Mads Pedersen races up a hellingen in the Dwars door Vlaanderen. He's shown in a blur of speed, his primary-color kit bleeding into the pale white sky above and behind him.

In praise of honesty

Pre-race quotes are often a barren desert, which makes Mads Pedersen’s unvarnished commentary about his crash-damaged Tour of Flanders chances all the more striking.

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 30.03.2024 Photography by
Gruber Images
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Mads Pedersen was not bullshitting at Lidl-Trek’s pre-Tour of Flanders press conference. “I have had better days,” said the Danish Classics specialist as he outlined, in bracing terms sprinkled with the occasional profanity, how hard his team had been hit by the massive crash at Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen.

For both riders and journalists, pre-race press conferences can be something of an exercise in frustration.

Riders stick to anodyne boilerplate, preferring (understandably) not to tip anything that might give away strategic advantage. Journalists, keen for any kind of juicy comment, sometimes ask ridiculously leading questions. The whole exercise can sometimes seem a farce.

Sometimes, it’s safer not to get the questions at all. “The Tour of Flanders suits me,” said overwhelming favorite Mathieu van der Poel in a pre-race press release. “It’s a race with a lot of intervals and climbs in quick succession. Not too long, but aggressive.” Fact-check: true. Also true: there is zero real insight there. The race suits a guy who’s won it twice and never finished lower than fourth in five tries? You don’t say.

Van der Poel went on to express his disappointment that some of his top rivals (Wout van Aert, principally) are out or, like Pedersen, the walking wounded, but took care to add that he still considered both Visma-Lease a Bike and Lidl-Trek strong, dangerous teams. “How I’m going to tackle it? I can’t say much about that beforehand. It depends on how the race evolves, and how the situation is.” Poker pros wish for this kind of discipline.

Van der Poel wasn’t alone. “Despite the setbacks, we are still at the start with a strong team,” said Visma’s Tiesj Benoot, noting Van der Poel’s favorite status and saying, “It’s up to us to beat him.” I mean, yeah, that is how sports work, generally.

All this isn’t to bash on these guys for their comments. Put me in their position and I’d probably be just as closed and careful, to the point of blandness. Bike racing is often a sport of deceit; your goal is to hide your strength as long as possible, to keep your opponents guessing, to make them forget you’re even in the race, until you’re too far up the road to get back. Bulletin-board material doesn’t really serve that.

At the same time, the outlook is always rosy in bike racing. The riders have good sensations; they’re targeting bonifications to make a play for the classification. Or some such.

Mathieu van der Poel bows his head slightly as he speaks into two proferred reporters' microphones. He has a look of concentration and his eyes are slightly downcast.

Pedersen, sleep-deprived and sore, was having none of it. Like a grouchy bear, he held forth with blunt honesty in Lidl-Trek’s pre-Flanders presser about how Dwars had all but wrecked the team’s careful preparation for what he calls, with a brief apology for his language, “a fucking tough bike race.”

Losing Alex Kirsch and an in-form Jasper Stuyven? “A pain in the ass.” Without Kirsch, who Pedersen said is “super important for positioning and he knows these roads so well,” Lidl-Trek will likely have to press riders like Tim Declercq and Edward Theuns into service earlier in the race than they’d like. And Pedersen admitted up-front that without Stuyven, “I think we as a team are going to miss the card Jasper would have been sitting with.”

Calling himself one of the lucky ones from the Dwars crash because he can still race, Pedersen also outlined his incomplete recovery so far. “Sleep is never good after a crash like this. The body is sore, wounds are hanging into your fucking underwear and your sheets in the bed. It’s just a pain in the ass to have this and you’re not healing in three days. The body won’t be perfect.

“I have to start the race with a different mindset than I would if I didn’t crash on Wednesday. I know to win Flanders, you have to be 100%. I have to be honest, I’m not 100% right now.”

There’s always the slightest chance that Pedersen is absolutely bullshitting us and this is the biggest head-fake in Classics history. But I strongly suspect not. And while it might not be tactically smart to be so graphically honest about his dreadful last few days, and while his occasional profanity might make a sponsor or three wince, I’m glad Pedersen gave us the straight story.

Not to dip too far into trite “pro racers – they’re just like us!” territory, but Pedersen’s responses offer an important counterpoint to the careful constructions we often see, which – consciously or not – tend to minimize or mask the very human people at the heart of the sport. They flatten personalities, reduce the struggle of the sport to a mere game of wits and watts played by pedaling automatons.

It’s not. Bike racing can turn on the smallest of margins: a soft tire at the wrong moment, a few seconds’ inattention at a crucial spot in the race, a touch of wheels that might be an easy recovery in other instances but becomes disaster when fighting for position at 90 km/h. And it can turn on moods and a night’s poor sleep, on a late substitution of a rider whose role is ended before the TV cameras start recording, on a banged-up body that’s going to behave differently over 270 km than it would in a shorter race.

Mads Pedersen had a shit week and he’s not afraid to say so. Win or lose on Sunday, God bless him for that.

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