The Long and Winding Road to the Grand Départ in Denmark By Lars B Jørgensen

Not many will remember Alex Pedersen for his professional career as a cyclist for teams like RMO and ONCE from 1988-91, as it all came to a sudden halt due to heart problems. And although Pedersen made a brief comeback in the amateur ranks to become a world champion in 1994, his days as a rider at top level were basically gone.

At the beginning of the century he was a tactically astute directeur sportif at Memory Card-Jack & Jones, a team that was to become Team CSC under the reign of Bjarne Riis. In recent years Pedersen has mainly been known as one of the key figures who has worked for years to get the Tour de France’s Grand Départ in the Danish capital Copenhagen.

He is one among many, but still the most familiar face in the gallery of lobbyists from high and low. To claim that it has been a long, winding and bumpy road would be an understatement. When the Tour starts in Denmark next year the event will have been more than 25 years in the making. It’s a story about endless lobbying, dreams, doping scandals and not least an everlasting love of cycling.

It all began in the town of Herning back in October 1996, the same year Bjarne Riis won the Tour de France and made history. That’s the sort of thing that might make some grown men cry as well as make others dream big. Not least in Riis’ home town. The same year Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc sat down in Herning to discuss the possibilities of a French visit to Denmark, preferably in 2002.

However, the very idea of having a Tour start as far north as Denmark seemed inconceivable. Back then, West Berlin in 1987 had stretched the limits of logistics. Starting in “rural” Denmark was even more far out so to speak. And then came the issue of doping. When Riis won the Tour in 1996 no one really seemed to know or even care, but when the Festina scandal rumbled into view two years later everyone had to. The thought of attracting a “two wheeled pharmacy” cooled the interest of the public. Doubts over cycling’s credibility were even aired by the chair of the Danish Tour committee that was in dialogue with ASO.

Having followed cycling for decades from a Danish perspective one thing is clear. There are storms and there is calmness. Whether it be the success of the star studded Team CSC, team-boss Bjarne Riis’s pistol-on-the-forehead doping confession in 2007 or compatriot Michael Rasmussen’s controversial suspension in the yellow jersey in the same year. And then CSC winning the Tour with Carlos Sastre the year after with Riis having reestablished himself as a talismanic team leader.

However, there were still no signs of a Tour start in Denmark. In the meantime, the Tour de France had taken off from Dublin (1998), and even London (2007), following up with Yorkshire in 2014. Cycling as a whole had long been in a state of globalization.

Back in 2004 Jean-Marie Leblanc had stated that he “felt it was time to give the Danes back what they had given the Tour.” Leblanc may have had the best intentions, but when Christian Prudhomme took over as race director in 2007 the Danish candidacy seemed rather dead.

Admittedly, the Tour de France is a monster of an event. Demanding in so many aspects, whether we are talking economics, infrastructure, logistics or accommodation. In comparison, the road race world championship is way more manageable, which was proven in 2011 in Copenhagen in a week where there were enthusiastic crowds at all the events. Mark Cavendish won gold in the men’s elite road race and lost (some of) his heart to the city.

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK – SEPTEMBER 25: Mark Cavendish of Great Britain celebrates after winning the Men’s Elite Road Race during day seven of the UCI Road World Championships on September 25, 2011 in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

In May 2012 Herning hosted the start of the Giro d’Italia. And perhaps it dawned upon Prudhomme and ASO that Denmark could be a possibility despite challenges along the way back to France. The most defining stab at being a host country came when the Danish government along with a series of mayors proposed an official bid, announced by minister of commerce Troels Lund Povlsen in 2015.  From then on Prudhomme clearly warmed to the thought of a start in Copenhagen, arguably the world’s major cycling city, at a time when ASO likes to polish its green credentials.

Cyclists commuting in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo by Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images)

Initially the hope was to host the Tour in either in 2019, 2020 or 2021, but the 2019 slot went to Brussels. Nice was handed the start in 2020 and it looked like time and goodwill was running out for Copenhagen and Denmark. It could be seen as one last gasp when French president Emmanuel Macron made an official visit in August 2018. He was followed by Christian Prudhomme and they handed over a maillot jaune to a visibly humbled prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen.

Half a year later the Tour start in Denmark for 2021 was officially confirmed, only to be hit by a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and the postponed Euro 2020 that would collide with the Grand Départ in Copenhagen. Hence its move to 2022, and the Tour’s hastily set-up Grand Départ this year in Brittany.

PARIS, FRANCE – JULY 18: Loïg Chesnais-Girard of France President of the Regional Council of Brittany & Lars Weiss of Denmark Mayor of Copenhagen start city of 109th Tour de France 2022 during the 108th Tour de France 2021, Stage 21  (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

No one said it should come easy. Or even cheap. The cost is an estimated 12 million euros. And as always there has been a debate whether it’s money well spent in terms of tourism revenue and exposure or it’s just a big splash of cash. But here we are, awaiting three stages in Denmark which open with a shortish 13km time trial in the center of Copenhagen after a team presentation in the iconic Tivoli Gardens.

Expectations are high. Danish cycling has never been in a better state.

Young Jonas Vingegaard was the revelation of this summer’s Tour with his second place, there is a monument winner and a former world champion in Mads Pedersen, a seven-time grand tour stage winner in Magnus Cort Nielsen, newly crowned world championship bronze medalist Michael Valgren, 2019 double stage winner Søren Kragh Andersen and veteran GC hope Jakob Fuglsang. It’s nothing short of a cornucopia.

As director of the Grand Départ Copenhagen Denmark organization, 54-year-old Alex Pedersen is looking ahead. He was 25 years old when the rather crazy and wild idea of giving the Tour a Danish flavor was born among some of his constantly networking friends back in Herning. “When you’re mad about Tour de France and cycling I can see nothing bigger than this job. I’m proud and humbled by the task I’ve been given,” Pedersen said when he was named in the man charge in May 2019. Big it is, that much is certain. But after so many years in the making it seems the timing is just about perfect.

Lars B. Jørgensen is a columnist at Danish national newspaper Berlingske, the founder of cycling podcast Souplesse and sometimes a cyclist con amore.

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