Homeland hero. (Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

15 seconds from yellow: Mads Pedersen dared to dream

In front of his compatriots, the ex-World Champion came agonisingly close to the race lead – and the dream lives on.

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At Wednesday’s team presentation, Mads Pedersen was the first rider the locals saw, leading Trek-Segafredo down a garlanded avenue through the Tivoli amusement park. As he rolled up onto the stage, the crowd cheered and chanted. When the MC asked the local hero what his goals were for the start of the race, there came a bellow from the crowd before he could answer – “Gul!” (yellow) – followed by a roar from basically everyone else.

Pedersen dropped the mic from his mouth, laughed, and gave an exaggerated shrug. He’d been up front about it, dreamed about it since Copenhagen was revealed as the Grand Depart. No use denying it.

But this was a perfect, sunny Wednesday in Copenhagen, in front of a buoyant home crowd. On Friday, it would be 13 kilometres of wet roads and slick cobbles, under slate grey skies. 

(Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

Time trials are tense, pressure-filled affairs, won and lost by narrow margins. Pedersen, meanwhile, had spent months working out how close he could push himself to his own margins – reconning the course, planning where he could push and where he could hold back.

“My next goal is to get that yellow jersey,” he’d said before the race. He’d seen a fit for him in the Copenhagen course. “A minute all out, then some tricky corners. I know I can do a good short time trial, and we’re working a lot on the bike and equipment and aerodynamics …and then it’s up to me to get that yellow jersey on day one.”

Even so, he was a dark horse for the win, even if his team had believed in his ambition and he believed in himself. That’s nothing new. His whole career has been a bit like that – at 22, he rode to a stunning second at Tour of Flanders on debut. The next year in Harrogate, he’d outlasted his rivals in dire conditions to become a surprise World Champion. The rainbow jersey is a heavy burden to bear, and at times Pedersen seemed to show the discomfort of carrying it. He’s older now, though – 26 – and he’s resolved some personal goals, gotten married, opened a bike shop with his truck-driver dad “to make sure that he had an easier life and didn’t have to push himself that much.”

A Danish start for the biggest race on the calendar is a once-in-a-career opportunity. So Pedersen dared to dream, and so did Denmark.

Was the Mads Pedersen hype-train out of control? “I don’t know, and I don’t care,” he told media at a Thursday press conference. “I don’t ride a bike to make journalists happy. I do it to get results, and to meet my goals.”

There’s a purity to time trials – A to B, on the limit, as fast possible – but there are tactics too. At 4.26pm, Mads Pedersen rolled down the ramp to begin his third Tour de France. The timing was intentional. “It is a conscious choice, as the chances of rain are greater at the end, and there is also the prospect of less, there around 16.30, where I have to start. So it is completely conscious,” he said at a press conference beforehand. 

Less rain, perhaps, but still a fair bit. 

(Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Pedersen was smooth through the chicanes on the way back from the Little Mermaid, and composed on the flats, and when he crossed the line it was heartstoppingly close – close enough for NBC to call the lead for Pedersen, until the clock revealed the truth. The great Danish hope was just off a stint in the hot seat, two seconds behind Mathieu van der Poel’s benchmark.

As the remaining riders trickled in, he slipped back a few spots more, and finished the day in sixth overall, narrowly ahead of a blistering ride from his compatriot Jonas Vingegaard.

On Saturday, Pedersen’s not racing the clock anymore – 15 seconds in arrears, he will have to navigate the windswept roads of his homeland, the echelons that will be formed by them, and the sprint trains of his rivals. Pedersen’s goal has become more difficult to achieve. 

But the dream’s not yet dead. Before the race he knew it would be difficult to win the time trial, “and I know that it will be difficult for me to pick up the seconds I might have to afterwards. But I also think that we are allowed to dream about things once in a while, and we must also announce them.” 

Once the race leaves Denmark, all Danish eyes will be on Vingegaard – but for the next two days it’s the Mads Pedersen show. That’s a lot of pressure, and he can feel it, but he’s carried burdens like it before.

“I feel that you can almost only disappoint if you do not have a yellow jersey or a stage victory,” he said in Copenhagen, before the race began. “But if there is anyone who wants to achieve those goals in the Kingdom of Denmark, it is myself.”

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