complexion too much.

"There are a lot of strong riders out there," he explains. "It's a big competition, and it's going to be a hard race in any case. You cannot focus on one guy, you need to focus on a lot of guys. It's going to be a crazy race if Wout is there or not."

A crazy race, that the Slovenian hopes to master at his first attempt. If it would be anyone, it would be him, wouldn't it.

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