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Any Race With Tadej Pogacar In It Is A Race For Second

Slovenian Tadej Pogacar of UAE Team Emirates celebrates after winning the 86th edition of the men's race 'La Fleche Wallonne', a one day cycling race (Waalse Pijl - Walloon Arrow), 194,2 km from Herve to Huy, Wednesday 19 April 2023. BELGA PHOTO DIRK WAEM (Photo by DIRK WAEM / BELGA MAG / Belga via AFP) (Photo by DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)
Dirk Waem/Getty Images

Last weekend, some cycling fans were discussing who they thought would win this week's edition of La Fleche Wallonne, an always-entertaining Ardennes classic that finishes atop one of the most leg-busting climbs in the world: the Mur de Huy. The Mur (French for "wall") is such a steep, unforgiving climb that predicting who will win is something of a crapshoot, as it all comes down to who has the legs on race day. One fan suggested that two-time Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar should race, though it was quickly clarified that Pogacar was not riding. At this point, Pogacar himself stepped in to embody the little purple devil guy emoji and ask, "ARE YOU SURE." Four days later, he smoked everyone on his way up the Mur and won La Fleche Wallonne in style.

All Pogacar has done this year is win. In the two stage races he's started in 2023, Pogacar has won six out of the 12 total individual stages, while taking home the overall and points classifications. After winning La Fleche Wallonne, Pogacar has now also won four out of the six one-day races he's taken part in. That tally includes a Monument win at the Tour of Flanders, back-to-back Ardennes wins at Amstel Gold this past weekend and La Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday, third place at E3 and fourth place at Milan-San Remo. Even if you don't count general classification wins in this calculation, and merely want to focus on stage-by-stage wins, Pogacar has won over half the races he's started this year. That's better than any full season Eddy Merckx put together. The only riders who can even hang with him are Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, and since neither of them are built for the hilly terrain of the Ardennes classics, this campaign belongs to Pogacar alone.

Watch his body as he zips up the Mur. Romain Bardet, fighting to keep his bike moving forward by jerking his weight back and forth with each pedal stroke. Pogacar stays composed. Mattias Skjelmose jerks his torso forward and back as he kicks and settles. Pogacar stays on a straight line, until he drops the hammer, and rapidly ping-pongs back and forth. Mikel Landa keeps his bike on a line while his legs fly around. Pogacar looks back, lets up, and coasts across the line.

When he zoomed away from van der Poel on the Oude Kwaremont to win Flanders solo, it was the same thing. Gravity was absolutely working van der Poel, while Pogacar floated. It's a difficult thing, having style on a bike, but Pogacar pulls it off.

This stunning spring campaign comes one year after Pogacar's most famous loss. Looking like a certain bid to control the Tour de France after he won the sixth and seventh stages and seized the yellow jersey early, Pogacar truly cracked for the first time at the Tour, as Jonas Vingegaard left him smeared on the slopes of the Col du Granon Serre Chevalier like roadkill with a stunning series of attacks. Vingegaard took yellow into Paris, setting us up for an enticing 2023 Tour and leaving Pogacar in an unfamiliar place: second.

To call Pogacar's 2023 a comeback isn't correct, as he won three one-day races, including a Monument after the Tour last year. This is merely a continuation of the dominant form he's shown since he won the 2020 Tour de France with an all-timer of a time trial. The 2022 Tour was the blip, and dominating every race he's taken part in this year is only a difference in degree, not kind. Pogacar will get a crack at another Monument this Sunday when he lines up at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and you'd be a fool to bet on anyone else. Whether he wins or loses that race (he'll win), it will wrap a spectacular classics campaign. Nobody is doing it like him on both the hills and on the cobbles, and once this is over, his next major race will be the Tour. I can't wait, and he'll have two months and change to keep listening to his preferred pump-up jam.

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