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What was likely the vital moment in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix came close to the end when John Degenkolb made an important gamble. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) and Yves Lampaert (Etixx-QuickStep) had pushed clear and Degenkolb faced the choice of waiting to see if those in his group would chase, or risking all, digging deep and possibly riding the sprint out of his legs.
He chose the latter and attacked hard, bridging across to the two leaders and then pushing through to work with Van Avermaet to try to keep them clear.
Lampaert immediately stopped riding, opting to wait for his team-mate Zdenek Stybar behind. Degenkolb made the decision to keep knuckling down, and while Stybar was eventually able to get across and others also did so, the German rider had enough va va voom left to easily win the gallop in the Roubaix velodrome.
“Last year we did a really good race but Niki [Terpstra] broke away and that was the situation. It can happen if the other riders know you are fast,” he said, referring to being closely watched in 2014. “Then of course they don’t want to bring you to the finish line and then get beaten. I would do the same.
“So [this year] we spoke about it and evaluated the race from last year. I watched it many times [to see] what I could have done better.
“I think the whole team was always there, the situation was under control. In the end if I had waited, if I didn’t go, I think probably my result would not have been much better than last year. So I decided now is the moment. All or nothing.
“It is ten kilometres. Everybody is now on the limit. It is the toughest race in the year, by far. I felt still there was something in my tank. All or nothing.”
Degenkolb rode with assurance, making sure nobody managed to slip away inside the final two kilometres and then putting himself in the right position heading into the velodrome.
The other riders all know what was coming, but they were unable to shake him off. He bided his time, then launched his sprint and won by several lengths. Victory was his.
The key to success
Although his career has been piled high with examples of bunch sprint finishes, including his triumph this year in Milan-San Remo, he said that he wasn’t taking anything for granted. Even when he entered the velodrome, he said that he unsure of success.
“I had to invest a lot of energy to be in a situation that I could sprint for the victory and that I let the group go. Finally the last five kilometres, Greg [Van Avermaet] and me were only pulling alone because Stybie was coming from the back,” he explained, talking about how the finale played out.
“If you are still there with such a good team, you can play this card. But I think Stybie was also on the limit because he had to catch up to us. I always tried to keep the speed up so it was not easy for him coming to our group.”
He said that once Stybar got across he had to react to each and every move. “That was the key to success,” he said, adding that he couldn’t believe that things had worked out.
Having had to be satisfied with second last year, he said he made sure of things this time around. “On the track I think I sprinted full to the line. I didn’t celebrate before because I definitely didn’t want to take any risks.”
Interviewed by CyclingTips and a couple of other journalists on Friday, Degenkolb said that he had full confidence in his ability and said that he felt he could beat Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) if it came down to a sprint between them.
He said then that the velodrome wouldn’t make a big difference.
As things worked out, Flanders winner Kristoff was not in the same form Sunday and played a much smaller role. Still, even though he was absent, and even though Degenkolb dominated the sprint, he said that track gallop was tougher than he had anticipated.
“This sprint is really totally special. I think if you have never done it before, you have no idea what you are talking about,” he said.
“You try to accelerate, you try to go out of the saddle in the sprint and immediately you realise that your legs are like gum.”
“I don’t think I’m a hero”
At the press conference a journalist made a point that he and Kristoff have similar characteristics, and are both the big Classic winners thus far this year.
In doing so, the journalist described the two as heroes. To Degenkolb’s credit, he immediately went to tone this down. Keeping a sense of perspective appears to be important to him.
“Now I am a hero?” he asked, with a hint of incredulity in his voice. “No, I don’t think that I am a hero. We won definitely…I won two big races this year but I don’t think I am a hero now.
“Cycling is changing, definitely. A new generation is on the trigger. Of course I am actually still quite sad that Fabian [Cancellara] was not there in this race. It would have been really nice to have had also a battle against him.
“I hope he is coming back and we can race each other. I really appreciate him as a rider. He is a really strong warrior but still I think there are a lot of young riders. We are also growing, we are getting experience and we are getting mentally stronger.
“That is also what it is about in these kinds of races. You need to have the years. Nobody is coming in the first year and getting the victory. It took me five years.”
He then paused momentarily before adding, “I can’t believe it.”
That disbelief came across several times in the press conference. Degenkolb appeared on the verge of becoming emotional at times, although he managed to suppress it in front of the press.
Still, when he was asked to describe his emotions as a double winner of Milan-San Remo and Roubaix in the same season – only the third rider in history to achieve this – he paused, cleared his throat and again seemed to be holding back.
“Emotion is really the right word,” he said. “It is really something that I can’t believe and imagine at the moment.
“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, you need to find a stable bench for it, I think.
“This double with San Remo and Roubaix means so much to me. I am running out of words to describe it.
“This is probably even more great because now the Classics season is over and we really can enjoy it, can just relax, lean back. Now I will take a couple of days to really believe it and then…you are the winner of Paris-Roubaix.” [He briefly pauses with emotion, then adds:] It is amazing.”
“The best decision I ever made”
Degenkolb originally turned pro with HTC Highroad in 2011. On Friday he explained that a vital piece of information was given to him while he was there and that he would remember it for the rest of his career.
That team folded after he had been with it for just one season and he moved to what was a smaller setup over time. He stated that that he received an important tip from Rolf Aldag there, and always kept it in mind henceforth.
When HTC Highroad folded Degenkolb made what was seen by some as a leftfield choice.
“When I turned professional with HTC and HTC stopped, many people looked strangely at me when I decided to go to a second division team, Skil Shimano,” he said, casting his mind back to the autumn of 2011. “But when I look back now, it was just the best decision I ever made.
“I went to a team which was just founded. We are really a bunch of guys who are friends all together and are sacrificing ourselves.”
He said the most important thing was the very gradual way the team has grown, something which has enabled it to have built a stable base. It is now in a position of strength, and looks to have a very bright future.
“We had a lot of success of course, but you also have some races where you really don’t succeed,” he said. “But we still believed in us and tried to screw every thing what we could do better. That is something that is really special.
“This cobblestone doesn’t just belong to me, it is really an achievement of the whole team.”
The realisation of what he had done then appeared to be sinking in once again. “Two monuments, eh? What the….” he whispered, leaving the phrase unfinished.
While Degenkolb is undoubtedly in a very good physical shape and also confident mentally, he was quick to underline the importance of good fortune too. Or, rather, the absence of misfortune.
“Everything needs to come together,” he said. “I also have to say there was also not a moment of trouble for me today. I didn’t have a mechanical problem. That was my first Roubaix, by the way, where I didn’t have problems. Where I didn’t have trouble.
“I either crashed or had a puncture [before]. Last year, my chainring fell off.
“I have to say we had to work really, really hard for this. Everything needs to be perfect on the bike. You need to be mentally prepared. Your legs, your shape must be still good.”
He thanked the team for its help, saying that the important people were not just the riders but also his coach, the soigneurs, the bus drivers and the other workers.
“We really believed in it,” he continued. “Now after five years I think we really did it. We have done it. We have done it.
“It is great to put my name in this list of great winners here. I guess I get a plate in the showers here. That is actually the most amazing thing about today’s victory…”