It's 5.45am and pitch dark outside. The thermometer is reading 4 degrees and the only brightness on this dark and grey December morning comes from the twinkling Christmas lights that festoon the small towns.
After a few weeks of preparations, Mads Christensen is ready to set off on his next trip - a 335km Gravel ride around Funen, starting from his home in Gårslev, south of Vejle.
But why embark on a 15-plus hour gravel ride across the cold, grey expanse of Funen when he could jump on his Zwift trainer for a few hours? He says it is about immersion, but there is no doubt that the former WorldTour rider is happiest with a clear goal in front of him - a finish line, so to speak.
Mads sits down in his saddle and sails over the "Lillebæltsbroen" onto Funen, his lights flashing, picking him out in the dark. Ahead of us we have just over 20 kilometers along small winding country roads. It’s usually idyllic but this morning, darkness spoils the view.
It’s the time of day when families are waking up, preparing for the day with the morning rituals.
But not Mads. He has taken a break from the familiarity of everyday life - today he only has to think about cycling - and about experiencing.
In many ways, 2020 has been an unpredictable year - a grey and dark year. Mads has felt the year’s upheavals on a personal level. The lockdown in March posed a major obstacle to his job as a bike fitter. Likewise, his all-important goal and personal challenge for 2020, the Kansas Gravel Race - Unbound Gravel - was canceled. A closed business and no finish line. By no means the 2020 Mads had imagined.
As we shadow Mads from our car, driving from the mainland towards Funen, we see him in glimpses, his bicycle lights flashing between the bridge's cold steel pillars. He is head down and focused on the road ahead, just as he was in his career.
He rides fast. As soon as we see him, he is gone behind another pillar. He appears momentarily in his orange jacket in the reddish glow of the taillights of the cars on their way to work. A beautiful sight, reminiscent of a big city rush-hour.
When he sits in the saddle, Mads says he will often experience flashbacks from his WorldTour days. Memories of the ups and downs, a bit like being thrown into a roller coaster, except one where it's just a matter of keeping up.
Mads turned professional with the huge Quick-Step in Belgium. A boy's dream came true. His teammates were named Tom Boonen, Paolo Bettini and Filippo Pozzato. However, the transition to a lonely professional life was harder than he had expected and after a successful Giro d’Italia, he lost the desire to cycle.
But as he moved back to Denmark to complete his education, the desire and not least the victories returned. In 2011 he made a comeback on the WorldTour for Team Saxo Bank, six years after his first contract on the WorldTour. His love of the sport and desire to win proved too much of a lure.
Coincidentally, the sun is rising on South Funen. After more than 80km in the dark, everything brightens ahead. There have been 14 days of grey skies, so the sunrise is even more welcome than usual, and it is putting on a show, with a spectrum of colours ranging from violet to light blue. The depth of the landscape is enhanced by the light haze, and makes the morning stunningly beautiful.
“My time as a professional in many ways went far too fast - too strong for me to fully absorb all my impressions.One race was barely over before I was on my way to the next or training and preparation towards it. Also, when I lived in Lucca I could find myself getting up really early in the morning to drive six or seven hours. It may not have been the most optimal in relation to my training at the time, but it certainly gave me something. A break from everyday life. Time to think a little about it all.”
It is clear that recollecting the past evokes something in Mads. His voice changes when he talks about his time as a professional. He is thoughtful. It’s clear his experiences have had an impact, shaped him into the person he has become.
"Sometimes - sometimes I have", he replies in answer to the question of whether he has enjoyed training more than racing as a professional. "It's also mostly because it's so stressful to run the really big races, there's no time to be inattentive just for a moment, and it all just goes so fast."
Mads has plenty of time this Wednesday on Funen. Time for himself and time for contemplation.
Maybe that's exactly why these long Gravel rides appeal to him. He can ride for himself, away from the cars, onto the gravel paths - to a place where he has room for contemplation.
Mads turns off the road onto one of the small tracks and we find a place further along the route where we can catch up with him. He is approaching Kerteminde on North Funen and has now traveled more than 165km on a variety of surfaces.
