Mads Pedersen is slowly becoming accustomed to being cycling's new elite men's road race world champion. He has paired classic black shorts with his iconic rainbow jersey, and is clearly happy to receive the hugs and congratulations from everyone at Trek-Segafredo.
Yet a shake of the head and a quiet smile confirms that the Dane is still on cloud nine and still wondering what happened under the pouring Yorkshire rain, when he powered away from Italy's Matteo Trentin and Switzerland's Stefan Küng to win cycling's biggest one-day race.
"Everything changed for me last week," Pedersen tells Cyclingnews and La Gazzetta dello Sport on the evening before the Tre Valli Varesine race in Italy in his first international interview after winning the world title.
"My development has perhaps been quite fast, but I honestly didn't expect to win last Sunday. This last week has all been very unexpected," he adds, with a soft shake of the head.
After being celebrated and honoured at home in Denmark last week, Pedersen made his debut as world champion at the Tour de l'Eurométropole in Belgium on Saturday. He will end his 2019 season in Italy, riding the Tre Valli Varesine and then Wednesday's Milano-Torino race, before swapping his rainbow jersey for a smart suit to marry his long-term partner Lisette.
Pedersen sees getting married as far more important and far more of an achievement than any world title.
"A world title is huge, and I'm sure it's perhaps changed my life, but my wedding with Lisette will be a lot more special. We've been together for six years and she's always supported me. She's always there for me. She makes me what I am."
Pedersen is still shocked to have become the road race world champion but he emerged from the cold and the rain to take the rainbow jersey because he always been fiercely competitive.
"I started cycling because I was a really bad loser," he reveals. "I played football before, but was always angry with my teammates. I started playing badminton but I broke too many rackets, so my dad bought me a bike, and that was it. I started riding a bike and I've never stopped.
"I've always been really competitive. When I was 10 and had just started racing, I wanted to have fun, but I also wanted to beat the others guys. When I raced at Continental level with Cult Energy in my first season as an under-23 rider, the goal was to be a professional. Then I stepped up a level with Stölting Service Group in 2016 and then Trek-Segafredo in 2017.
A fast-track career
Pedersen won the junior edition of Paris-Roubaix in 2013 and a series of other races. He was the Danish road race champion in 2017 and also won the Tour of Denmark, and then in 2018 he finished second behind Niki Terpstra at the Tour of Flanders after going on the attack with 50km
to go and then holding onto Terpstra's wheel for as long as was physically possible. It was an audacious, talent-confirming ride – just like his Worlds-winning ride in Harrogate.
"I wasn't the team leader for the Worlds, but it turned my way exactly as it did at the Tour of Flanders last year," Pedersen points out.
"Jakob Fuglsang and Michael Valgren were the team leaders in the Danish team, and the plan was to play me in the 'pre-final'. We'd hoped they would come up to me. But it turned out in my favour again, just like in Flanders.
"When Trentin and Mathieu van der Poel [Netherlands] came across, I realised that it was going to be the 'big final' rather than the pre-final, but my first goal was just to make sure I got a medal. I was racing against Stefan Küng, but then Van der Poel went bang and so things changed. Then Stefan went really hard on the climb, and so I realised I was racing for the world title."
Few expected Trentin to be beaten in the sprint up Harrogate's Parliament Street. His track record in fast finishes, especially after hard races, is exemplary. However, the Italian didn't seem to understand just how tired he was, or just how strong and how fast Pedersen was.
On Monday, Ken Sommer, Pedersen's agent at Corso Sports, suggestedthat the young Dane has only been beaten once, by Van der Poel, when finishing in an attack of 20 or fewer riders.
"I'm not a bad sprinter but I'm not super. I think 99 times out of 100 I wouldn’t beat Trentin, but it wasn't a normal sprint in Harrogate," Pedersen points out.
"It came after six hour of racing in the rain and cold; it was, like, 8°C all day. But a quality of my sprint is that it never slows, no matter how long I race. I've always got a decent sprint in my legs, whatever the conditions. That's what made me world champion."
Pedersen made winning look easy last week in Harrogate, but this spring he learned that there are also often deep lows before any highs emerge. He was hoping for big things in the cobbled Classics after the 2018 Tour of Flanders. Instead, he failed to finish and broke down in tears on the Trek-Segafredo bus.
"Yes, it's true," he confirms. "I'd worked so hard, made so many sacrifices, spent so much time training for the Classics; then I rode Flanders and had a terrible race. There were all the people from Trek there and [team manager] Luca Guercilena, too. I felt as though I'd let everybody down and so, yeah, I cried. But it was an important moment in my career – a kind of turning point.
"I learned that day that cycling isn’t always fair and definitely not easy. But that's why I love it. When you make sacrifices, when you go out in the cold and rain, you do the hard work; you get the payback with the results. There's always something that makes it all worthwhile. That's what makes cycling special for me."
Pedersen will show off his world champion's rainbow jersey in the 2020 spring Classics as a leader of Trek-Segafredo. John Degenkolb will have left for Lotto Soudal and Vincenzo Nibali will be the team's new figurehead and Grand Tour leader alongside Richie Porte. Nibali's presence will help deflect some of the attention and pressure from Pedersen's young shoulders, but he knows that he'll have to step up, continue his fast-track development and live up to the natural expectations that come with wearing the rainbow jersey.
"When a rider like Vincenzo Nibali joins your team, you can only keep quiet, bow your head and show some respect," Pedersen says of the veteran Italian.
"I'm looking forward to the day we get together at Trek-Segafredo and start riding together. We're very different kinds of riders, but I'm sure I can learn a lot from him. I'd be crazy not to.
"I don’t honestly think that becoming world champion will change my role next year on the team. It's true that John Degenkolb is moving teams, but we'll remain a collective, with a strong group for the Classics. We've also got Jasper Stuyven, who's very strong, and we've got Edward Theuns.
"Perhaps the way I'll race will change," continues Pedersen. "It'll have to, because I'll be racing in the rainbow jersey; I can't hide in the peloton if I have a bad day. I hope to ride the 'final' of races more, and I hope to be more consistent and up there when it matters.
"I want to win a Classic Monument, but it doesn't have to be next year as world champion – just some time in the future," he says. "I'm not putting myself under pressure. I want to enjoy my year as world champion; I don't need to prove who I am."