Hoping for Healy, Pidcock, or Skjelmose: Why it's essential for an outsider to defeat Van der Poel and Pogacar Cycling

Hoping for Healy, Pidcock, or Skjelmose: Why it's essential for an outsider to defeat Van der Poel and Pogacar

Hoping for Healy, Pidcock, or Skjelmose: Why it's essential for an outsider to defeat Van der Poel and Pogacar

Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar are expected to dominate. That's the common prediction for Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It's not surprising. Both men have set their sights on La Doyenne and skipped some races in the lead-up to this oldest Monument, as they have been doing throughout 2024 in pursuit of the biggest prizes in cycling. Behind them, there’s a long list of dark horse candidates. They talk about nothing but winning. It’s hoped that they can genuinely challenge the two top contenders, not just to make Sunday’s race open and exciting, but also to add more prestige to other major races.

Because the world's greatest cyclists are now targeting only the biggest races. And who can blame them? Flanders, Roubaix, Liège, the Tour, the World Championships, Lombardy. These are the races to focus on every year. The rest of the beautiful, extensive, and diverse WorldTour calendar is either skipped or visited just once. Take Pogacar’s raid in Catalonia, for instance. It seems very unlikely that the Slovenian will return to Barcelona and its surroundings anytime soon. The elite cyclists check off the remaining boxes on their cycling report card and move on to the most prestigious races in the world.

Van der Poel didn’t care at all that he didn’t win the Amstel Gold Race

Pogacar thought the same last year with his participation in La Flèche Wallonne. And Van der Poel this year about the Amstel Gold Race. The UAE Team Emirates powerhouse easily claimed his victory at the Mur de Huy in 2023, an iconic climb in cycling. Pogacar has probably forgotten where Huy is, what the Mur de Huy is, and is likely glad he didn’t start in La Flèche Wallonne. He won there last year and has no reason to ever return. La Flèche Wallonne has become too small for Pogacar. It’s an annoying and frustrating realization. But he's no longer interested in that race. The same will be true for Catalonia. He's been there, left his mark, and that’s it.

A similar pattern can be observed with Van der Poel. In his scaled-back spring season, he competed only in the Monuments, the E3 Saxo Classic, and Gent-Wevelgem alongside them. He boldly stated that these aren’t races he necessarily wants to win. Bold claims, something no top cyclist would have said a decade ago. For example, Peter Sagan finished on the podium in Gent-Wevelgem six times. Van der Poel’s attitude after the Gold Race was equally telling. He won that race already, in a way that will never be repeated. He didn't need to win there. To all those watching him, he effectively thumbed his nose. You don’t want to race? Fine. You don’t win the Gold Race either. Because I don’t particularly need to.

Hoping for Healy, Pidcock, or Skjelmose: Why it's essential for an outsider to defeat Van der Poel and Pogacar
  Pogacar tells us how many stage victories he claimed in Catalonia 

Cycling needs more top riders like Valverde and Alaphilippe

Pogacar and Van der Poel undoubtedly made the right call. They skipped La Flèche Wallonne and watched as all their challengers fell out exhausted and hypothermic or crossed the finish line battered. Van der Poel had previously skipped several Flemish preparation races and saw competitors like Wout van Aert, Mads Pedersen, and Biniam Girmay crash hard. And then there's the Basque Country, where Primoz Roglic and Remco Evenepoel fell, preventing them from making it to Liège. Taking risks doesn't pay off anymore. It's only about the biggest goals now. This leads to a division in cycling. The sub-top riders see recharged aliens at the most prestigious races, diminishing the status of races they could actually win.

La Flèche Wallonne is the most recent example of this. And in this context, it's worth looking back about eight years ago. Alejandro Valverde was the top favorite for Liège-Bastogne-Liège every year. Yet, he always made a point of stopping by Huy. The same was true for Julian Alaphilippe. He didn't skip La Flèche Wallonne in his prime years either. It resulted in iconic duels and always a big name on the winners' list. La Flèche Wallonne was a thing. A prize. Too beautiful to ignore because the top riders decided to go there together. And a top race isn't a top race anymore if the biggest stars stay home. After all, we're talking about a classic WorldTour race.

Hoping for Healy, Pidcock, or Skjelmose: Why it's essential for an outsider to defeat Van der Poel and Pogacar
Valverde and Alaphilippe fought nice duels in the spring.

Hoping for a strike from Healy or a miracle day from Pidcock

It might be wishful thinking. No, it very likely is. But how wonderful would it be if all those Liège-Bastogne-Liège previews focusing only on those two names were for nothing. If one of the brave La Flèche Wallonne warriors found a barrel of energy to pull off a huge upset on Sunday. Secretly, I'm hoping for a bold move from Ben Healy or Stephen Williams. Or a miracle day from Tom Pidcock. Or a heroic act from a well-warmed Mattias Skjelmose. Just because they made the effort to travel to the icy, rain-soaked Charleroi on Wednesday. Tough luck for Pogacar and Van der Poel. They should have ridden La Flèche Wallonne.

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