Mathieu van der Poel has admitted that he thought Tadej Pogačar would prove victorious at the Tour of Flanders instead of him.
Van der Poel and the double Tour de France champion rode away together inside the final 20kms, and Pogačar almost distanced his fellow escapee on the final climb of the Paterberg.
But the Dutchman just about held onto the wheel of the Slovenian, and the duo made it to the finish together, although a game of poker led to Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) and Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) joining the pair for the finishing sprint, won by Van der Poel with Pogačar having to settle for fourth.
It is the second time in three editions the Alpecin-Fenix rider has won De Ronde, but the 27-year-old counted himself lucky to have done so.
"Especially on the Kwaremont and Paterberg, Tadej rode up really, really fast. On the Paterberg, I was about to give in," he said in Dutch afterwards.
"I don't think I've ever come up this tired before. But I knew I had to get over it and that I would be able to recover until the sprint.
"It was also to my advantage that I have already sprinted for the victory a few times here.
"I think Pogačar was perhaps the best man in the race. I would certainly have awarded him the podium and even the victory."
Victory marks a sensational return to action for the Dutchman who until two weeks ago hadn't ridden on the road since last October due to a persistent back problem.
He remembered his recent struggles in the immediate aftermath of yet another superb triumph. "It's incredible," he said. "I have worked so hard for this one. At first I was not sure if I would even get to the Classics, so to win Flanders is incredible."
He will compete in Amstel Gold next Sunday, a race he infamously won in 2019 with an outstanding performance in the final 10km, before returning to the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix in a fortnight.
"First, I'm going to enjoy this one," he said. "I have worked really hard to be here and I have a lot of people to thank first [before thinking about Roubaix]."
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