There were points during his stint as World Champion when the rainbow stripes almost seemed a burden to Mads Pedersen - if not the jersey itself then the attention and expectation that accompanied it. "Everyone thinks the stripes make you 100 times better, but they don’t," the then 24-year-old Trek-Segafredo rider told us at the start of the 2020 Classics season, insisting he was not yet the finished article.
Now, nearly 12 months on and looking ahead to the 2021 campaign, Pedersen is older and stronger and wants the jersey back.
"If I had to choose one race to win this year, I would like to win back the Worlds," he said during a pre-season press conference, explaining that the pandemic-enforced 2020 reshuffle robbed him of the chance to wear the rainbow jersey at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
"It was a pity that I won’t be able to show my kids the photos from the Roubaix track with the jersey on - that was the hardest part of not racing all the races last year."
The Dane knows he’ll have a shot when it comes to the World Championship road race in Flanders in September, but he also knows there are more pressing matters at hand in the same region this spring. With a Gent-Wevelgem title to his name, he has bolstered his status as a Classics rider, and now he’s no longer saying he’s not the finished article.
"I know I’m young but I don’t want to play the card anymore that I have to improve to be in the game. Now’s the time to show that I’m on the level every time we race," he said firmly.
Back when he spoke of the expectation that went with the rainbow jersey, Pedersen was also humble enough to state that his teammate Jasper Stuyven, who’d won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad the previous afternoon, was still the better rider. Again, things have changed, and that now seems to be a much more equal partnership - and partnership is the right word for it.
From the outside, at least, there seems to be a genuine friendship and warmth between the pair, who put their egos to one side and pull together for the good of the team.
"Where I think we’re a bit different to some other guys is that we enjoy when the other one is winning a race, and we actually want the other one to win a race," Pedersen said.
"For me, it’s not a pity if Jasper is in the finale. In Gent-Wevelgem, let’s say, if he jumped with the guys who were doing the sprint, I would be more than happy for Jasper to win the race. It makes us stronger to have two cards to play. This is a pair of kings - not a bad hand to have in a poker game."
The ‘pair of kings’ comment is adequately backed up by the duo sharing two of the six major cobbled Classics between them in 2020. It came on the back of a disastrous 2019 spring, and now must be established as the norm, according to Pedersen.
"We talked about this year and it’s about time we made it a standard for us to be there together in the finals, every time. That’s the most important for us now, to be on the high level every time together," he said.
"As we said so many times before, we’re sure we’re stronger together than apart, and this we still believe in, but first we have to be there together, and that’s what we’re aiming for this year: to be together in the finals every time."
The partnership could be paramount in a Classics landscape where Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel have arguably established themselves as the strongest individuals - riding away together at Flanders - but have shown vulnerability when things become tactical - as expertly exploited by Pedersen (and Stuyven) in Wevelgem.
"They are not unbeatable," Pedersen stated. "I showed already that they’re beatable. “I can’t beat them every time, just like they can’t win every time. But I know I can beat them, and that’s enough for me."
Pedersen expanded on the tactical possibilities when asked if Van der Poel, who he has rubbed shoulders with since their junior days, had a gap in his armour.
"The weak point, if you look on YouTube for the World Champs in Harrogate, 16km to go - that’s his weak point," he said, light-heartedly referring to the moment Van der Poel dropped like a stone from their lead group.
"When I say that, it’s also a joke. This guy is almost 100 per cent. He has some days where it doesn’t work out but you have to remember that race was 265 kilometres and he blew up after 250, so he didn't do a bad job; he just didn't have the day.
"Maybe sometimes he’s playing too much with the muscles instead of thinking, and that could be his weak point, but I have been in that situation as well," Pedersen added.
"When you’re young and you think ‘I did a good result, I can do it again, and maybe if I go earlier I can kill the rest of the guys earlier.’ Maybe that’s what happened a few times - that he played with the muscles a bit early. There’s nothing bad about that - I’ve done it too. We’re both young and we have to learn, and he learned from it also."
Van der Poel will be a big rival for the rainbow jersey, but there are other jerseys that have caught Pedersen’s eye. It has been pushed back a year due to the pandemic but the 2022 Tour de France starts in Copenhagen, and he could not hide the fact that wearing the yellow jersey - particularly on a stage 2 route that will pass by his house - is a tantalising prospect.
Likewise, he didn’t hide the fact that he has also thought about green, buoyed by his pair of runner-up placings in bunch sprint finishes.
"I now see the possibility of doing it," he said "One day, if the Tour is perfect for it and fits me well, why not? It would be nice to have the green jersey hanging on the wall when I stop cycling."
There are lots of thoughts in the pipeline, and no shortage of ambition, but Pedersen doesn't want to get carried away, and is in fact fixing his gaze right in front of him.
"What I learned during the lockdown is that you never know which race is the last one. Last year, they could close down everything from one day to the next," he said.
"That's the mentality I'm bringing for this season, and for the rest of my career - every race could be the last one. I'm going into every race trying to win it. It doesn't matter if it's a stage in Burgos or the Tour of Flanders, I'm here to win the race."
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