August 2021. Tour of Denmark.
It happens after dinner. Everyone has finished eating and for about 20 minutes there’s been uneventful chatter and gossip, how most at the table understand a saying, or will offer a suitable anecdote and so during a moment of brief silence, could he have orchestrated the moment beforehand or is he just a natural, our main character will, in eminent timing, lean forward and tap his finger on the table:
“Okay, c**ts. Goodnight.”
A cheeky half-smile.
The riders get up. They get up because the top dog has spoken. It has been confirmed that their leader is indeed their leader and together they comfortably walk out of the restaurant. Wait. They don’t walk. They strut. Or maybe they stroll? Yes, that’s what is going on: strolling. So let’s examine that for a minute. Because there is something unique about the way top athletes move around out of competition. It seems somehow built into their own understanding of themselves. It’s a slow moving process for an athlete to get from one point to the next – on their feet, mind you – but it shouldn’t be confused with laziness or disingenuous behaviour. No. You save energy when you can and they have been taught for a very long time that everything in their lives is about saving and not wasting energy. Energy is preserved for the thing you do well. So when you need to get around, you don’t run. You walk. Better, you don’t walk, but you can stroll. It goes on: you certainly don’t stand if you can sit, and why sit if you can lie down.
There are four stages to the learning curve. Unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and finally, and this is how we get to Team Trek-Segafredo’s seven professional bike riders leaving the restaurant tonight, because these young men leave with unconscious competence.
TV wants Mads. The journalists are hanging around outside the hotel. When he comes out to inspect his bike they approach him carefully. The camera guy starts filming.
“Don’t film this,” Mads says.
“Okay. When can we?”
“In a minute.”
They hang back. After ten minutes, Mads says okay. The cameraman turns on the bright light and the interview begins. Denmark wants to know what they can expect of their star. “You said you’d return to this race when they would include a stage that runs through your home town. Well, they did it. What do you make of this year’s parcour?”
Mads answers are textbook. He must have had media training. Inside the hotel we sit down in the lobby.
“You are good,” I tell him.
He sighs and sits back on the couch. “When I became World Champion it all changed. The media wanted to know everything about me. I really couldn’t understand it. I’m a bike rider. Why is this so interesting to people? I know what they want now and I never say anything I can’t back up. I wish sometimes they would ask some…”
“Reinvent themselves a little? No, I get it. It’s the same crap, day-in and day-out. Only the bike races change. They do their job, and I do mine.”
“You are controversial at times.”
“I haven’t had any problems with my attitude.”
“There was a situation with Vincenzo Nibali when you joined the team. Can you explain what happened?”
“Well. We had to do a sponsor thing. And we had to leave at six in the morning and he showed up at 06:45 and I had been sitting in the car waiting for 45 minutes. And I got really angry with him. And he couldn’t understand it.”
“Was he surprised at your reaction?”
“No doubt about that!”
“And you had no problem being angry with him?”
“That is unusual. You understand how this is unusual?”
“I didn’t give a f*ck. Like me or don’t, I thought. And since then we have had no problems.”
Mads thinks about it. Then he says: “Now, whenever I’m there, he is on time. In fact, he is even early.” “Tell me about your season.”
“Well, I had high expectations. I wanted to show stability at the highest level at races across the season. That was the plan and it worked in the beginning. I made some results and I knew my training during the off-season had been really good. Then came opening weekend. I don’t know what it is about that race. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. I have never been able to perform there. And we, as a team, were nowhere to be seen. That particular day was a disaster. I just couldn’t accept it. It didn’t add up! Our numbers were good. We’d been fast going into the race. What the hell was going on?”
The following day, at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, Mads was not at the front going over Oude Kwaremont and Mathieu van der Poel had gone up the road trying to close the gap to the day’s breakaway. After the cobbled climb, the race broke into smaller pieces, with race favourites gathering in a chase group. Team Trek-Segafredo had Jasper Stuyven placed and Mads was stuck further back in group three. In other words, he had missed the selection. But Belgian racing is Belgian racing, it is alive and unpredictable and as the kilometres ticked away the two groups merged with just three kilometres to go.
