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  • Writer's pictureTom Thewlis

Pogačar Claims Revenge in Liège

Reigning Tour de France champion, Tadej Pogačar, saw off some serious competition to follow on from his fellow countryman, Primož Roglič, as winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The young Slovenian also took revenge over Julian Alaphilippe, whose antics arguably cost Pogačar a shot at the win at La Doyenne last year. In a select five-man group coming back into Liège, Pogačar had enough gas left in the tank to see off Alaphilippe, David Gaudu, Mike Woods and Alejandro Valverde in a final sprint for the line to take another huge victory for the 22 year old. It was a thrilling end to another fantastic day’s racing, ending on a positive note what had been a frustrating week for Pogačar and his team.

Tadej Pogačar celebrates at the finish line after another huge win for the Tour de France champion. © Bettini Photo

As was widely anticipated, the winning move was formed on the Roche-aux-Faucons climb as a big attack from Israel Start-up Nation’s Michael Woods on the steepest section forced a split in the main field. Alaphilippe, Gaudu, Valverde and Pogačar were the riders who followed the Canadian, and they quickly had a decisive gap. The race was on, and as the leaders descended into Liège, they all started to plan their final attack to take the win. The biggest surprise was seeing David Gaudu present at the front. Many doubted Gaudu had a fast enough finish to beat the likes of Alaphilippe, and we were left wondering what Gaudu might try to give himself a chance of victory.

Mike Woods pushed on to enable the leading group to form a race-winning gap. © Bettini Photo

As the group came into the last kilometre and the final 500 metres, the only previous winner in Liège, Valverde, found himself on the front with Woods just behind him. Then followed Gaudu, Alaphilippe and Pogačar as the final rider in the line. Valverde was the first to go, leading out the sprint, but the Spaniard had nothing left to respond with when Alaphilippe and Pogačar flew past him on his right. It looked like Alaphilippe had victory almost wrapped up, before Pogačar eventually squeezed round him to steal the show on the line.

Julian Alaphilippe can have no regrets. The World Champion had done everything he had needed to do and was simply matched by an exceptional young talent in Pogačar. Alaphilippe was undoubtedly the favourite to win from the final five, so Pogačar was right to pick his wheel as the sprint unfolded. Sickening for the World Champion to have victory snatched from his grasp again here, but at least this time he raced until the end. When Pogačar signs on at the startline of a race he nearly always wins, and it would have needed something extraordinary to distance him from the final group in the closing stages. A tough ask at the end of a long and arduous day’s racing! Huge credit has to go to David Gaudu here. The young Frenchman was in uncharted territory here and was the least likely rider you would have expected to make the podium. Taking third place was a brilliant and encouraging achievement and continues his upward trajectory in the sport.

David Gaudu's terrific podium finish ensured that a bet was won for the Frenchman, who will now be joined on a seven-hour bike ride with his non-cycling friend. A successful day for the Groupama-FDJ youngster! © Bettini Photo

The day’s early breakaway was a great showcase for Belgian cycling. All of the Belgium teams had a rider present, except the team of the World Champion, who were keeping their powder dry for the finale. The likes of Intermarche Wanty-Gobert were realistically never going to contest the win here, so it made for a great opportunity for some TV coverage to keep the sponsors happy.

It was when the race hit the La Redoute climb that things began to liven up. La Redoute is no longer the climb it was in this race, with race winning attacks rarely launched here. However, 35km from the finish it provided a great opportunity to massively reduce the main field. As teams began to cast their minds towards the finish, Ineos Grenadiers set an infernal pace up the climb with Tao Geoghegan Hart being the main orchestrator behind the attack. Adam Yates was present too, and this was a dangerous move that would have set pulses racing in the bunch. The outcome of this was that a large group went clear and a few key riders missed out, including Julian Alaphilippe. Ineos’ activity at the front generated a lot of interest and resulting questions. They had past form in races of this magnitude, but weren’t expected to challenge here. However, were they looking to build numerical superiority at the front for a shot at victory? It certainly looked that way when Richard Carapaz launched a blistering attack just as the rest of the group were recovering from the initial move.

