By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Mads Pedersen not only became Denmark's first road world champion in Harrogate on Sunday, he also offered further proof of the rise of an exciting new generation in men's cycling.
On a rain-lashed day that beat down some of the world's biggest names including several Grand Tour champions, the 23-year-old Pedersen did not put a wheel out of place to become the youngest man to win the title since Oscar Freire in 1999.
A few days earlier in the time trial, Belgium's 19-year-old tyro Remco Evenepoel finished second, a year after winning the TT and road junior titles. He became the youngest medallist at a world championships and was even regarded as an outside bet for Sunday's climax in Yorkshire before having to stop to help veteran team mate Philippe Gilbert.
Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel, the 24-year-old twice cyclo-cross world champion, went into the road race as favourite and with 14 of the brutal 261km remaining looked poised to deliver the gold medal, only to blow up on the final circuit around Harrogate and open the door for Pedersen.
The two of them, together with former soccer prodigy Evenepoel and another young Belgian Wout van Aert, will surely be contesting the big prizes at the Classics for years to come.
Do not forget, too, that in July Colombia's Egan Bernal, 22, became the youngest winner of the Tour de France for more than 100 years and 20-year-old Slovenian Tadej Pogacar won the Tour of California in his first season as a professional.
It all points to a generational shift in cycling that is not confined to the men's peloton.
American 22-year-old Chloe Dygert produced one of the most powerful time trials ever seen to claim the rainbow jersey in Harrogate last week, then finished fourth in the road race having launched a thrilling late attack.
With Megan Jastrab and Quinn Simmons winning the junior road race titles, American cycling appears to be in safe hands.
While the older warriors of the peloton are not about to hang up their bikes, it seems the transition from top youngster to making a mark on the world's biggest stages is now faster.
Pedersen, who held his nerve to beat the far-more-experienced Italian Matteo Trentin in the final sprint, said young riders were now much better prepared to step up.
"The junior teams and federations start earlier," he told reporters. "I was already on the national team when I was 17, and we already started to become more professional. That's happening more and more now.
"The national federations are getting way more professional, and that's paying off at a younger age."
Moving from the junior ranks, even the Under-23s, into the World Tour was always regarded as a leap of faith but look around the leading teams and it is clear they are investing heavily in the next generation
American teenager Simmons, who began in mountain bikes, will partner Pedersen at Trek-Segafredo next year while Team Ineos are clearly planning for a future without the likes of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.
Although Bernal has arrived in spectacular fashion they also have Russian 22-year-old Pavel Sivakov, ninth in the Giro and winner of the Tour of Poland in his second season, and 21-year-old Colombian Ivan Sosa to lead the British team forward.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)