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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Every classics season delivers a few promising names. Some confirm to become big stars, like Tom Boonen did after he was third in Paris-Roubaix debut in 2002. Others have a noteworthy result, but are never heard from again.
Most expect Mads Pedersen to be part of the former category. The Trek-Segafredo second-year WorldTour pro rode to second place in his Flanders debut when almost no one put him on the radar. No one, except longtime sport director Dirk Demol.
“We were yelling into his ear piece: ‘The podium is waiting for you!’ ‘Can you imagine to be on the Flanders podium today!’” Demol said. “We knew he is made for this kind of racing.”
Pedersen is suddenly Denmark’s biggest classics export in a generation. Just 22, the 5-foot-9, 155-pounder might not have the classic profile of a pure cobblestone specialist, but nearly everyone agrees he has the right stuff.
“We started to watch him already when he was U23. He’s a winner,” said Trek-Segafredo manager Luca Guercilena. “Even more impressive is the attitude he has, and the numbers he can produce. We are not surprised that he could do it, but surprised that it came so early.”
Pedersen came within 12 seconds of becoming Denmark’s first and only Flanders winner since Rolf Sorensen won in 1997.
Pedersen certainly wasn’t on the favorites list Sunday morning at the start in Antwerp, but he rode himself into the frame. Per team orders, Pedersen followed a late-race move to link up Dylan Van Baarle (Sky) and Sebastian Langeveld (EF-Drapac) going into crunch time.
Pedersen’s marching orders were to ride into a break to put pressure on other teams to chase, and perhaps open the door for teammates Jasper Stuyven (eventually seventh) to come over the top. What was a surprise is what happened next.
Eventual winner Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step) powered away from the pack after coming over the top of the Kruisberg on the heels of a surge from another Flanders rookie Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). Defying the odds, Pedersen hung on after Terpstra roared past him to the line.
Rather than collapse under the weight and pressure as the favorites chased from behind, Pedersen stood firm.
“To finish second is better than I could expected,” Pedersen said. “I went full-gas. I was fighting to come back to [Terpstra] and to keep the group behind me away. I was not thinking. I was just pushing the pedals.”
Pedersen’s podium doesn’t appear to be a fluke. A son of a farmer, he prefers to live at home in cold, wet Denmark about 35km from Copenhagen rather than live in sunnier climates in Spain or Monaco.
“I am training in this shit weather all year,” Pedersen said. “It’s not a problem for me to race in the rain. I can’t say I like it, but I don’t mind it either.”
To make his mark in the classics, he won Gent-Wevelgem as an espoirs, and won Paris-Roubaix and took silver in the world’s road race in the junior category. He showed his class by winning a stage in the 2015 Tour de l’Avenir and a stage in the 2016 Tour of Norway. By then, Trek-Segafredo came calling, and Pedersen did not disappoint, winning the Tour of Denmark and the Tour du Poitou-Charentes in his neo-pro WorldTour season in 2017 along with finishing his first grand tour at the Giro d’Italia.
“It is a surprise that he is on the podium,” Demol said. “When we were at the start line, there were 15 to 20 candidates for the podium, and I do not think anyone was thinking about Mads.”
For sport directors like Demol, they have the experience and acumen to pick up the tale tell signs of form and fitness that might slip past mere mortals. Their first hopeful sign was when he was fourth in the closing day time trial just eight seconds behind specialists like Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing). That came after he was in an all-day breakaway in a 200km-plus stage. When a rider can finish off a race with a strong TT like, the insiders take notice.
Despite showing signs that he was going well, Pedersen abandoned both E3-Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, hardly indicators that he was going to podium at Flanders ahead of the likes of Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). A fifth place at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday bolstered confidence.
“Mads came to me and said, ‘I needed those races. I am going well,” Demol said. “He was fifth at Waregem, second today, and he promised me he will be there for Roubaix.”
Demol, who worked with an early Boonen, said it’s too early to say how far Pedersen can go, but his huge natural motor coupled with his ambition suggest a bright future.
“This podium is big for us,” Demol said. “In each race in the classics, we have at least one in the top-10, but we didn’t have a podium yet. Now we have a podium in Flanders, and I am just so happy with that. And I think our best performance will come in Roubaix. My seven riders here are better made for Roubaix than here. What we have seen today it is promising for Sunday.”
For Sunday, and a long time to come.