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by Shane Stokes
April 13, 2015
Photography by Cor Vos
Becoming only the third rider in history to win Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in the same year, John Degenkolb took what he regards as his biggest career success when he won a three-man sprint in the famous velodrome.
The German rider outsprinted five others to the line, with Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) taking second and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) netting the final step on the podium.
Lars Boom (Astana), Martin Elmiger (IAM Cycling) and Jens Keukeleire (Orica GreenEdge) took places four through six, while some of the other tipped riders, namely Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Sep Vanmarcke (Team LottoNL-Jumbo), Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) and Bradley Wiggins (Sky) were 10th, 11th, 15th and 18th respectively.
The latter four missed out on the crucial break and came home in a group sprinting for tenth, 31 seconds back.
Degenkolb’s success saw him become only the second-ever German winner, emulating Josef Fischer. Fischer won the first-ever edition in 1896.
Degenkolb’s success also saw him join his idol Sean Kelly (1986) and Cyrille van Hauwaert (1908) as the only other riders two take the San Remo/Roubaix double in the same year.
“It is really something that I can’t believe and imagine at the moment,” he admitted in the post-race press conference held in Roubaix’s new velodrome, metres from the older one which hosted the finish.
“I have to search now for a place to put a cobblestone in my apartment. It is not going to be easy – it is a big one, a heavy one, I will need a strong table for it.
“This double with San Remo and Roubaix means so much to me. I am running out of words to describe it.”
The basis of Degenkolb’s victory was an impressive bridging move which saw him join up with the leaders Van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert (Etixx-QuickStep) in the closing stages.
Lampaert refused to work, knowing that Stybar was chasing behind in a small group. However although this chase bunch did manage to bridge up, handing the Belgian team a numerical advantage, Degenkolb and Van Avermaet’s driving at the front delayed the junction and ensured that the chasers didn’t have time to launch any meaningful attacks before the line.
Degenkolb was already regarded as the fastest finisher but as he also managed his energy to perfection in the finale, he had enough left at the end to easily win the gallop to the line and nab a huge win.
Comprising as it does 27 cobblestone sectors, including the famed Trouée d’Arenberg [Forest of Arenberg] and Carrefour de l’Arbre, the 253.5 kilometre race is regarded as arguably the toughest one day event in the sport.
Long distance breaks characteristically go up the road early on and bid to fend off the chase behind, and this was no different in the 113th edition.
A very quick start saw a group of nine wrest its way clear and these build a gap of ten minutes before kilometre 80.
Those present included WorldTour riders Grégory Rast (Trek Factory Racing), Aleksejs Saramotins (IAM Cycling), Alexis Gougéard (AG2R-La Mondiale), Adam Blythe (Orica-GreenEdge) and Sean De Bie (Lotto-Soudal), as well as four others from wildcard teams.
These were Ralf Matzka (Bora-Argon 18), Frederik Backaert (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Tim Declercq (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) and Pierre-Luc Périchon (Bretagne-Séché Environnement).
One of the race’s tipped riders Geraint Thomas (Sky) had the first in a serious of issued when he punctured prior to the start of the Arenberg section, putting him in a bad position. At that point the leaders’ advantage had been halved by the chase.
However they got an unexpected boost when many in the peloton were delayed by a railway crossing. Some riders ignored a UCI rule forbidding the crossing of tracks in such a situation, but their risk-taking was negated when the UCI decided to slow the first half of the bunch and allow those who had been stranded behind to rejoin.
The Etixx-QuickStep team put the hammer down at sector 14, that of Tilloy – Sars-et-Rosières, temporarily stranding Van Averamet, Tour of Flanders winner Kristoff and Wiggins. However they were able to return, negating the danger.
The break’s lead continued to be whittled down by such accelerations and they were less than two minutes ahead at sector 11. The racing behind was becoming gradually more aggressive and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) shrugged off stomach issues to attack.
While this didn’t last particularly long, it further whittled down the lead group to approximately 40 riders. Former race winner John Vansummeren (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Sagan’s team-mate Matti Breschel were both delayed by crashes.
Etixx-QuickStep was trying to turn around a slow Classics campaign and hit the gas again on sector 10. The squad sent Stijn Vandenbergh up the road, but he was later joined by Wiggins, who forged clear at Templeuve-Moulin de Vertain.
He got up to Vandenbergh, with the duo then being joined by Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) and Stybar. They were 56 seconds behind the leaders at that point but the peloton looked to deliberately be giving the Wiggins group some rope in order to tire them out. They then hauled them back under the impetus of Kristoff’s Katusha team.
Lars Boom (Astana) was the most aggressive on sector six, creating chaos behind and further whittling down the group of contenders. Van Avermaet and Sagan then ramped up the pace even further, with 2014 champion Terpstra then playing his own card on sector five.
However a group of chasers were able to get up to him and haul back the break, leading to a stall and a partial regrouping.
Lotto Soudal leader Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal) and Astana’s Borut Bozic then made their own move, with the former pushing ahead of the latter and holding a 20 second lead going onto the Carrefour de l’Arbre.
It was not enough, though. He was caught with 14 kilometres to go, paving the way for an attack by Van Avermaet and Lampaert.
Degenkolb recognised the danger and got up to them, prompting Stybar to attack the chase group he was in and inch his way across.
Lampaert had been sitting on in the hope that he would join up; once that happened, the two riders were in a position to work and help the break stay clear. However Boom, Jens Keukeleire (Orica GreenEdge) and Martin Elmiger (IAM Cycling) were able to bridge, forming a front group of seven.
Degenkolb was expected to be the fastest finisher out of the group and so it proved, with the German rider biding his time before hitting the jets and reaching the line well clear.
Stybar and Van Avermaet duelled for second place, with the Czech rider getting the verdict.
As for the other race favourites, they finished further back, losing out on the chance – on this occasion at least – to stand atop the podium on what many feel is the toughest single day in cycling.