Cyclists’ legs react in unpredictable ways at the end of a bone-chilling cold and wet day on the bike. As two of the hottest favourites in the world road race championship fell to pieces in the space of 15 minutes the 23-year-old Mads Pedersen sprang through in unexpected style to give Denmark its first elite men’s title beating Italy’s Matteo Trentin, becoming the youngest male world champion in the category in 20 years.
“After six and a half hours on the bike like that, everyone is on the limit and anything can happen,” said Pedersen.
At the bell the title looked destined for Mathieu van der Poel or Trentin, the two men who had dominated the Tour of Britain a couple of weeks ago. The young Dutchman had sprung clear of a sodden, struggling peloton on the stiff little climb of Oak Beck with two and a half laps remaining, and Trentin – as he had done several times on British roads earlier this month – had been on him like a shot.
The pair had linked up with an earlier move that included Pedersen, the Swiss track specialist Stefan Küng and the Italian Gianni Moscon. With the strength of the Belgian and French teams fading – owing partly, no doubt, to the low temperatures and constant soaking – and Peter Sagan playing a waiting game, the quintet gradually forged a lead nudging a minute.
Suddenly, immediately after taking the bell at a lap to go, Van der Poel’s strength seemed to desert him and he began to flounder, going in a matter of seconds from gold medal favourite to also-ran, with disbelief on the faces of the chasing peloton as they passed him.
Moscon then slipped back but Trentin, even after losing his team-mate, looked the likely winner on the strength of his two Tour de France wins this season. However, as others have found, the Parliament Street finish can be unexpectedly tough. Trentin launched his sprint at 200m to go just after passing Bettys Tea Rooms but faded like a deflating Yorkshire pudding.
Pedersen’s instant reaction as Trentin kicked showed he had adapted the best to the grim conditions and he overhauled the Italian with apparent ease to win by well over a bike length, adding a first major title to a more than respectable record. Last year he was the youngest podium finisher in the Tour of Flanders when he took second to Niki Terpstra, something that now looks like a springboard to cycling’s ultimate single-day title.
A former winner of the junior Paris-Roubaix with a string of victories at under-23 level, he had expected to work for Jakob Fuglsang and Michael Valgren but, when neither of his leaders made it into the winning break, he took his chance. “The plan was for me to get in a move early in the final phase and Fuglsang and Valgren would come from behind, but they couldn’t follow Van der Poel and Trentin. In the sprint I wanted to survive.”
This was a sodden climax to a weather-battered nine days of racing. Rain fell throughout, for the second time in the week the fanzone was closed because of flooding, while there was little helicopter television footage because of low cloud and breaks in television transmission because of issues with the relay plane. Throughout, the riders were swaddled in rain jerseys, capes and gilets, faces grew increasingly drawn and red-eyed and towards the end riders could be seen wringing out their rain gloves and flapping their hands to keep the blood moving.
There was a lengthy list of withdrawals: Primoz Roglic almost as soon as the race reached Harrogate with 125km remaining; the 2013 champion, Philippe Gilbert, and his young teammate Remco Evenepoel following a heavy crash on Parliament Street; the defending champion, Alejandro Valverde, as the race began building with 60km to go; and Geraint Thomas shortly afterwards.
There were vast puddles and glassy corners to negotiate but most significant was flooding in the high Pennines that caused the race route to be amended at the last minute to eliminate a loop over the climbs of Buttertubs and Grinton Moor.
Arguably, that made the course harder, with two extra laps of the unforgiving finish circuit in Harrogate added to the initial seven to make up the distance.
“A world championship for madmen,” said Valverde. Maybe, but definitely one for Mads.