Of all the names being thrown around in the build-up to the Tour of Flanders, that of Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) would surely have featured in very few podium predictions. The young Dane, however, surpassed his and everyone else’s expectations and came of age on the cobbles and bergs of northern Belgium, finishing second on his Ronde debut.
Pedersen's potential was evident as early as 2013 when he won the junior Paris-Roubaix and went on to claim the silver medal in the World Championships road race. With Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Norway, and a stage of the Tour de l'Avenir all won during his time as an U23, Trek-Segafredo had to fight for his signature ahead of the 2017 season.
Pedersen went on to become national champion of Denmark as a neo-pro, along with providing confirmation of his abilities against the clock, most notably beating Jonathan Castroviejo to victory in the Tour du Poitou Charentes time trial.
After a solid start to his second season, the 22-year-old came into his second Classics campaign as a 'Plan C' for Trek behind Jasper Stuyven and John Degenkolb. He seized his chance at Flanders, however, by heading up the road in a long-range break and holding out for second place behind Niki Terpstra.
"It was a long day, super hard," Pedersen said in the media mixed zone. "Always when you do 260 kilometres it's a race where you have to survive, no matter how good you are. A result like this is unexpected, but it was a long and good hard day."
Pedersen went clear ahead of the Koppenberg with just over 50km remaining, and was joined by Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky) and Sebastian Langeveld (EF-Drapac), all acting as foils for their respective leaders. As Terpstra came roaring past on the Oude Kwaremont, Van Baarle and Langeveld, both top-five finishers here in the past, fell away, but Pedersen held firm over the Paterberg and dug in over the final 12 kilometres to take a first Monument podium.
"That was a tactic from the team, it was about putting pressure on the other teams. I had to follow the early attacks, and I did that. But to stick at the front, I didn't expect that. So, for sure, it was part of the plan, but it was unexpected that I was sitting there to the finish," said Pedersen.
"I just went full gas. I was fighting like I don't know what to come back to him and keep the group behind me away. From then on, actually, I wasn't thinking; I was just pushing the pedals."
There were cheerful scenes back at the Trek-Segafredo team bus, where the team's directeur sportif for the Classics, Dirk Demol – who won Paris-Roubaix 30 years ago – told Cyclingnews that Pedersen is the real deal.
After winning a stage at the Herald Sun Tour and finishing fourth in the final-day time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico, where most of the world's best time triallists were in action, Pedersen was full of confidence heading onto the cobbles, only to abandon both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. However, he quickly bounced back with fifth place at Dwars door Vlaanderen, an indication that his Flanders display was no bolt from the blue.
"He said he wanted to be good for these races, and he proved it," said Demol. "Already in Kuurne he was good, but in Tirreno he proved that he was really growing. After one week of racing at Tirreno, which was very hard this year, he proved his condition, his value. He went home, and maybe he didn't train enough because at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem he was not there, and he was so disappointed.
"But then he kept working – some days he did an hour behind the car on top of the normal training we did. The evening before Dwars door Vlaanderen, he said, 'I'm going to promise you one thing; the next three races I will be there. I'm disappointed in myself, but in Dwars I will be there, also Sunday, and also a week on Sunday'.
"He was fifth on Wednesday and then today he finished second… what a performance."
As well as being a strong rouleur on the flat, Demol is in no doubt that Pedersen also possesses the punch and explosiveness needed for the short, steep climbs of Flanders.
"Yes, believe me – I know what it takes to stay there. He just missed a little bit to follow Terpstra, but he can do it, I'm sure. I'm confident that he is one of the riders that we will see the next years in the Classics always in the top.
"He's dreaming about cobbles, and about bad weather, wind and rain. These races fit him very well. With the morale that he took after Waregem and today, he's there."
The time trialling skills and the precocious displays of strength in the Classics, combined with his presence in the Trek-Segafredo team, might lead to comparisons with a certain Fabian Cancellara – even his red-and-white Danish champion's jersey bears some resemblance to Spartacus' old Swiss jersey.
"It's too early for that," Demol said with a smile. "Fabian was a super champion, winning a lot of classics, winning time trials. So far Mads is on his way to being a good classics rider and time triallist.
"He knows he has the qualities to be in the future a leader of the team. It's just a bit too early. He's really happy he can develop in the shadow of John and Jasper. But the next races we will start with, let's say, three leaders. He made a step up, it's not a big surprise and I'm confident that in the future he will one day be leader of the team."
As for Pedersen himself, his feet remain firmly on the ground.
"The plan for me over the last few years was to keep on growing, and for sure this year is the same; I want to grow even more," he said.
"I'm still young. This was a good year but I still need some experience, so maybe in a few years I can be here again. But I also need some time and I need to grow even more."