“Basically, and because we had Jasper up the road, I got a free ride back into contention. Van der Poel was still out there but we could see them. Steven de Jongh, our DS, was screaming on the radio for Jasper to pull for me but I said no. I knew, and this was because we were doing laps, that from kilometre two until 750 metres to go, there was going to be cross winds. And I also knew that either Søren Kragh Andersen or Kasper Asgreen would try to bridge the gap. I knew they weren’t letting him disappear. So I told Jasper to let it play.”
It happened. Almost single handedly, Kasper Asgreen closes the gap, Jasper Stuyven moves up, does his lead-out and Mads Pedersen goes around to his left on the barriers and sprints to victory at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne.
“Even on a weekend where I didn’t feel super, I was able to win a big bike race and that was a strong indicator for myself personally. I was manifesting myself as one of the top racers in the peloton. Then at E3 I had a couple of punctures and was caught out and sometimes there isn’t much you can do about it. As a rider you accept it. This is how those races are being raced. And that evening it all began. With the virus. Everyone got tested. We went to bed. In the morning two riders were positive and the whole spring campaign collapsed. We couldn’t start Ghent-Wevelgem. I had roomed with a rider who had tested positive, so I had to be isolated. I was going to be isolating for seven days, meaning that I couldn’t be back on my bike until the day before De Ronde. I drove home. Actually, I did one day at the hotel in Belgium and rode four hours on a home trainer. And I was just… I hate it. The home trainer. I just can’t do it! The rules in Denmark said I could train by myself so I drove home. I had symptoms, I had headaches, but I was testing negative. My team wanted me to train for Flanders, but not too much because I felt sick. It was a mess. As a team you try to come across in the press as if nothing is a problem. We pretended to have it under control. It was a way of telling the competition that I was someone to be reckoned with. Truth was, that only Jasper was ready. He placed fourth. I just accepted that I wasn’t going to win this year. Then they postponed Paris-Roubaix. I was filled with joy, actually, when they told me! It meant I had a chance to compete, and it helped me get over my disappointment of not having been able to prepare properly for Flanders."
Trek-Segrafredo closed their classics campaign. Wins at Milan-Sanremo, Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne and fourth at Tour of Flanders was accepted but not celebrated. The group separated and began looking ahead.
At the press office in the town of Struer, the police motorbikes are getting their instructions before stage one at Tour of Denmark. Most likely they have never been to a bike race, so the man in leather talks loudly to the assembled group. He talks at great length about deviation. Finally he says: “And listen now! It is important that you don’t leave your spot on the road until the next MOTO is there to fill in for you. This is how we move as a unit throughout a stage. Roads are not closed. We are there to close them so we have a safe environment for the bike riders. Again: we deal with general traffic and we don’t want general traffic inside a bike race. Again: remember the deviations!"
As the group disperses, an elderly police officer says to his colleague: what was the thing about deviation?
Under a dark, rainy sky a local presenter stands alone on a podium. In front of him a crowd has gathered. Even if they don’t care about bike racing, the circus has come to town and no circus looks as colourful as a professional bike race. We are at the sign-in. The presenter tries to keep the assembled crowd on their feet. “Ladies and gentleman. It’s time to present the next team! The moment we have been waiting for! And here he is! From Team Trek-Segafredo, it’s Mads Pedersen! Mads! Tell us. What is your plan! What are your goals for Tour of Denmark!”
The noise of the crowd dies down. Mads steps forward to the microphone: “We are here to win.”
The crowd cheers. “You heard it!,” shouts the presenter. “Team Trek Segafredo have come here to win the race!”
Someone releases three balloons.
I have a seat in the team car. DS is the legendary Kim Andersen. I’m excited to meet him. Kim Andersen has been sitting in a team car for longer than most in cycling and I’m hoping to quietly pick his brain. I climb onboard. I put on a seatbelt and say hello. Kim says hello. Kim starts the car and looks straight ahead. I look straight ahead.
“Kim Andersen doesn’t talk much,” says Mads. “You’ve met him. He is my DS and he doesn’t talk much. It’s okay. We know what we are doing. I talk with my dad. He doesn’t perhaps understand tactics at my level, of course, but he knows me. He understands how I am thinking. I’m tough on myself, but I am also tough on others. I just know what I want. And so we talk about that. He works in my bike shop so, technically, he is at my disposal! For talks, motor pacing and so forth.”
