Muhammad Ali floated like a butterfly and punched like a mule kick, and fascinated poets describe Jon Rahm as the fists of Paulino Uzcudun with a conductor’s baton, sensitive and rhythmic, touch, and, they add, for that matter, that the same delicate baton flies harmoniously in the hands of Carlos Alcaraz who makes the ball run almost at the speed of light, and so precisely. Strength and sensitivity, demolition and beauty, in the hard and light legs, agile, synchronous as if they did not dance on the pedals of an organ, by Tadej Pogacar destroyerwho slightly lifts his ass from the saddle, almost like an enthusiast in a session of spinning in the gym, almost like Fabian Cancellara in his wild days, and in a 100-meter stretch on the Keutenberg slope he beats the sticky and powerful Tom Pidcock by 30 meters, unbeatable at nothing in the Strade Bianche, and he smiles, the smile of the killer, and wins the Amstel. A massive attack, infinite comparisons, as atomic as the one that Ding subjected Nepo on the chessboard at the same time and thousands of kilometers away, in Astana.
And three days later, the peloton behind him all day, not watching his movements, but waiting for the moment when he would attack so that more than 20 riders could fight free for second place, and he, sadistically, makes them believe first that they he would let them pass, and he makes them wait and sigh, and 180 meters from the top of the Mur de Huy he repeats the acceleration, the rebel lock peeking out of the helmet and marking the path of victory in the Walloon Arrow, and this time coincides with Nepo crushing to Ding.
In the golden age, cycling is like that. Five magnificent ones who fight each other, each one in his field, and Tadej Pogacar, who fights against everyone, in all fields. To the endless Van Aert-Van der Poel duel in one day races, Pogacar joins, who makes them sweat in San Remo and defeat in Flanders. Against Vingegaard, a rival in the stage events, the 24-year-old Slovenian already beat, and won, in Paris-Nice. With his old compatriot Primoz Roglic, Pogacar already had it since his first year with the greats, in 2019. He made him sweat in the Vuelta that year and beat him in the Tour of 20.
This year, Roglic has not crossed his path for a day, nor has the sixth phenomenon, Remco Evenepoel, a profile so similar to his, and the same supreme ambition, magnificent in stage events (he has won a Vuelta) and also in hard and broken one-day tests, World Cup, San Sebastián, Liège, those of the so-called Tour men.
It is the duel that was missing, the last fight. This Sunday (Eurosport and Tdp, 13.00-17.30) will be held. In the Belgian Ardennes. The Dean. Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The monument born in 1892, more alive than ever. Pogacar won it in 2021, Evenepoel the following year. They have never been seen there. One more Sunday, a new clash of phenomena. Defeated Vingegaard, Van Aert, Van der Poel, it was the turn of Evenepoel, always following, surely, the path of Eddy Merckx, cannibal of monuments in April and throughout the year.
Although they rose to the great cycling stage at the same time, in the spring of 2019, and although they are only 16 months old, the Belgian is younger, the paths of Pogacar and Evenepoel have barely crossed. In almost five years in the peloton, only 16 days have they started in the same race, and half, eight, in the same test, La Tirreno-Adriatico in 2022. In that test, the Slovenian overwhelmed, who won the general classification and He won in two stages, in the same way that he had won the 2021 Lombardy in which the Belgian who lives in Calpe was 19th. Two of Evenepoel’s triumphs, the Klasikoa in San Sebastián and the 1922 World Cup, were attended by Pogacar, and he watched them from afar.
Evenepoel is preparing the Giro, which starts in two weeks, and has been training on Teide. He arrives with the strength of the height, 21 days of competition – three laps a week, one in January, in Argentina; one in February, in Dubai, and one in March, in Catalonia—, three victories and one defeat against Roglic in the Volta. From Pogacar his numbers are repeated after each victory, 12 in 18 days of competition. After Liège he will rest until June. A preparation race, his Tour of Slovenia, and the Tour de France, where Vingegaard, who defeated him last year, awaits him.
As everyone surrendered to Merckx 50 years ago, Luis Ocaña despaired and cried. What a miserable squad, what a cowardice, he accused, you always have to try to dethrone the king, you never have to bend your back. The man from Cuenca called his dog Eddy and Merckx harassed him and made him bleed. Most of the time, Ocaña was defeated, but when he defeated him in Orcières Merlette in the 1971 Tour — “he has killed me as bullfighters kill a bull in the arena”, the cannibal surrendered — he felt that all his rebellion and character they made sense. Evenepoel is of the temper of Ocaña, proud, arrogant. He will not say at the end, if he does not win, I am happy, being second behind Pogacar is the best thing to be, as everyone says, but he will cry and rebel. And before he will fight. And he’ll cry if he wins, like he cried last year going into the final straight alone. He had attacked, in his pure style and in the pure Pogacar style too, 30 kilometers away, on the false flat that followed the penultimate slope, La Redoute, the hardest two kilometers of the 260 kilometers that go up and down, down and up , Belgian Ardennes.
Pogacar won his Liège beating a small group, Alaphilippe, Gaudu, Valverde, Woods, on the straight of the Ardennes quay, next to the peaceful Ourthe. The most hallucinated warn that being the two of them, impatient and audacious, the most likely thing is that they will attack each other in Stockeu, the perfect slope —1,000 meters at 12%, and a trail reminding Merckx, the cannibal they both imitate— , more than 70 kilometers from Liège. The wisest predict a fight in La Redoute, and the most meticulous remember that this year La Redoute has been shortened by 400 meters, eliminating the false flat that Evenepoel loves, replaced by a steep descent along a narrow road and an ascent to the chapel of Cornemont. In addition, to complicate the strategy, the last obstacle has been reintroduced before La Roche aux Faucons, 13 from the finish line, the Forges slope, absent in 2022 in the lonely ride towards greatness of Evenepoel. Through La Redoute, leaving Remoulins, the town of Philippe Gilbert, the two spent Friday training. Pogacar, for a walk, and in his hand a mobile with which he engraved his name painted on the asphalt in large letters; Evenepoel, rainbow on his chest, accelerated, his eyes fixed on the potentiometer, admiring how he ascended the watt scale, at the top, at the top, until breaking, according to Strava, the record for the climb.
The two of them and the wind in La Redoute, in the Forges, in Stockeu, the rain that announces itself after lunch and the peloton behind. The fight in Liège will gain almost metaphysical value, a vision of the future, a reflection on what is coming, the vertigo.
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