Duel in Liège: Pogacar-Van der Poel Who will outdo the other? GETTY IMAGES

Tadej Pogacar is standing in the way of Mathieu van der Poel becoming the first man in almost half a century to win three of the season's five major one-day races at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. The Slovenian wants to add the 'old lady' to his trophy cabinet. The Dutchman is aiming for a third monument after Flanders and Roubaix.

It's 259 kilometres and over 4,200 metres of climbing. That's more than many of the mountain stages of the Tour de France. Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the elder of the classics, the most coveted by all, is a jewel in every cyclist's hand. It will take place on Sunday 22 April on the winding forest roads of the Ardennes and will feature two of the best cyclists of the moment. 

Pogacar will be chased by world champion Van der Poel, who has been hailed as the best classics rider of his generation. He has won the ultra-tough Tour of Flanders and the cobbled classics of Paris-Roubaix. 

Should Van der Poel win the final spring classics on Sunday, he would become the first man since the legendary Eddy Merckx in 1975 to win three of the 'five monuments' in a single season. It has been almost half a century since anyone has done it. "It will be a great battle with Mathieu," said Pogacar on Friday as he inspected the terrain. "Although I probably climb better than him, I think he is capable of winning." There aren't many long climbs in this battle. But there are plenty of explosive kilometres.

He knows how to hurt Pogacar. "I'm realistic enough to know that I'll have a hard time keeping up with Remco (Evenepoel) and Tadej when they're on form. They climb better," said the Dutchman at the recent Paris-Roubaix, but he also knows that they'd find it difficult to follow an attack like the one he's capable of.

Van der Poel attacked in the final 50km of the Tour of Flanders. He won on what he admitted was a very difficult day, and a few days later he did the same on the cobbles of Roubaix, 60km from the finish, to win by over two minutes, almost the biggest margin of the century.

Van der Poel followed by Pogacar at the 2023 Tour of Flanders. GETTY IMAGES
Van der Poel followed by Pogacar at the 2023 Tour of Flanders. GETTY IMAGES

For Pogacar, the race will also be the start of his ambitious quest for a Giro d'Italia - Tour de France double. It will also allow him to put the spectre of last season's crash, in which he broke his wrist, behind him. It delayed his preparation for the Tour de France. This year it's his rival, Jonas Vingegaard, who is still unsure how he will recover after crashing out of the Tour of the Basque Country.

Champion Evenepoel, former winner Primoz Roglic and Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard - all of them real threats - are all injured. "I wish them all a speedy recovery," said the 25-year-old Pogacar. 

"Coming back from an accident takes a long time, I know that from my own personal experience. The body doesn't recover as quickly as the mind. The classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a real trap. There are countless ramps, some long, some steep. One of them is 12km from the finish in Liège. This last one is usually decisive. 

The chaining of the final kilometres, with climbs such as La Redoute, Forges and Roca de los Halcones, is expected to be the most decisive part of the race, as it has been in previous years. This is where many of the best riders have won, and it's where many of the best riders who know how to ride it have won. 

The final climb leads from the industrial area above the stadium of the local football club, Standard Liège, to a steep descent into the city. This is usually a breathless race. Untouchable among the cobbled monuments, Van der Poel has spent the week warming up in Spain, where he lives, to train and get away from the media attention. He wants to make history again. 

Pogacar arrives with a completely different dynamic. He's focused on the Giro in May. He hasn't raced since winning the Tour of Catalonia on 24 March. "I spent some time at altitude to prepare for the Giro. My form is good and I'm eager to race again," he said. 

He also pedalled in the sun, sharing photos of his training rides under the blue skies of the Italian Riviera. While a hail of sleet fell on his colleagues competing in the Fleche Wallonne.

The two riders have faced each other on several occasions, although their calendars are usually different. They met at the 2022 Tour of Flanders where the Dutchman was victorious, but Pogacar exacted revenge the following year to claim the monument.

Evenepoel won the last two editions with long-distance attacks, but he is absent as he continues to recover from his crash at the Tour of the Basque Country earlier this month. Last weekend's Amstel Gold winner Tom Pidcock will start as he bids to improve on his second place from last year. The Briton will be joined by Tour de France and Giro d'Italia winner Egan Bernal in a strong INEOS team. 

In the case that mechanicals or mishaps affect favourites Pogacar and Van Der Poel, the ever-competitive Matej Mohoric, Ben Healy and Nelson Powless are among those that can take advantage. Dylan Teuns and Pogacar's UAE Team Emirates colleague Marc Hirschi also possess live chances.