Had Tadej Pogačar stuck to an earlier version of his 2023 game plan and avoided La Flèche Wallonne, there would have been a colossal power vacuum in the mid-week Classic this spring.
Not only is Alejandro Valverde, the record holder in Flèche with five victories, missing from the running after his retirement, but three-time winner Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal-QuickStep) and defending champion Dylan Teuns (Israel-Premier Tech) are also not present. As a result, on Wednesday’s provisional start list, there’s a serious dearth of top names who have already triumphed on the Mur de Huy.
Normally, the search for a new dominator of the only Spring Classic with a full-blown summit finish would have been subject to much debate on Wednesday morning. But as it is, Tadej Pogačar’s overwhelming status as pre-race favourite in just about every event he starts makes the question of who can beat the Slovenian a tricky one to answer.
Those wanting to best Pogačar can draw comfort from the fact that in three Flèche starts, Pogačar has had a comparatively poor track record of 53rd in 2019, ninth in 2020 and twelfth in 2022.
His DNS in 2021 was certainly not due to low form, though, rather a positive COVID test in the team that caused the entire UAE squad to withdraw the night before. No matter, Pogačar proceeded to win in Liège on the following Sunday. On top of that, morale in Pogačar’s team will be sky-high given his seemingly unstoppable runaway train of 2023 success, and that the UAE line-up also includes the one previous Flèche Wallonne winner lining up in Hervé this Wednesday morning – Switzerland’s Marc Hirschi.
It’s also worth remembering that La Flèche Wallonne is invariably the most predictable of all the Spring Classics in terms of how it unfolds. 2003 is the 20th anniversary of the most recent Flèche Wallonne that failed to ened in a mass uphill bunch sprint, when Igor Astarloa shed fellow-Basque Aitor Osa to claim Spain’s first-ever win in Flèche Wallonne. Two decades on and with UAE likely to be keeping everything under control trying to break away early, then, is even less likely to succeed. Unless, of course, you’re Pogačar, who’s proven to be quite good at long-distance moves recently.
Yet for all that and even if neither of the two riders that stopped the Slovenian this spring in the Classics, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), are present in the Ardennes, Pogačar has not won every…
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