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MONTAGNE DE LURE, France (VN) – While the focus going into the final stage of the Tour de la Provence was understandably on the likes of two-time Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana and world champions Julian Alaphilippe and Filippo Ganna, the finale on the Montagne de Lure provided a showcase for yet another huge talent from Denmark, Mattias Skjelmose.
The 21-year-old Trek-Segafredo rider finished second behind Quintana at the 1,570-meter summit finish, edging out American Matteo Jorgenson in the final dash for the line, the bonus seconds gained lifting the Dane into third place overall.
The double podium was much more than Skjelmose was expecting at the stage start in Manosque.
“My goal today is just to do the best that I can. I’m still in a learning process and this mountain top finish is going to be a really good test for me, to see where I am and also how much I’ve developed over the winter,” he told VeloNews. He had come into the race, he explained, with the goal of finishing in the top-10 on GC and that was still his objective.
“I think the Montagne de Lure should suit me because the gradient looks really consistent and that should allow you to go at your own tempo. I’ve got a really good team around me, so I think it’s going to be a really good climb for me,” he said.
Although the young Dane had only seen the climb in clips from Paris-Nice’s visits in 2009 and 2013, his assessment of its characteristics and suitability for him was spot on. Guided into the climb by compatriot Jakob Egholm, Skjelmose was then able to lean on three more experienced teammates.
“Dario Cataldo put us all in position, then Kenny Elissonde and Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier stayed with me all the time when I was suffering. This was 100 percent a team effort. I couldn’t have done this without them,” he asserted.
Skjelmose said that he had tried to focus on his tempo rather than worrying about what the other contenders were doing.
“A lot of times I had to tell Amanuel and Kenny to take the pace down a little bit,” he revealed. “Then, when you know you’re riding for the podium, you can just dig a little bit deeper and that’s what I did. When the team works hard for you all day, you just want to pay them back. That was the only thing I was thinking about, paying the team back.”
His delight at being Trek’s leader in Provence and living up to that status was obvious, as was that of his teammates. “We’ve really improved and worked on our teamwork this year, and seeing it work today is amazing. I just hope we can achieve more things like this all season,” he said.
He pointed out that this commitment to a joint cause was emphasized by Ghebreigzabhier’s sacrifice of his own chances. After Quintana and Alaphilippe had gone clear, the Eritrean chased after the illustrious pair together with defending Provence champion Iván Sosa.
“Amanuel stayed with Sosa and we called him back. He could easily have taken second place himself, but he sacrificed his own chances to put me on the podium in the GC, and that’s just amazing,” said Skjelmose.
The Danish rider had said prior to the final stage that his goals this year are to line up in a Grand Tour and, “just develop, I hope as much as I did last year. I made a big step up between January last year and now, and now I want to finish this development, which does seem to be going the right way.”
Asked if he’d learned anything about himself with his startlingly good ride on the Montagne de Lure, Skjelmose said: “Last year I suffered a lot on the mountain top finishes, I was missing the last push. I know it’s early in the season, but I really feel like I’ve improved a lot.
“I’m completely surprised myself,” he continued. “I’m always a slow starter, so I didn’t know where I was going to be today, but I still have a lot to improve and to be this good this early in the season is just amazing.”
The 21-year-old is set to remain in France for his next three races, at Haut Var, the Ardèche Classic, and the Drôme Classic. He will then head to the Volta a Catalunya in late March. Beyond that, the Grand Tours beckon. “Any of them will be good for me, but I’m a guy who prefers the cold so I’ll hopefully go to the Giro,” he said.