“When did you understand you could be a leader?”
“I knew early that I had the potential. My DS’s could see it. And they helped me ease into the role. It feels natural. I will speak on the bus. I will tell my team-mates what I want and how they can help me. There are many leaders that are not leaders. At Trek, at least in the Classics group, we don’t have that issue, because Jasper and I both fill the role naturally. But you can sit in a bus somewhere, with no particular team in mind, and this is at a race or maybe a mountain stage where I have nothing to do other than, let’s say, lead the peloton for ten minutes going into the first climb, and so this is the tactics, and our captain can’t articulate or even raise his hand to let us know what he wants with it. So I’m like, what is the point of my job today? Does he think he can win? There is no solid communication. I sit there and think: good luck with whatever you think you want to achieve!
“We are different. But we all had this childhood dream, you know, of sitting in that bus at the Tour de France. And you understand that there are a lot of riders out there who want your seat in that bus and sometimes there is just silence at the team meeting. It’s not a good feeling when it happens. You lose morale fast in a bus if you think your captain isn’t sure about himself. There is a hell of a difference between saying: let’s try it or let’s do it! In the Classics group we play loud techno and dance and scream at each other! And sometimes we have a rider, someone who is maybe not a typical Classics guy, but he is with us and so he will go: can you turn down the music? It’s noisy. And I think: just sit there and read your book, maybe we’ll see you at the second feed!”
Rural Denmark. Front lawns on high alert, though seldom much on the horizon. A place well groomed. Danish flags. Traffic is polite, there is a general feeling of content, of entitlement. This is our tribe. It seems almost backwards. An example was when a Danish newspaper had a reaction to the British tabloids – this was during the European Championships in football and before the semi-final between England and Denmark. The tabloids ran a headline saying football is coming home. The Danish counterpunch was a picture of a bunch of vikings dressed in red and white screaming: WE are coming home!
Funny. But backward.
A place where people know each other's names. Where they read to the blind. People bring cake in rural Denmark. Everyone speaks perfect English but it could have easily been German. Yes. We are in Sønderborg, with its self-proclaimed Monarchy First, and it has the stench of small town National Romanticism. It’s lurking as if something unnameable has drifted in from across the border. Sønderborg, the scene of Denmark's national tragedy that over time has almost become half a victory, because in the aftermath of that emphatic German defeat in 1864, a new beginning was ordered and then structured: school systems and public health, reforms prepared and executed, Denmark’s state and church deconstructed, and 150 years later, the country, if you ask its citizens, are the rightful owners of something widely considered, if you ask its citizens, as a truly wonderful, safe democracy. A harmless, yet innovative environment. So innovative the Minister of Defence once suggested his budget should be cut down to an answering machine with a message of surrender in four languages. Again, funny. But backwards. I don’t know about state or churches, so maybe I’m making this up. I might even be lying, but one thing is for sure: not even Dick Cheney would get away with a terror alarm in this place.
“Let’s talk about the Tour de France.”
“I was really looking forward to the Tour. Because after initial discussions we had finally agreed that I was their sprinter after I – as world champion – had placed second at Champs-Elysées the previous year. So I did Ruta del Sol and sprinted to third at one stage. It was okay. The race, for a rider like me, is about adapting to the heat and preparing for the big mountains at Dauphine and, of course, ultimately Tour de France. I was on that path when I crashed at Dauphine. I had a big concussion. So what do you do? Well, it’s days in a dark room. No phone. No TV. Nothing. I just sat there. Forcing myself to not look at the phone. Five days later I was back on the bike. Now it was train, train, train, trying to get ready for the Tour. I rode the Nationals but it didn’t go our way. In fact, the whole thing, that whole period, when I think back on it, it was like being kicked constantly. The crashes, Corona, overcoming the concussion. Not hard kicks. But steady coming. Soft kicks right in my balls.”
