Van Aert was unable to respond to Pogačar's acceleration on the 15 per cent slopes of the wall in Castelfidardo, 17 kilometres from the finish in cold, miserable conditions. He mounted a solo chase, pushing on ahead of the likes of Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), but couldn't close the Slovenian down and ended the day 37 seconds in arrears, the gap to Pogačar increasing to a minute and 15 seconds heading into the final two stages.
"Pogačar is stronger than everyone else, but I'm not inferior to the other GC riders. It's nice to see that," said van Aert.
Despite emerging as the best of the rest in a race that is normally won by one of the top climbers in the peloton, van Aert conceded the race win to Pogačar.
"I can no longer make up this difference in the sprint stage and time trial," said van Aert. "There are still two chances of 'net profit' for me. We've been racing for five days now, so we'll just continue like this for the next two days."
"I started with the idea that I could at least stay with Pogačar and possibly take some time back. But, when you see how everything falls apart on the last lap, it was just the law of the fittest. It's no shame to lose to him. I have to accept that."
Van Aert was third in the impromptu individual pursuit that formed on the roads into the finish in Castelfidardo, but has impressed mightily heading into some of his key goals of the season at the classics.
"It was very tough when we hit the final circuit, especially with the rain," said van Aert. "It turned out to be a survival of the fittest. Mathieu was alone in the front quite early, but I think almost everyone in the leading group was more focussed on the GC. So was I. He benefitted somewhat from the fact he was far down on the GC, but of course, he was very strong.
"In the last lap, Tadej was stronger on the climb. I came on top behind him and tried to stay as close as possible. I lost some time in the standings again, but I'm quite firmly in second place now. I gave everything I had but the strongest came in front today. There wasn't anything I could've done differently."
Van Aert shrugged off suggestions that his cyclo-cross and road racing rival might have gone too deep in his pursuit of victory, potentially hurting himself for his upcoming goals like Milan San Remo next weekend.
"Mathieu is shivering in the tent every week after the cyclo-cross," he said. "I have often thought 'now it is all gone', but the next day he will be back there."