Mattias Skjelmose never gives up

Danish cyclist Mattias Skjelmose has experienced more than most people these past four years. Rouleur talks to him about growing up at high speed

This article was originally published in Issue 117 of Rouleur magazine. 

I first met Mattias Skjelmose in the spring of 2018. He was 17 years old, high on life, and in the process of conquering the European junior scene. He had just come third in Paris-Roubaix juniors, and he felt invincible. It went to his head. He was a winner with a great future ahead and he could say anything, because nobody could talk back. He was a jerk.

But something happened which had great consequences for the now 22-year-old, newly engaged, professional rider sitting across from me today at Palmarès cycling café, in northern Copenhagen. Winter darkness has settled outside, his Trek Madone SLR 7, leaning against the counter, has just had new mudguards installed for this season’s wet roads, and Skjelmose has finished his second season with Trek-Segafredo. If you had asked him in the fall of 2018 whether he would be sitting here today talking about his season and his path to turning pro, he would have snorted at you in hurt and anger.

Because something went terribly wrong for the young Skjelmose. He tested positive for a contaminated dietary supplement, ingested accidentally, was sidelined for eight months, and went from cycling every day to partying every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. This is the story of a young man from the traditional working-class neighbourhood of Amagerbro in Copenhagen who has risen to become one of the most highly-rated talents in the men’s WorldTour.

Diligent and introverted

“I’ve never felt a need to be around other people. I didn’t have playdates when I was little. It’s only now I’m older that I can see how it may have been a bit strange. But I’ve never been particularly sociable.”

That’s how Skjelmose describes himself as a child. As a slightly introverted, overweight and shy boy who was neither good at ball games nor very skilled on a bike, he started cycling at 11 because they treated him well at the training sessions in the local cycling club, Amager Cykle Ring, where great Danish names like former Tour de France stage winner Brian Holm cut their teeth. But he was bad, to put it mildly. At age 13, Mattias Skjelmose rode in his first race for licensed riders and was dropped after two kilometres. But that didn’t make him quit. On the contrary.

“The race was 40 kilometres, and I got through it,” he says. “That was completely amazing. It was a huge win to a boy like me, at the time.”

The young Copenhagener won his first race at age 15, and it maybe didn’t quite cause the expected reaction from his stepfather, who didn’t believe the results.

“I had won a race, but he couldn’t believe it. I was the little fat kid in his eyes, not a future cyclist. I just had to have more of that feeling of victory,” he says.

Skjelmose quickly learned that he wasn’t the most considerable physical talent, but also that this wasn’t what mattered. Instead, he had a talent for working hard, which he thinks perhaps comes from his upbringing on the island of Amager in the southern part of Copenhagen. Amager has traditionally been known as a working-class neighbourhood, and it’s still colloquially known as Shit Island, because this was where Copenhagen’s latrine wastes were deposited. Diligent work ethic and humble circumstances have crept into the local spirit. Here, you work hard to reach your goals. 

“I like the fact that you have to fight to get somewhere. That you have to earn it,” he says. “In Amager, people don’t look down on you for not having the most expensive gear, or because your parents don’t have any money. Here, what matters is whether you’re putting in effort. I used to ride around on an old city bike with racing handlebars for training sessions at the club, and no one gave me any dirty looks.”

But it wasn’t just his neighbourhood and his cycling club that taught Mattias Skjelmose to work hard. His mother has owned both a bar in the centre of Copenhagen and a gym for women, his father has been self-employed all his life and his stepfather fought his way from an orphanage to being a contractor. It’s the default to fight your way forward in poor circumstances. You succeed through toil.

The downturn

The teenage Skjelmose started training harder on the bike.

“From the age of 15 to 16 I doubled the amount I trained. I went against all recommendations and rode like an adult,” he says. “But it has always been a kind of therapy for me to cycle. It’s my space, and I need to sit on the bike. It helped me so much in my youth when the social aspect was lacking.”

But something broke inside the young man in his last year as a junior. “I started winning so much that I became arrogant, haughty. I turned into a person who wasn’t very nice. I hardened myself, and nobody could tell me anything. I mocked others, and I rode like a tyrant. I owned everything. They could say I was a bad person. I didn’t care, because they couldn’t say that I wasn’t the best.” 