Mads glides in towards Kerteminde, along the water, a favourite spot for sun-loving Funen residents to take a dip on hot summer evenings.
Today no one is out, either by bike or on the beach. It is grey, almost as if the sky is in a bad mood.nIt is not long before darkness makes a quiet return. As if it was not already dark enough.
By the time we hit Kerteminde, Mads has spent more than seven hours in the saddle. For most it would be a pretty good time to park the bike and enjoy a well-deserved bath and a good meal. But Mads is only halfway round, and another seven hours and about 165km await. Still he smiles; he is in his element when darkness descends. He has divided the route into different sections, in order to ensure he can remain focused and have a new sub-goal - something to aim for.
After passing Odense in the middle of rush hour, the route turns north. Along the now-dark paths right by the water, Odense Fjord will soon open out to the Kattegat. This is a bleak, open landscape, and there’s not a soul in sight.
Mads was part of the WorldTour for more than ten years when you add up his two spells at the pinnacle of pro racing. During that time he had plenty of opportunity to reflect on what was going on. "It's never fun to get a ride, but on the other hand, there is nothing like the feeling of winning a bike race, it is a unique feeling," says Mads. "Unfortunately, there are so many good cyclists on the WorldTour that you are rarely allowed to sit with that feeling for long", he smiles.
And maybe that's exactly what makes it so special, it's the work behind it.
Mads won more than 100 cycle races during his time as a youth, junior and U23 rider, and the expectations for this talent were of course enormous when he signed his first professional contract. There can be many reasons why things do not go as predicted or expected - and there several versions of what could have been done differently. Everything is much easier to assess in hindsight, and there are indeed things Mads would have done differently after his first spell on the WorldTour.
As the darkness descends and the loneliness on the gravel paths manifests itself, it brings with it an eerie silence. This is when Mads finds the immersion he longs for.
Asked directly what he would have done differently in his professional career, he is quick to respond. “I would have stayed in Denmark. It’s not that I was unhappy living in Italy, but it's just easier to make everyday life work in familiar surroundings, close to family and friends. You have an option to choose on or off. You are also able to get support when the races do not go quite as expected.” This is a piece of advice he would like to pass on to other Danish new professionals. Although he acknowledges that moving to Southern Europe and the high mountains can easily work for others.
“Of course I had become wiser and more experienced when I got the opportunity to return to the WorldTour for the second time. I knew what worked, but just as importantly was wiser on what did not work for me.”
At 19.00 we hit Bogense. The town that is bustling with activity in summer is completely quiet. A single runner disappears into the darkness, striding out on the paths along the harbor. Shortly after, he is overtaken by Mads.
“It is difficult to navigate in the dark, but on the other hand you are more secluded when you do not have to relate to your surroundings. The light cone from the bike’s headlight shows the way. That way, it's just as easy to stay focused. ”
This solitary beam of light lends itself well to Mads's need to have a spot to aim for, a goal in life - something to look forward to. And that is exactly where he performs best.
As he rides back across the bridge with more than 315km in his legs - a distance undertaker over varied surfaces, more gravel than asphalt - fatigue begins to show. He has ridden for more than 13 hours, and there is still a long way to go before he can put the bike away. The tiredness can be compared to the feeling at the end of a Grand Tour. There is really no more energy in the body but the will to complete the project remains.When the goal is achieved - the coveted endorphins that most athletes depend upon are released. In that way, the whole trip can be related to the situation we are all in at the moment.
Unfortunately, most of Europe is shut down again - some countries worse than others. The restrictions have once again left their mark on our lives and for many it seems like three weeks of a GrandTour. It is more will than freshness that make us keep going - and not least the hope that something else is waiting on the other side.
Something more normal.
Mads's business has closed down again, and at present it is not known whether Onbound Gravel will continue into 2021. But this trip has made an impression on Mads. Both the preparations and the trip itself. Unpredictable. On unknown terrain.
And while everything is closed, he continues to plan other extreme excursions, sub-goals for him. Small steps towards the big goal, whenever it comes. One thing's for sure - Mads is ready when the world opens up again. Fresh on endorphins, ready for the challenge of the 320 km gravel race through Flint Hills, Kansas.