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Two years ago John Degenkolb outsprinted Zdenek Stybar, Greg Van Avermaet, Lars Boom and two other riders to win Paris-Roubaix. The victory followed on from his success weeks earlier in Milan-San Remo, and confirmed the German as one of the sport’s best Classic riders.
Since then things have been complicated for Degenkolb, with a head-on collision with a car in January 2016 injuring him and five of his-then teammates.
Degenkolb almost lost a finger and also suffered a fracture to his forearm plus wounds to his leg and hip.
The injuries meant that he had to abandon plans to defend his San Remo and Roubaix titles, meaning that this Sunday will be his first chance to race again on the fabled cobbles.
Although Degenkolb isn’t mentioned on the same shortlist of favourites as Tom Boonen, Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan, he should not – and cannot – be discounted. He has shown strong form thus far this season, taking a stage, three other top five finishes and third overall in the Dubai Tour, landing a runner up slot on a stage of the Volta ao Algarve plus second and third on stages of Paris-Nice.
More recently, he was seventh in Milan-San Remo, fifth in Gent-Wevelgem and seventh in the Tour of Flanders.
Even if he is not a five star favourite, he believes that if things play out well, he could challenge for the win.
“I only can say I am in good shape. I am ready to make a good race,” he warns.
Two years ago Degenkolb was also seventh in Flanders. It’s a race that he feels doesn’t suit him as well as Sunday’s flatter event. Because of that, he believes that he should have the same chances as Sagan and Van Avermaet.
“I think Roubaix definitely closes the gap to them and brings me on the same level,” he said. “Basically, there are no climbs to climb up. I think that I have the power and also the experience in this race. You need to have the experience for the parcours but also the experience how you race a race like this.
“Now I am really starting to benefit also from the editions I did in the past. I don’t know how many monuments I did, but now I really can feel that I am going more and more confident into these races.”
Degenkolb also believes that the Trek-Segafredo team backing him in the event could make a difference.
Read on for the full press conference he gave in the buildup to the race.
John, you did the recon yesterday. How was it to be back on the cobblestones?
It was very nice. It’s a very special place for me. Really… I think it’s my favourite race. It is something unique to have the possibility to race there. I have already won the race once before. It is a great…it gives a great feeling when you come back there and do all the cobble sectors.
Especially what happened last year when I missed out, that was a big disappointment. Now it gives a lot of positive vibes, definitely.
You said it is your favourite race. It is a very hard race…
Yes, it is definitely one of the toughest races in the year. That is why it makes it also for me so special. Why I like it so much. You need to be a real tough guy to survive.
There is just so much history behind it also. That is also a point which is very fascinating for me.
How do you feel your form compares to two years ago?
Two years ago is a long time ago, so it is hard to compare this. I only can say I am in good shape. I am ready to make a good race. But to make a good race, everything has to be 100 percent. It has to be perfect. I remember two years ago they way was just perfect. Everything fell into my cards. I hope of course that this will be the same on Sunday.
Roubaix is also a race where you can push the luck. Where you have to fight for it. You will have ups and downs. It might also be the moment where you have a mechanical, because the roads are so rough that the material can break. You need to change quickly and you need to fight back, and still everything is possible.
Three years ago I became second and I completely broke my bike. I had to change the bike and finish on the spare bike in second position.
It is a lot about fighting sprit and just going for it.
Is it easier or more difficult to win Roubaix, compared to Flanders?
I think they are both very far away from easy. They are two completely different types of races. You need to be a different type of rider also, I think.
Still, you can win both in the same year. Many guys have proven that. But I think personally my type of rider…I am more made for Roubaix than I am made for Flanders. But still one year I want to win Flanders, that is not in question.
Is there some pressure in the team from not winning so far?
No, I wouldn’t call it pressure. But for sure we have the ambition also to be successful and to make a good result. But on the other hand, we have to be realistic. We were always there in the races. We were always in the situations, but it was just the final result was missing.