We’ve now arrived at June 2018. The day before Skjelmose was set to ride in the Danish National Time-Trial Championships, he was told that in the preceding month he had turned in a positive doping test in the form of a contaminated dietary supplement. They also told him he could still cycle until the case was settled, because he hadn’t done it on purpose. But he ended up receiving a suspension stretching from June 7, 2018 until May 6 the following year. Throughout that fall, he thought his career was over. “I had an identity crisis. A total meltdown,” he says. “I had always been the cyclist; now I was back to just being insecure. I lost a lot of friends in that process. I was barely an adult, and suddenly I had to handle this crisis. People kept their distance from me, as if my suspension could rub off on them. I lost my discipline, and for a while, I was really angry at everybody.”

At this time, a new role model stepped into the young Dane’s life. His agent, who subsequently contributed to securing his professional contract at Trek-Segafredo, calmed him and coached him to be more humble, to put things in perspective, and not to let himself be seduced by his own talent.“He also taught me not to feel vengeful. I couldn’t be angry. Instead, the situation should give me strength. It did. It has forced me to grow up more quickly,” he says.

Crying on the bike

Through a contract with development cycling team Leopard Racing, Skjelmose returned to cycling after all, leaving the parties behind and digging the bike back out of the closet. He started the 2019 season after his ban expired in May with renewed motivation and faith.

“All the hatred I had felt earlier, I left that behind out on the bike,” he says. But it didn’t take long before tragedy rocked his life.

On May 31, 2019, 18-year-old national team rider Andreas Byskov Sarbo was hit by a car during a cycling race in the town of Odder in Jutland when the driver encroached on the race route. A young person passed away, a great rider, and one of Mattias Skjelmose’s few really good friends.

“I remember my dad phoned me and told me Andreas had been run down. I often have difficulty showing my emotions, so I kind of react without really reacting. Instead I sent Andreas a text saying that he’s going to get through it, that he’s strong. But later that day, they turned the respirator off. He’s dead.”

The tragedy took a great toll on Skjelmose, and he lost all motivation to race. “I remember that in the months after, I kept writing to Andreas on Messenger. I told him we missed him, and not to be afraid we’d forget him. The grief hit me like a train. I had just come through a rough period myself, and now we had to struggle with this.” 

Skjelmose repeatedly says that he has trouble showing grief. “I’ve used the bike to get rid of the bad thoughts from the past years. That’s how I use my bike. To cheer, to think, to cry and to mourn.” In this sense, Skjelmose has quite an existential relationship with the Trek bike, which is still leaning nonchalantly against the bar at the café’s entrance, while Frank Ocean discreetly plays over the speakers and young Danish cyclists walk around talking about their sore legs.

“It’s no wonder these experiences have set something off in me,” he reflects. “I’ve matured. I’ve found out I need to be alone. I’m no longer afraid of being alone. I’ve recognised that it’s just a part of me that helps me function. I’m a loner, but that doesn’t make me sad any more.”

Entering the professional scene in August of 2019, Mattias Skjelmose travelled to Milan. He was 18 years old, had gone through a doping conviction, lost a close friend, and yet here he was on his way to Trek-Segafredo’s training facilities to sign a contract as a stagiaire with the American WorldTour team. He was promised that if things went well for him, they were ready to sign a two-year contract for 2021-22. Suddenly his luck had turned, and Mattias Skjelmose had become a full-time professional at the highest level.

During his first full season in 2021, he managed to come in sixth in the UAE Tour, and later he rode his way to fifth place in the Tour de l’Ain. The stars were suddenly aligning for the young Dane, in parallel with a golden generation of his countrymen and women. And so, at the beginning of 2022, everything was coming together for a major breakthrough at a time when Danish riders had won both World Championships, some of the biggest one-day races and the Tour de France. And given this, it was hard for Skjelmose not to put himself under some pressure.

It went well at first. In the early-season Tour de la Provence, he took third place. He was only beaten by Nairo Quintana and world champion Julian Alaphilippe. Not bad for a 21-year-old. This really gave Skjelmose faith that 2022 would be the year when he would achieve his first win at the highest level, the year when everybody would see how good he really is. He began talking about a top-ten placing in the Giro d’Italia. But it was not to be. Stage after stage, Skjelmose was left in the dust, and he didn’t understand why he felt so tired.

“I think I got too eager,” he says. “I kind of returned to my old self where everybody had to hear how good I was and how well I was going to do. I ended up overtraining and overthinking everything, so my head just broke. I still think I can do everything on my own. But I’m too young and inexperienced.”

Skjelmose very quickly got an offer from Trek-Segafredo for a leadership role, but it has been hard for him to take it on. It goes somewhat against his ambitions for a more humble approach to life, but as with so many other things, it’s about finding a balance. This is what 2022 has been about for him.