Richard Carapaz launched a punishing attack before later being disqualified under the new safety rules in place. © Bettini Photo

When Carapaz attacked it was a vicious move and he soon had a gap. The rest of the field seemed reluctant to take responsibility to chase down the Ecuadorian. This was to Carapaz’s advantage as all the while he had teammates in the chasing group, ready to mark attacks from rivals. The chase would be disrupted and he could start to build a bigger advantage. In the end it all came to no avail for Ineos, as Carapaz was caught by the group. The former Giro winner was then subsequently disqualified for getting into the 'super-tuck' position on the top tube of his bike. For all the criticism aimed at the cycling authorities of late, it had been widely outlined recently that this had been outlawed under safety grounds. As controversial as it may be, it’s written into the rules now and the peloton will need to adapt quickly to accommodate this in the races still to come this season.

As the race then hit what many felt would be the decisive climb, the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, Pogačar’s teammate, Davide Formolo, attacked, providing the catalyst for the race-winning move being formed. Firstly Carapaz was reeled back in, and then Michael Woods attacked. We soon saw that only Alaphilippe, Valverde, David Gaudu and Pogačar could follow. Woods had looked in exceptional shape coming into the race and proved he’s one of the best in the world in races with short, steep and punchy climbs. All things considered that would make him a favourite for the Olympic Road Race, but without distancing the likes of Alaphilippe here, the Canadian stood little chance in a final sprint for the line in Liège.

As it was, we now had the select group of five as the race headed towards its conclusion and both Primož Roglič and Ineos were left to rue their luck at a missed opportunity. As the group that made up the final selection rolled into town, they began to tighten their shoes and look at each other as they all prepared for the sprint to come. Michael Woods must have realised his opportunity was disappearing, so he played his hand early, launching a last ditch attack in the streets of Liège which ultimately came to nothing. Gaudu also felt like a longshot for the podium at this stage. The surprise was seeing the most experienced rider, Valverde, allowing himself to be forced into leading out the sprint. At that point, Julian Alaphilippe quickly came around him with Pogačar hot on his heels. The Slovenian was able to generate just enough power in his sprint to get past Alaphilippe and steal the show right at the very end.

Tadej Pogačar was in disbelief at his first Monument victory. © Bettini Photo

The most endearing thing about Tadej Pogačar is his genuine look of shock at his own brilliance when he wins. The young champion’s hands once again instantly going to his head as he crossed the finishing line in Liège. We saw it at the Tour de France last year when he won the stages he did en route to overall victory. That is what makes him so great... the fact he genuinely can’t believe he’s living the dream. The curtain has now fallen on the spring Classics for another year, and as the poet Edward Thomas once said, now all roads lead to France. The Giro promises to be a thoroughly entertaining affair, but that’s it for the likes of Pogačar until the Tour.

Julian Alaphilippe, gracious in defeat, admitted it was no bad thing to lose to a Tour de France champion. It will have hurt the World Champion to finish second here again, but a competitor of the stature of the Frenchman will be back. Alaphilippe has called Liège the big one he wants to win, and he no doubt will one day. However, a competitor as ferocious as Alaphilippe will soon run out of other things to win other than the big one in July. The question is, can he win it (?) and based on everything we’ve seen in his career to date, he almost certainly can.

The Slovenians toppled Alaphilippe once more in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. © Getty Images Sport

Liège rounded off the opening act of what has been an enthralling season of racing so far. We will return to the fabled roads in the Autumn for Paris-Roubaix, but for now all eyes turn to Italy and the Giro for the second act and a different cast of favourites. Then Pogačar, Roglič and Alaphilippe will return to contest the Maillot Jaune in July. The prospect of the racing to come is simply mouth-watering, and if last year is anything to go on then it will certainly deliver.

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