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Second last year in the famous velodrome, John Degenkolb will be one of the top favourites for Paris-Roubaix. He predicts a huge battle on Sunday and pledges to fight all the way to the finish line.
Alexander Kristoff may be on a storming run of form, notching up six wins in nine days and elevating his season count to 11 victories, but the rider who beat him in Milan-San Remo, John Degenkolb, said on Friday that he didn’t fear him in Paris-Roubaix.
Degenkolb spoke to a small group of journalists at the Giant Alpecin team hotel in Selcek, France. Asked by CyclingTips if he was confident that he could beat Kristoff if things came down to a sprint in the Roubaix velodrome, he was bullish about his chances in such a situation.
“Why should I be not confident?” he replied. “I don’t think that my shape is worse than in San Remo. We are all road cyclists and I don’t think… I have also got track experience from the beginning of my career, so I don’t think that this would give me a disadvantage in a sprint, just to be in a velodrome.”
Degenkolb knows that for things to come down to a sprint between them, both riders need to avoid crashes and mechanical mishaps, get into the right moves and have the legs to match the other in the many salvos that will rage prior to the final kilometre.
Of course, each will hope that things don’t come down to such a sprint, but that the race is decided in their favour before the Roubaix velodrome. Degenkolb would love to win alone, giving him time to savour his victory, but said he would be likewise content if he was clear with one or two other riders in the finale.
However he acknowledged that his Milan-San Remo success made him a marked man. So too his second place in the Roubaix velodrome twelve months ago. As a result he accepts that tactics would play a big role in how things unfolded Sunday.
“I think that the riders of course know that I am capable of doing a good sprint and beating many guys in the final of a long race,” he said. “It was probably also the case before for some riders, but now it is even more like this. Then you can also understand a situation like Flanders when we are there.
“Nobody really wants to bring me to the finish line. I also can understand this. This is just easy tactics. That is also why I can’t poker only for a sprint. I definitely have to be smart to create a good situation.”
It’s clear that a little more anonymity would make things easier for him. “It is not the case that I can wait, wait, wait and they just give me a present. That won’t happen on Sunday. That is for sure,” he accepted, paused slightly and then wryly added one more word. “Unfortunately.”
The error at Flanders
Following his Milan-San Remo success, Degenkolb targeted the Tour of Flanders. He rode well but ended up seventh, leading in an eight-man chase group 49 seconds back.
Speaking six days after that battle, he admits that he made an error of judgement which ultimately cost him his chance of winning De Ronde.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect him [Kristoff] to be that strong and to stand this attack to the finish,” he explained. “If I am honest, I saw Niki [Terpstra] and Alex attack, they rode on front. When I look back now, I was totally underestimating the situation. I thought, ‘yeah, that is a good situation for me.’”
His overconfidence was due to the presence of other Giant-Alpecin riders in the group behind. “I had still two guys with me. The pace was still high in the group so I could also save them a little bit and I could use them to have a good position at the beginning of Kwaremont.”
However it turned out that he and others greatly underestimated the leading duo. “I would not say the group was not strong enough. I think the two guys in front were strong enough to keep the gap. That was it…it was very impressive.”
Speaking this week after winning Scheldeprijs, Kristoff made clear that he would try to keep his remarkable run of form going and win Roubaix prior to taking a break.
Terpstra is keen to make up for his second place, not least because the spring Classics are so important for his Etixx-QuickStep team. Things haven’t gone to plan thus far, due in part to the absence of Tom Boonen through injury, and the pressure is on for a win.
Other contenders are also highly motivated. Bradley Wiggins is one of those, and recently said that winning Roubaix would give him a bigger buzz than when he took the Tour de France in 2012.
Degenkolb is at pains to underline that Flanders and Roubaix have less in common than people presume.
“Flanders is completely different. You can’t compare these two races,” he argued. “They are both really unique, but in a very different quite a way.”
However despite that point, he accepts that many of the same riders will be in the running.