“Because I was so insecure as a child, I instinctively want to fit in with the pack, but that won’t work if I’m also going to be a leader. They have to be able to trust me. I’ve talked to Mads Petersen about that a lot. You don’t have any friends when you cycle. You only have your team-mates, and everyone else can kick rocks. I see Mads as the ideal leader, and I look at all the success he has. I try to be a nice guy for the first 100 kilometres, and then I just go stupid. Most people know what it takes to win, but not everyone has the balls to do it.”

A more modern approach

If anyone had told Skjelmose in 2019 that in the spring of 2022, he would be on the podium in the Tour de la Provence, he would have counted his blessings. And he did at first, but 2022 was also going to be the year when he had to fight his way to the victory which was the goal of the season. He came fifth in La Route d’Occitanie, third in the Danish National Time-Trial Championships, third in the Tour de Wallonie, second in the Tour de l’Ain and third in the Tour of Denmark.

“I know it’s insane to say that I’ve been disappointed in these results, but I was. I was incredibly annoyed,” he says. “But being disappointed is also my fuel. I have a hard time being satisfied with anything. And that’s a huge drive, but it can also eat me up in a way that hurts my private life.”

This is a significant factor which has changed in Skjelmose’s life since I met him in 2018. He is now engaged and has moved in with his fiancée and their dog, which has shifted the priorities in his life: “I’ve been really bad at spending time with my girlfriend. As banal as it is, I become a bad cyclist if things aren’t right at home. That’s why it has become important to me to spend even more time with her, and it made me sad that she had to say it. That I had become so focused on my cycling that I had forgotten her. After all, she’s the one who saves me every time sh*t hits the fan. She’s the one who holds me.”

Skjelmose has taken his work home too much. His resentment at the lack of victories took a toll on the relationship, but he has also had to figure out how to be an adult and in a relationship at the same time as being a professional cyclist. Not a conversation often had in press coverage of the sport or among the riders, even though many of them have this particular issue in common.

“We don’t really talk about these things on the team,” he says. “People are afraid of seeming weak. I don’t talk to anyone else about it either. I’m afraid of exposing myself. It’s still a macho sport, after all, and if the others think I’m a bit frail, they might find it harder to see me as a leader. But that’s a mistake when it’s perfectly common: how do you integrate the different parts of life?”

As for himself, it’s been simple. He had to get better at doing the dishes, cleaning up after himself and doing things with his girlfriend. Ordinary things that are important, but also easy to forget after riding 200km on a bike. The sport is changing in this regard, even though it’s still very conservative. You don’t just expect wives and girlfriends to be service providers taking care of children and home and coming along when riders go abroad. Professional cycling is slowly entering the present.

The victory

Tranquillity at home was important in a frustrating season which was only resolved very late, in the Tour de Luxembourg. After the Tour of Denmark, which Skjelmose had hoped to win, he was utterly burned out. The pressure of constantly chasing points had eaten into him, and he almost didn’t compete in the Deutschland Tour, but did anyway, then crashed out with a tear in his knee.“This is where I get really angry,” he admits. “I don’t want to finish my season that way, so I push it. I keep talking to the doctors, and in the end, I’m allowed to participate.”

On September 7, Mads Pedersen won his second stage in the Vuelta a España. In the morning that day, Trek-Segafredo posted a video. In it, Mads Pedersen gave a speech to the team, encouraging them, promising them a victory if they gave 100 percent for him. He was authoritarian, but also funny, and before the start of the Tour de Luxembourg, Skjelmose watched the video. It lit a fire within him.

“It sort of clicks, and now I know I want to win. I told the team that if they trusted me, I would deliver. This was it. I was the leader,” he says. And this was actually it. Skjelmose stayed out of trouble and within reach of the podium up until the fourth stage, which was a time-trial, his speciality. When he got on the TT bike, he was ninth in the standings; by the end of the day, he was number one. He had won his first race as a professional, and the day after, he could put everything in its place. Sure, it wasn’t the Tour de France, which his slightly older countryman Jonas Vingegaard had secured the month before, but it was good enough. Mattias Skjelmose was satisfied.

The tallest mountains

And this may be the biggest difference between the boy I met in 2018 and the young and now grown man I meet today. He has already been through more than many in the peloton, and it’s not that he’s not hungry or that he doesn’t want to win the biggest races. But he has matured into the role. He speaks of relationships, grief, and uncertainty, while still managing to emphasise that he’s a professional rider because he wants to win. And I’m certain we will see him reaching for the highest peaks in future seasons. Because he is Mattias Skjelmose from Amager, and people from Amager never give up. 

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