I have been seventh in both monuments now. I was fifth in Gent-Wevelgem. I almost hit the top ten in E3. So it is not that I am super far away. I think I did my homework in the winter and I have all what it takes to be successful. But now everything has to come together on Sunday.
What is the ideal scenario for you?
For me, it would be very nice to do a great race as a team because I have super-strong riders with me. Also, very good for this race, from the riders type also. And to make also again an offensive race. To be always attentive in the breaks and then the situation can change. But we are always there.
I think that would be the dream scenario. And in the end, of course, going with a small group to the velodrome would be the best for me.
But also proved to a lot of people two years ago that I am able to take the initiative. Also I proved it for myself that I can attack. That I have the ability also to ride away from a group. That is what I did two years ago and that was also the winning move. Maybe there will be a moment where I have to do that again.
Where do you place yourself next to Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan? We saw in other races that they were a bit stronger on decisive moments. Do you think you are at the same level as them in a race like Roubaix?
I think Roubaix definitely closes the gap to them and brings me on the same level. Basically, there are no climbs to climb up. I think that I have the power and also the experience in this race. You need to have the experience for the parcours but also the experience how you race a race like this.
Now I am really starting to benefit also from the editions I did in the past. I don’t know how many monuments I did, but now I really can feel that I am going more and more confident into these races.
There was that mention of those two riders. Do you consider them the main danger, or somebody like Tom Boonen, who is obviously doing his last one and has the history of winning?
I think Tom Boonen and his entire team will be one of the favourites, of course. These guys showed also in Flanders that they are super, super strong.
Like I said before, Paris-Roubaix is a lot about keeping up the fighting spirit. Following your instinct, following your dream and just go for it. I think that is just perfect for Tom. He will have a good race, I am 100 percent sure, but now it is up to us to make a good race for ourselves.
Why do you have that little brake [on the tops of the bars]?
I like to ride on top of the handlebars. Without it, you don’t really have the possibility to react if something happens in front of you. Also in corners, I prefer to stay also on top of the handlebar and then you can reduce your speed.
The fact that you are here alone at this table, does that mean that you are the main leader of the team? I always thought that you and Jasper [Stuyven] would be on the same level in races like Roubaix, but now you are alone…
Last man standing! I think we go with a very strong team into the race. Like we did also in Flanders. We did a good race, it was good that Jasper was up there and that was exactly also his role. He just plays a very important role. From the beginning we always said that I would be the leader and that is still the case. That hasn’t changed.
But he plays an important role. He is the key factor also to be successful.
In a race that is so much about luck, do you have any superstitions?
Yes, I am very superstitious when it comes to small things. Like when putting on your shoes, I always pick the right one first. Stupid things, but for me it gives you also a kind of self confidence and helps you to find your base.
Tom Boonen said that the forecast was for a tailwind, and that a fast race was better. Is that your preference as well, or what are the ideal conditions for you?
I think the conditions will be like Tom said. Very fast, but also super hot. There will be a lot of dust. That means also that you really have to make sure that you are also in front. Once you are more far to the back, you can’t see anything any more. Then the risk of crashes is even more higher than they usually are.
I prefer it also to have a fast race. The year when I won was also pretty fast.
Given what you went through last year [with his accident], do you think if you were to win on Sunday that it would mean more to you than winning the first time?
I can tell you on Sunday…
So far in your career you have won Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. Your results show that you can win the Tour of Flanders as well one day. Do you plan on riding the other monuments in your career, or are they out of reach for a rider like yourself?
Right now I think I have to focus more on keeping on winning the Flemish Classics and San Remo. Maybe at the end of my career I will focus also more on Lombardia or Liège. But to be honest, Lombardia is so hard now. They made it even harder in the last few years. Also Liège, it is super, super hard and it doesn’t suit me as a rider.
But still it would be nice to at least say I finished all of them, something like this, at the end of your career. But right now I am just focussing fully on the Classics.
But also not only on the Classics. After the Classics the season is not finished for me. I think that is also one of my biggest strengths. That I can take a breath, then I can have a break and focus also on other races that suit me.