“First stage at Tour de France, I fell right on my ass. Hit my shoulder. And on stage 8, I crashed so violently I don’t know where to begin. We were in the gruppetto going down a mountain. My Wahoo tells me I went from 72 km/h to zero in five or eight seconds. After that, my masseur had to turn me around every night when I was laying there. My DS Kim Andersen explained how I needed to get through it. Getting to Paris was important for me and the remaining season. The World Championships and Paris-Roubaix were still our main goals. So I continued on and I made it to Paris.”
Outside the hotel, TV is setting up shop. The place is buzzing. Mads has won stage 2. Now. Will he win overall? The points jersey looks possible, too. Of course, this is before anyone knows that Belgium rider Remco Evenepoel has a possible idea for an entirely different outcome. As Mads comes back from podium duty, he goes into the team bus. He is glad he won. Glad, but probably also relieved. At this point in his career, he is paid and expected to win bike races. Someone mentions the Rainbow Jersey. Mads does a face. He knows the form is good now, in fact, he will go on to win another stage at Tour of Norway a week later.
I say goodbye. The staff are there. As always, I make a point to say goodbye to the staff. I walk to my car. I open the door and get in. I look at the teams assembled at the parking lot. I see Mark Cavendish walking across the parking lot. I haven’t spoken to Mark Cavendish since the Tour de France in 2013. Back then he was hot property. Then he wasn’t and now he is again.
I call Mads in late October. He has just been to the US on sponsor obligations. Now he is about to pull the plug for a week, spending quality time at a beach house with his wife and their dogs.
“Tell me about the last part of your season.”
“The Worlds. It wasn’t good. But it was good. I crashed twice and never got going. The bright side was to see my friend, Michael Valgren, get a medal. That was a big moment for me. We had come as favourites, the press kept talking about us, but we knew we had to be careful about the hype. And once the race got going we were picked apart. Three crashes, three riders gone. Magnus Cort wasn’t feeling super and Kasper wasn’t there either. I had one option. If we arrived together at the 5k banner everyone rides for me. And we agreed on the tactics: to open the race. To make it hard. I didn’t want a bunch sprint. I wanted a decimated group so we had to do something to shake it up. Anyway, I crashed and didn’t finish the Worlds. Straight away, I mean, the race hadn’t even finished, I got a call from Kim saying I needed to race Eurométropole on the Wednesday to prepare for Roubaix!”
“Paris-Roubaix. A big goal for you.”
“I know I’m a big rider. I have never questioned my talent. I sound pretentious but it is the truth. My parents tell me I always had lots of confidence. For some reason I find peace within myself. I don’t care if people don’t agree or even like me. The way I ride my bike? I like the way I ride my bike. I like my decisions. I believe in me.”
“What makes a good racer?”
“It’s not just about results, really. You have to understand a plan. The trajectory. What are we doing and why are we doing it. All the work we do as riders. All those hours. The whole lifestyle. You need a clear vision on how to execute an idea. Passion is important. Anger is good. Riders are half crazy and that’s important. You need it for bike racing. To be able to turn off the rational. So what drives me? Victories. When I think I can’t win any longer, I’ll stop racing. Period!”
“It’s rare, you know. Being sure about one’s talent. Do you know that?”
“I never think that I can’t be in a final. Never. I believe I’m going to win a race. Always. And that goes for Paris-Roubaix, too. I know it. And I knew it when I saw the weather forecast. And then you can think that it’s nonsense when I haven’t performed over the season, but I knew it. I looked at my numbers and I felt it. The recon was excellent, I was in tune with my bike. Tyre pressure, everything was where I wanted it. I’m ready, I kept thinking. And as the race progressed, at least the part where I was participating, I did everything right. I was where I needed to be constantly and nothing was overlooked. Get bidons, eat, hide in the bunch, all those details important for a big race. And then suddenly a rider was in my way!”
“We know each other. I like him. Whatever he said in the press as his reason, we both knew he did wrong. He called me in the evening. But this is bike racing. I’m not bitter at him. I’m just bitter that it happened. That it happened to me. The two riders in front of me avoided him, but everyone who knows about racing knows that, at some point, someone behind those guys is going to not avoid him. That was me. At the hospital nothing was broken, but the hip had taken a beating. I sat there and realised it was all over. The race. The season. It was over.”
“Mads. Thank you.”
“All right. Thank you.”
Mads Pedersen will race for Trek-Segafredo in 2022.