‘I didn’t want Van der Poel to surprise me’ – Mads Pedersen holds nerve to win Gent-Wevelgem duel

The idea was to outflank and outnumber Mathieu van der Poel, but in the finale of Gent-Wevelgem, Mads Pedersen still faced something akin to a modern labour of Hercules, namely a head-to-head contest with the world champion.

Pedersen’s Lidl-Trek squad had raced with aggression and cohesion all afternoon, placing three men in the front group of seven that formed after the first ascent of the Kemmelberg, but a plan can only bring a team so far at a race like this. Come the last hour or so of racing, Pedersen had to find his own way past a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

If Pedersen was daunted by the task, he didn’t show it. On the final haul up the Kemmelberg, he opted to set the tempo himself, dialling up the pace to distance their last remaining breakaway companion Laurence Pithie (Groupama-FDJ). Above all, Pedersen wanted to do just enough to dissuade Van der Poel from launching an acceleration of his own.

“I didn’t want to try to drop Mathieu,” Pedersen said when he took a seat in the media room afterwards.  “First of all, I don’t believe I would have been able to do that, and second, if I had managed to drop him, I’m pretty sure he would have sat up and waited for the peloton. Then they’d have been there chasing with the whole team, and that wouldn’t have made sense at all.

“The last time on the Kemmel, I didn’t look back. I just wanted to make it hard enough so he wouldn’t attack. I remembered his attack from [the Tour of Flanders] last year, and it definitely put me on the limit, so I wanted to avoid that. I didn’t know if he was fully on the limit or not. I know I was on the limit, and I was just hoping he had a hard time there as well.”

Van der Poel would later reveal that he was struggling to hold Pedersen’s wheel at that point, and the Dutchman confessed that he already had a sinking feeling about his prospects in a two-up sprint 35km later. Pedersen wasn’t to know that at the time, of course, and the two struck a common accord over the other side of the Kemmel. Having rid themselves of the dangerous Pithie, they were now content to share the workload on the flat road to Wevelgem.

“We kind of asked each other if we were happy with the situation and if we would work together or start to attack each other,” Pedersen explained of the brief parley that was captured by the television cameras.

“It would have been a bit too early to attack each other. We had already agreed to put Pithie on the limit so he would blow up, and we were hoping we could gain some time before the guys in the peloton could organise themselves. We wanted to ride together in the crosswind to make sure we would have enough time before we swung into the tailwind section. It worked out well enough.”

That was something of an understatement, though Pedersen still had plenty to do in the final kilometre. With a peloton containing his Alpecin-Deceuninck teammate Jasper Philipsen closing rapidly, Van der Poel parked himself on Pedersen’s rear wheel beneath the flamme rouge.

Although Pedersen didn’t realise the chasers were so close at hand, he was canny enough to keep the pace high, mindful of Van der Poel’s prodigious ability to accelerate from low speeds, the very trick that helped him outmanoeuvre Tadej Pogačar at the 2022 Tour of Flanders.

“I wanted to do one of my long sprints and not let him surprise me,” Pedersen explained. “That was the last thing I wanted today, to have him opening the sprint. I know I’m good at long sprints. I just had to trust that today and hope it would be enough.

Lidl-Trek

This cobbled Classics campaign has been billed by most as a straight duel between Van der Poel and Wout van Aert – who didn’t line up at Gent-Wevelgem – but Lidl-Trek’s collective strength has been one of the most striking aspects of the Spring to date. They continued in a similar vein here.

They were well represented when the peloton first split in the crosswinds at De Moeren with 150km to go, and they were again to the fore when Van der Poel ran through his scales on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg, with Pedersen joined by teammates Jasper Stuyven and Jonathan Milan in the front group of seven.

The obvious tactic at that point was to attack Van der Poel in turn, with Milan the first of the Lidl-Trek men to go on the offensive. A most untimely puncture for Jasper Stuyven on the Plugstreets, however, forced them to revise their strategy on the hoof.

“It was a bit of a shit,” Pedersen smiled ruefully. “The puncture came in a really bad moment, because Jonny had put good pressure on, and we were ready to keep attacking.”

No matter, Pedersen’s eventual victory, his second at Gent-Wevelgem after his 2020 triumph, was a reward for their enterprising approach. The former world champion has made no secret of his ambition to add a Monument to his palmarès, and his disappointment was palpable after placing fourth at Milan-San Remo last weekend.

Victory here offers ample compensation, and it also places Pedersen firmly among the favourites for the Tour of Flanders. He placed second in the Ronde on his debut in 2018, after all, and he was third behind the unassailable Pogačar and Van der Poel a year ago.

“Yeah, but still pretty far from the win. A victory always gives confidence, but I also know Flanders is a different race, it’s really tough for me. Paris-Roubaix suits me better,” said Pedersen, who insisted his team’s collaborative approach to leadership would remain in place for the next two weekends.

“We are riding as a team, we don’t have one specific leader. With a strong group like ours, it wouldn’t make sense to have the meeting the day before and say, ‘We’re riding for this guy.’ So much can happen in a Classic and especially in Flanders. If the team tells me to put the pressure on for the other guys, I’ll do it. They pay my salary. I do whatever they tell me to do.”

SOURCE: CyclingNews   (go to source)
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