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The house of Skelde, academy of champions (I/V)

 

The crown jewels

Denmark joins this year the prestigious list of countries to have hosted the Grand Départ. This extraordinary first comes at the same time as a “golden generation” makes it to the forefront of international cycling. How did they rise to the highest summits? Letour.fr meets with the riders and directors who have shaped Danish cycling in recent history.
Since 2008, Michael and Christa Skelde have helped some of the brightest Danish talents get their career on the right path towards professionalism and the highest successes: Mads Pedersen, Magnus Cort Nielsen, Michael Valgren, Mads Würtz Schmidt, Kasper Asgreen… The couple take us through their many jobs in cycling, from building the iconic Cult Energy to managing riders’ careers.


I Fall under the bike spell

“I’ve been riding since I was 10 years old”, Christa says as she recalls memories from her youth in the 1980s. “And after I stopped, I started working with cyclists. First, I was a masseur and soigneur for the Danish national team. It made me want to coach them, especially on the mental aspect, so I studied psychology and I became a mental therapist. In 2015, I decided to stop cycling and to work with normal people, in normal companies. But I returned as a team manager in 2017, and now I’m helping Michael in his new business, coaching riders that he’s working with as an agent.” “I was a bike rider, I was never really good, but I was professional in some small teams”, Michael says about his decade in the peloton, from 1997 to 2007, during which he finished 2nd in Etoile de Bessèges and 6th of the Tour of Denmark. “My dad was an amateur cyclist himself, among the best at national level in the late 1960s and in the 70s. I have this background where cycling was everything in the family. When I stopped as a rider, I took on a local Continental team and the first thing I actually did was to tell my wife, who was a school teacher at the time, to stop working and to get involved with me in developing this project. I’ve been working with cycling all my life, I never tried anything else.”  

II Build your team

Michael’s last team as a rider was also the first one the couple managed: Glud & Marstrang, in their hometown of Horsens (some 25km north of Vejle, where stage 3 will start). “In the beginning, we ran it from our garage”, Christa recalls. “And then we got a sponsor who told us: ‘You can have a service course and an office in the city, and we’ll deliver hot meals every day for your riders.’ This was my heart and soul, this wasn’t a job, it was our life. We were working a lot, and we really believed in the development of young guys.” “We didn’t have the most money”, Michael confirms. “But for me, it was really important that we used the amount of money we had to do the right things, and I believed the right thing was to travel as much as possible to UCI races in Europe to make the next step, develop and be able to compete against the World Tour teams when we had the chance to do that. I’m old school, I was very hard on the riders, very honest to tell them how I wanted us to race. I took a lot of time to speak and prepare for the races. And I used even more time after the races on debriefing what we did right and where we could improve, even when we won.”  

III Take on (and beat) the best

The team gradually steps up and makes a big splash in 2012 when Sebastian Lander wins not only the Under 23 national championship, but also the Elite title in the span of two weeks. “We had another guy, André Steensen, in 3rd and Michael Valgren was 4th”, Michael Skelde adds. “It was a Continental Team kicking the ass of Saxo Bank, one of the biggest World Tour teams at the moment. That was a moment everyone could see the difference we made for young talents. Christa got us a sponsorship with Cult and I think we built the best development team in the world at the moment.” “We really had a strong team with Michael Valgren [future winner of the Amstel Gold Race], Mads Pedersen [World Champion], Magnus Cort Nielsen [7 Grand Tour stages], Mads Würtz Schmidt [Danish champion]…”, Michael describes. “We won two stages of the Tour of Denmark in 2013 and Magnus was the leader of the UCI Europe Tour in August 2014. With all this success, it was natural for us and for the sponsor to make a step up towards Pro Continental. I’m very happy we had this experience. But we were on the limit money wise and 2015 was a very complicated year. It took the energy out of the project.” Michael and Christa Skelde then worked as managers with Virtu Cycling, Bjarne Riis’ project for men and women cycling (featuring Kasper Asgreen, winner of the Ronde van Vlaanderen 2021), and Michael was a sports director for Riwal from 2019 to 2021.  

IV Nurture riders on every aspect

At every moment, the Skeldes have made it clear they were not happy with just developing athletic abilities. “Cycling is very conservative, so in the beginning, riders were maybe a little bit afraid of riding for us”, Christa says. “They knew that if they were riding for us, I would tell them: ‘Ok, you have to develop as a rider, and Michael will teach you that, and I will want you to develop as a person as well. So you have to define to me what you need to develop in your life.’ And that can be a little shocking for a guy who is only 19 years old.” The shock has been helpful to many, including Mads Würtz Schmidt, Junior World Champion, who struggled to find his path and then claimed: “Christa saved me.” “I’ve been working with Mads since 2013, and I still do”, she says. The couple now want to bring the same kind of support to the riders Michael has signed with as an agent, a mix of new talents and former proteges from the team he managed: “At one point, I realised that I wanted to keep helping them in the first couple of years after they make it to the World Tour. And I also hope to make a difference when they’re done with cycling. When Magnus Cort Nielsen finishes his career, I want to help him with his life after because it’s a huge vacuum.”


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