Mads Pedersen, the reluctant world champion

by Matt de Neef


Mads Pedersen strides purposefully through a scrum of tightly packed team vehicles, riders, VIPs, and members of the media. His team press officer walks protectively by his side, shielding the Dane from any unwanted attention. It’s stage 3 of the Tour Down Under, in the Adelaide suburb of Unley, and the world champion is keen to sign on as quickly as possible.

Up at the startline Pedersen takes a pen from a waiting assistant, scribbles on the glass sign-in board, then turns on his heel, swiftly heading back the way he came. A couple days earlier the venue announcers stopped him for a quick word. His answers were brief, seemingly disinterested. They don’t ask him today — Pedersen doesn’t seem to be in the mood for a chat.

Moments later the world champion is ducking back into the Trek-Segafredo minivan, away from the prying eyes of roadside fans, photographers, and reporters, readying himself for the day ahead.

***

On September 29, 2019, Pedersen’s life changed forever. On the rain-drenched streets of Harrogate, after six and a half brutal hours of racing, the 23-year-old Dane sprinted to a most unlikely World Championships victory, and instantly transformed himself from promising Classics rider into bona fide star of the sport.

Nearly four months later, at the Tour Down Under, Pedersen is still adjusting to life as world champion. Racing comes with new expectations now, increased pressure to perform, and above all, a whole lot more attention.

Watching Pedersen in Adelaide, it’s clear he’d like nothing more than to fade quietly into the background; to be left in peace to do his job. But that’s a little hard when you’re wearing the rainbow jersey.

***

This isn’t Pedersen’s first visit to Australia’s biggest race. He was here in 2017 and 2018 but things were a little different back then. In his first visit he was a near-anonymous 21-year-old neo-pro; in his second, he wore the colours of Danish champion but still attracted little attention.

In 2020, Pedersen is one of the race’s biggest names, one of five riders at the official pre-race press conference. In the bunch he’s given more space than ever before. “I think everybody respects the jersey,” his sports director Kim Andersen tells CyclingTips. “It should also be like this.”

There are more media requests too. Team press officers “filter out” the majority, telling journalists that Pedersen did his interviews for the year at a team press camp. We’re told our best chance of a chat is after a stage, assuming Pedersen is up for it, and assuming it’s quick. We’re also warned that Pedersen doesn’t like answering the same questions over and over. Questions like “how has life changed now that you’re world champion?”

It’s something we’ve seen first-hand already.

***

January 2018 on Melbourne’s Southbank. Pedersen has just finished second in the 1.6 km prologue at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour. A reporter asks the then-22-year-old what sort of rider he sees himself becoming — a sprinter, a man for the Classics, something else? Pedersen says he doesn’t know, that he’ll see how things go.

Two days later, Pedersen wins a reduced bunch sprint to take out stage 2 in Buninyong. The same reporter asks a similar question of the Dane, pointing to the young rider’s diverse skill set. “You asked me that the other day,” Pedersen replies, bristling with frustration.

Even back then you got the sense Pedersen had little time for the media; that speaking to the press was an unfortunate side-effect of being a great bike racer. Two years later, at the 2020 Tour Down Under, the rainbow-clad Pedersen is even less interested in answering questions and appearing on camera.

“I could be without it,” he tells CyclingTips after stage 4.

***

Pedersen doesn’t owe fans or the media anything — he’s not compelled to enjoy his newfound attention. But at the Tour Down Under, his reticence to engage feels somewhat jarring. It feels like the world champion should be the centre of attention. But perhaps that’s just because of the massive shoes he has to fill.

By the time Peter Sagan won his first world title in 2015 he’d already won a great many bike races. And by the time he came to the Tour Down Under as world champion in 2017, he was perhaps the biggest name in the sport. He’d had plenty of time to adjust to life in the spotlight.

He visited the race twice in rainbows (and again in 2019) and thrilled the crowds when he did. Fans flocked to the Bora-Hansgrohe camper in droves, keen to catch a glimpse of or get a selfie with the Slovakian showman. A video of Sagan “helping” event staff pack down the flamme rouge (see above) in 2018 went viral. And Sagan won stages too.

Perhaps it’s this that makes Pedersen’s visit to the Tour Down Under stand out. So used are we to seeing the rainbow bands at the pointy end of races, vying for stage victories, that anything else feels odd. But it shouldn’t, as Pedersen is keen to point out.

“In the media I get a lot of pressure and people don’t always understand that just because you’re a world champion, [doesn’t mean you’re] the leader,’ he tells CyclingTips. “Just because I won world championships doesn’t mean that I’m such a better rider.

“I still have to work and this is a race for Richie [Porte], so I’m picking up bottles for him.”

Throughout the week, Pedersen does that and more. He pilots Porte through the peloton in treacherous conditions on stage 4; he sprints for time bonuses at intermediate sprints to protect Porte’s overall lead; he fixes Porte’s race radio on the move; he gets in breakaways to be up the road for Porte; and he shuts down other breaks. He’s particularly impressive on the final stage where he helps close down a threatening move, ultimately setting Porte up for overall victory.

“Mads pretty much single-handedly took two minutes out of the 26 guys up the road,” Porte says later. “He’s a fantastic guy. When he won Worlds — a few days after, he said to me that he would come down to Tour Down Under and help me to try and win the race. So for him to back that up … And he’s been awesome all week.”

Pedersen was on the podium on stage 5 after his ride in a late breakaway earned him the most combative rider prize.

Pedersen finishes the Tour Down Under in 132nd place, dead last on the GC, 49 minutes behind his team leader. He didn’t win a stage as world champion like Sagan did in 2018; indeed he never got close. And yet, there can be no doubt the world champion played the role that was asked of him.

As a rival rider put it so eloquently after stage 6: “If Richie Porte didn’t have Pedersen, he’d be fucked.”

***

On the Trek-Segafredo web page, a team photo shows all of the riders in this year’s line-up. Among those smiling in the front row: new recruit Vincenzo Nibali, winner of four Grand Tours; gun Aussie climber Porte, winner of multiple week-long WorldTour races; and Tour de France stage and Il Lombardia winner Bauke Mollema. Front and centre stands 24-year-old Mads Pedersen, grinning broadly.

It’s a position commensurate with both the jersey Pedersen wears and his value to the team this year. He might not like the media attention, but his Trek-Segafredo team and its sponsors won’t be complaining.

Perhaps Pedersen will embrace the role of world champion more as the season goes on, as he learns to deal with and accept the attention. Maybe he’ll be more comfortable with that attention at races where he feels like he can compete; where he feels he should be in the spotlight.

Or maybe he won’t, and that’s fine too. Pedersen might have won a big race in September last year, but ultimately he’s a bike racer with a job to do. Sometimes that job will be winning bike races. Other times it will be a case of putting his head down, ignoring the pressure and the attention, and simply riding hard for a teammate — rainbows or no rainbows.

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