Valgren, Pedersen, Kragh Andersen, Juul-Jensen, Cort, Bjerg.
What is going on in Danish cycling? With the 2018 wins of Michael Valgren in Het Nieuwsblad and Amstel Gold Race, and Mads Pedersen getting second in the Tour of Flanders, plus Magnus Cort taking a stage at the Tour and Mikkel Bjerg being world under-23 time-trial champion, we are back with riders at the top.
You will all see a lot more young Danish riders in the front of big races next season and for many years to come. But what got us this far?
I can only speak for myself and about my upbringing in Denmark, but I’m pretty sure my national colleagues know what I’m talking about when I say this goes a long way back.
I was born in 1994. Same goes for Søren Kragh Andersen. And with Mads Pedersen a year younger then us, we have always raced with and against each other. The three of us started competing as early as possible in Denmark. The first time I pinned numbers on my jersey, I was only eight years old (back then this was a job for my mum – I couldn’t handle the pins).
We would line up, not old enough to stay home without supervision or cook a meal, but I could glare into the eyes of Mads and Søren, as my fiercest competition on the bike and Lego-building buddies off it. Our parents would stand to the side once we were prepped, with friendly words amongst themselves, as we nervously awaited the race start, knowing that at the end of the day, there would be one overjoyed child and many more disappointed ones.
Skip forward to 2011 and 2012. In these years, we started to dominate almost every race as juniors, especially in 2012 when we won almost every Nations’ Cup race, including Paris-Roubaix, which I won, and the Peace Race in Czech Republic, won by Niklas Eg, with Søren Kragh second on GC. We were hitters back then and every other nation was shaking in their bibs when they saw any Danish team on the start list.
I had the pleasure of taking the junior world TT title in my home country in 2011, following up with Roubaix the next year. But then we went a bit quiet.
Going on to the under-23 years, this is where the federation, in collaboration with the Danish Continental teams, really start to do specific work with the upcoming talents. The national squad is cut down to 12 riders instead of 30. This means we lose people. We never gave it a thought that we wouldn’t be selected, we were all so confident coming from juniors. We thought we could walk on water.
The cuts were brutal, but we all have our careers to thank because of it. The man behind this protocol: Morten Bennekou, currently a DS and trainer at Team Sunweb. He saw this as a way to grow a closer relationship with all of us and be the personal trainer for most of the squad. He started working closely with the continental teams in Denmark. There was a focus on athlete welfare, we were cared for and the upper management wasn’t spread too thin.
Morten was the national coach. He came up with new ideas of running a national team with riders from different clubs. He made us work well together in the races. So despite being competitors in everyday life and Danish events, we worked as a team in the national colours.
Equally along with Morten: Michael and Christa Skelde. Every one of us young Danish riders in the WorldTour has been working closely together with at least one of these people. For most of us, it’s all three. The Skeldes were the people behind the old Team Cult Energy. I was in there together with Michael Valgren, Mads Pedersen and Magnus Cort.
Michael was the team manager for most of us, including myself. He was old school, the tough guy, forcing us to slaughter ourselves for our team-mates. He didn’t believe that we needed the best bikes on the market, or the best glasses and helmets. This doesn’t make you go faster. Hard work does. But what Michael did best was teaching us how to race. He taught us to be winners, to grab every single opportunity we would come across in each race. It is because of his work we see Mads and Valgren attack and always go for the win.
Christa worked on the human side, teaching us that to develop as a cyclist wasn’t enough. She helped us mature and grow. She was the one to go to when we had problems in our lives. Back in 2014, I had a serious downfall and was ready to jump off the bike for good. I had the ability to show myself and keep winning, but I didn’t. It was no longer enough to be a big talent. Everything came easy to me as a junior. Now it was time to work hard. And I didn’t work hard enough.
I was coming into the season thinking I would be one of the best. Everyone thinks they are the best after a long winter training by themselves, including me. Then you get to your first race and you learn the other fuckers also have been training and life isn’t so easy after all. That year I learned how to suffer. But not before I went into a deep pit mentally.
I crashed a few times and was disappointed with my performance. So that all triggered a spiral. I had no motivation to train and got dropped from kilometre zero in the races. But when Michael and Christa saw this happening, instead of casting me aside as “simply not good enough”, they picked me up and we started working closer together, to bring me back on my normal level. They taught me to fight and to suffer, both in training and in races. Christa saved me and I’m still working together with her today.
In 2015, I finally cracked out of my shell and started being one of the best under-23 riders in the world. I was in a small Danish team, albeit without Michael and Christa, but they still wanted to see me succeed and help me to achieve my dream of becoming a pro cyclist.
At the same time I started working more with Morten. This would appear to be the combination that got me moving. I worked harder than ever. It all led up to me being at my best that autumn. I took my first pro win in the TT at the Tour of Denmark, together with the young rider’s jersey. A few weeks after, I won a stage in the Tour de l’Avenir. I was flying – walking on water and nothing could stop me. I ended the season achieving my second TT world title in Richmond.
It all came together for us that season. All the work we did with Morten, Michael and Christa paid off. We rocked the races, taking every stage and the whole podium in ZLM Roompot Tour and four stage wins at l’Avenir. We got inspired by each other. When I saw Søren and Mads win a stage, the two kids I had known since we were eight, I knew I could do it as well. And so I did. We were all friends and extremely happy when any of us won.
We all kept in mind what Michael taught us. Take the chance when it is there for yourself. Go out and race from the front and get yourself into a winning situation. That’s the mentality we all got brought up with and that is what we will see in the coming years at WorldTour level.
When I see Søren, Valgren, Mads Pedersen, Magnus Cort, up there, fighting for top-shelf results in the biggest races in the world, I get inspired again. I gain confidence in myself and I believe that it’s possible for me to do the same.
And, of course, when I see these wins in the big league, I will never forget those eight-year-old boys, together on the start lines as our mums waited patiently alongside.