Ronde van Vlaanderen 2022 did not disappoint despite the absence of Belgian champion Wout van Aert. Tadej Pogačar is not a regular Tour de France champion, who just targets one big race a year, with the Slovenian showing his punch on the short Belgian cobble climbs, creating multiple splits throughout the day. Only Mathieu van der Poel could hold his wheel in the finale as the race ended with a sprint from a standing position between the Dutchman and Slovenian. As Van der Poel and the Slovene finessed, Maduoas and van Baarle returned from behind, boxing in Pogačar in the last 200 metres, whilst van der Poel opened up a huge sprint to win his second Ronde van Vlaanderen. The frustrated Pogačar only finished 4th as he was surpassed by Dylan van Baarle and Valentin Madouas who took podium honours.
Sadly, Wout van Aert due to Covid infection, missed the race after he won Omloop and E3 earlier this season. Gent-Wevelgem winner Biniam Girmay and world champion Julian Alaphilippe also skipped Flanders with the former returning to Eritrea and the latter preparing for his Ardennes campaign.
The race opened with 100 km to go as Jumbo-Visma used one of their domestiques, Nathan van Hooydonck, and sent him in an early attack from the peloton. No one reacted to this move and he caught Jonas Koch, the Bora-Hansgrohe rider who attacked a few kilometres previously, and worked together, putting pressure on other favourite teams in the peloton.
With 91 km to go Ivan Garcia Cortina from Movistar launched an attack on a climb and created a dangerous 11 rider group, which included one of the big pre-race favourites, Mads Pedersen as well as Ben Turner, Alberto Bettiol, Zdenek Štybar and more. Almost all of the big teams were represented except TotalEnergies and the UAE-Emirates who missed the move and were forced to chase for Tadej Pogačar and Anthony Turgis. Later Bahrain-Victorious joined chasing for Matej Mohorič and AG2R Citroën for Oliver Naesen and Greg van Avermaet.
The situation looked dangerous for Pogačar as the 13 rider group (they caught Koch and van Hooydonck) was strong and there were multiple teammates, willing to work hard such as Kirsch for Pedersen. Eventually, Quick-Step riders Steimle and Štybar, who were both in the small group, stopped pulling as their team leader Kasper Asgreen was back in the peloton with van der Poel and Pogačar, who looked stressed in his Ronde van Vlaanderen debut and even attempted to close the gap himself after it had grown to over one minute.
Crashes are inevitable in the Belgian classics and two of the race favourites Christophe Laporte and Anthony Turgis were involved in a big crash at the back of the peloton prior to the second ascent of the Kwaremont, a crucial point of the race where riders do not want to be spending extra energy chasing.
With Quickstep no longer cooperating in the Pedersen group, Tim Wellens, Kevin Geniets and Connor Swift proved that it is possible to bridge the gap from the peloton in a short period of time. However the race was turned upside down when the peloton reached the mighty Oude Kwaremont climb where Pogačar went full-gas despite starting from a bad position, catching both the front group and the early breakaway of the day. Pogačar continued to pull hard on the front and completely thinned down the group on the climb. Only a few riders like van der Poel could stay on his wheel whilst Benoot and Laporte were dropped.
After Kwaremont there was another steep cobble climb, Paterberg, where Jan Tratnik accelerated and dropped like four Quick-Step riders. On the flat section the Wolfpack needed to work hard to pull back a dozen rider big group with Pogačar, Pidcock and van der Poel in it. Quick-Step pulled everyone back except Fred Wright and Dylan van Baarle, who had previously attacked. Despite Tratnik dropping every Quick-Step rider on Paterberg, the Belgian team continued to pace and waste energy.
The next climb proved that it was not going to be Quick-Step’s day and there must be some concern with Patrick Lefevere with his team’s sub-par performance in all of the Spring classics. It was again Pogačar’s show on Koppenberg (0.6 km, 9.7%), as the Slovenian looked head and shoulders above everyone on climbs, distancing the entire field except van der Poel and Valentin Madouas who were able to cling on. Asgreen did not look good on the climb and later had his race finished by a mechanical at the end of the Koppenberg.
Van Baarle and Wright where still at the front with a few second lead. Pogačar, van der Poel and Madouas caught them, creating a strong five man group. It was game-over for everyone else behind them as they quickly took a 63 second lead with 29 kilometres to go. The question now was if someone could hold on to Pogačar’s wheel when he goes full-gas up the last Oude Kwaremont x Paterberg combination.
Everyone willingly collaborated with Pogačar, ignoring his dominant performances in Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, despite van Baarle having Pidcock in the group behind. Eventually Wright skipped some turns as they closed in on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.
Surprisingly, Pogačar decided on the Kwaremont to pace steadily, but hard with no huge acceleration. Usually it is easier to drop someone with an uneven tempo or an acceleration, but Pogačar chose Annemiek van Vleuten’s strategy in Strade Bianche 2022, where she paced steadily on the hard finish climb with Lotte Kopecky holding on her wheel and later beating her in the last hundred metres. Only van der Poel could hold Pogačar’s wheel with van Baarle dropping immediately on the Kwaremont and Madouas the last to be distanced.
The Slovenian had another chance to drop the Dutchman on the last climb of the day, the Paterberg, with van der Poel surprisingly willing to work together with Pogačar before the climb. It was a perfect situation for the Tour de France champion but again on the Paterberg he chose to ride up with a constant pace. Van der Poel struggled hard and did not even pick the right gear as he was grinding with an extremely low cadence, but luckily Pogačar was not strong enough to ride away from the Dutchman.
After the climb there was left a 12 kilometre flat section with both van der Poel and Pogačar working hard together as they had a 30 second lead over Madous and van Baarle. In the last kilometre they both stopped completely as van der Poel refused to provide a lead-out for Pogačar and they began to track stand. It was going to be a sprint from a standing position like in the 2020 Ronde van Vlaanderen, were van Aert lost to van der Poel, who suits this kind of sprint low-speed sprint. The two favourites played cat and mouse so much that Madouas from the back caught them with van Baarle in his wheel, but when van der Poel opened his devastating sprint with 225 metres to go, no one had a chance. The Dutchman won Ronde van Vlaanderen for the second time in his career.
Pogačar got boxed-in and finished only 4th. A terrible end for the Slovenian who was perhaps the strongest overall rider in the race. There were not an easy option for him in the end, as he would have preferred MVDP to provide a higher pace leadout for the sprint, but van der Poel held his nerve.
Van Baarle finished 2nd. Another silver medal in a big race for the INEOS Grendiers rider who finished 2nd also in 2021 World Championships in Flanders. Groupama-FDJ puncheur Valentin Madouas was 3rd, after showing great results in E3 (7th) and Dwars door Vlaanderen (11th) earlier in 2022. It was a marvelous race for FDJ as Stefan Kung finished 5th.