A running theme of the season so far this year has been about how other riders can crack the peloton’s Big Three, Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogačar. The narrative began when they finished Milan-Sanremo in first, second and fourth place, and continued when they made up the podium positions at E3 Saxo Classic a few weeks later. Coming into the Tour of Flanders, it was clear that these three riders were simply a cut above the rest when it comes to punchy accelerations on steep climbs.
With all of the pre-race hype around The Big Three, it would have been easy for others to come to the start line already defeated, with a sort of acceptance that there was nothing they could do to beat these riders who, fundamentally, were just stronger on the brutal hellingen of Flanders. Not former world champion Mads Pedersen, though, who ended up finishing in third place in De Ronde eventually, ahead of Van Aert. How did he break through the wall of The Big Three that was seemingly impenetrable ahead of the race? Through a clever, perfectly executed plan.
“I was not planning a specific moment to attack but I knew I wanted to be in front of the guys and anticipate early,” Pedersen explained after the race. “It was about finding the right moment and I thought that would be a good moment. We got caught back but then I managed to get in the next group.”
The Danish rider made his first move of the day on the Wolvenberg still with 110km of the race to go, bridging across to the break to join his team-mate Dan Hoole up the road. When the breakaway hit the foot of the Kruisberg with 29km remaining, Pedersen had attacked once again out of the leading group so he was solo at the head of the race. It wasn’t about going for victory here, but about giving himself a head start and sliding room as the battle between The Big Three kicked off behind him.
“I wanted to race, anticipate and not be afraid of running out of bullets. I’d rather try and then die in the end, than just try to follow it and still pop in the end, it turned out quite OK today.”
Pedersen was caught when he hit the final ascent of the Kwaremont eventually by Pogačar, who went on to win the race alone from this point. There was nothing that the Trek-Segafredo rider could do to respond here. “I thought, good luck my friend, see you later,” Pedersen said jokingly after the race when asked about the moment he was caught by the UAE Team Emirates rider.
Eventually, Pedersen found himself in the chase group on the road in the final kilometres leading to the finish line, and the Danish rider produced an impressive and powerful sprint to beat Van Aert and secure himself a podium position at the Tour of Flanders. His red Trek-Segafredo jersey sat proudly sandwiched between The Big Three in the end, an impressive result for Pedersen who has finished in fifth place in his last two one-day races.
Pedersen’s performance is proof that having the bravery to execute a risky strategy can pay dividends in cycling, and that you are never beaten until the race is over. Although he wasn’t able to reach the top step of the podium, a third place amongst the company that raced in De Ronde is a formidable achievement for a rider who has been knocking on the door of a result like this all year so far.
“It means a lot. It's a Monument, it's always nice to be on the podium,” Pedersen admitted after the race. “Jumbo, they did an incredible job so far in the Classics. We're just happy that we can change our fifth and sixth places to a podium, finally.”