“When you look to the favourites, I think it is basically comparable to Flanders when you consider those.
“It is completely different now without having Fabian [Cancellara] in the race. That is still the fact.
“Last weekend you saw also if Fabian would have been there, he would probably have been the only guy who could have closed it in the final. I really believe that it is a more open race than with Fabian, for every rider. We have so many guys who are able to make a good result.”
So, other than Kristoff and Terpstra, who else springs to mind as the prime dangers?
“It starts with [Greg] Van Avermaet. [Sep] Vanmarcke probably didn’t do the best race of his career but Roubaix is also really special for him. It is like it is for me. He will be really motivated.
“Also Wiggins, Thomas. There are ten guys and more or less everybody of them is capable of reaching the podium.”
Those who will be targeting the race have done so over the last few months; it’s not possible to simply rock up to the start in Compiegne and think of winning. Instead, a lot of hard work has to be done in order to reach the necessary physical condition.
Course reconnaissance is also vital, plus good equipment. Luck too, although that is to some extent a more random element.
And of course there is the theme of motivation.
While the contenders dug deeply last Sunday, Degenkolb suggests that it is possible to go a little harder in Roubaix. It is the all or nothing race, essentially; win or bust.
“For everybody, the biggest favourites, this is the last race now,” he explained. “Everyone can go full all out. There is nothing to save, there is nothing to wait for. We have one Sunday in Hell and everybody is going to have a break. That is the nice thing.
“It is going to be a super great battle. That is what I believe.”
The importance of persistence
Degekolb turned professional with the HTC Highroad team in 2011. While that team folded over three years ago, it had a great influence on him. To this day the lessons learned there have stayed with him, including a nugget of wisdom handed down from one of the team management there.
“My first year at Roubaix, I did it with HTC and Rolf Aldag. I still remember this advice. I will definitely never forget this one. He said that Roubaix is never finished. He said it is only finished when you are in the velodrome.
“That this is probably the race where it is most important to always keep on fighting. He told me this before the race and I still have it in mind. It is nice to know.”
Part of the reason for that is the sheer unpredictability of the event. A rider can seem to be in the ideal situation, yet misfortune can strike. Conversely, luck can turn around in a moment and others can suffer, putting a rider behind back in the game.
“You need to have the strength. You need to have the power in Roubaix,” he states. “But it can be also that you are really strong and you have a really good day but something happens with your bike, a crash happens.”
Listening to him, it is clear that hitting the line first in the Roubaix velodrome would mean a massive amount. Milan-San Remo was hugely important for his career, of course, but the drama and difficulties of Roubaix arguably make the race a bigger trophy.
Taking San Remo was great; winning on Sunday would be another level again.
“Roubaix is in any case special,” he said, explaining why he feels strongly about it and why it made an impression on him when he watched the race when he was younger.
“It is unique because the cobbles are so tough. It doesn’t matter which weather conditions you have, it is always outstanding. It doesn’t matter if it is dry and sunny, if it is cloudy, if it is raining. It is on a different level of uniqueness to other races.
“That is probably why I was from the beginning attracted to this race.”
There are other factors too that set it apart. “You finish in the velodrome, it is the only race that finishes in the velodrome.
“You have completely different bikes. It is the only race in the year where the teams put so much effort into having the best material. All these kind of little tiny things make it super-unique.
“When you look at it on television, it is just amazing.”
He’s clearly very passionate about the race. Twelve months after netting the runner-up slot he is convinced he is in the position to fight for victory, to be one of the riders he used to watch before from the other side of the screen.
One year after taking second, he feels ready to step up a notch and hoist a heavy cobblestone above his head Sunday afternoon.
As expected, Degenkolb had a lot on his mind on Friday afternoon. He was motivated for the race and clearly focussed, but shortly after speaking to a small group of journalists about Roubaix he switched the tunnel vision off for a few minutes and had a rather more relaxed chat with CyclingTips’ David Everett.