It’s been a long and winding road for John Degenkolb since his last success in Roubaix. On an April day in 2015 he stood atop the podium at the end of the toughest of the spring Classics, celebrating a huge win just weeks after taking Milan-San Remo.
Two victories in one Classics season? That’s rare in a sport as tough as cycling. For the German rider, it was a huge career breakthrough.
Hoisting a cobblestone in the Roubaix velodrome seemed like a new dawn, the start of a big run of success. Yet nine months later his trajectory was badly affected.
Degenkolb was training with his Giant-Alpecin teammates in January 2016 when the group was struck head-on by a motorist. The impact brought chaos, scattering the riders like bowling pins and making shards of their bikes, yet things could have been worse. Nobody was killed. Nobody had career-ending injuries.
Still, things were very difficult for many of the riders.
Degenkolb almost lost a finger and also suffered a fracture to his forearm and wounds to his leg and hip. The crash put him out of action for over three months, and also had a longer-lasting effect. Simply put, he wasn’t the same as he was before.
That is, until Sunday’s ninth stage. Going clear on the Camphin-en-Pévèle sector, 17 kilometres from the finish, he joined forces with race leader Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) and Yves Lampaert (QuickStep Floors). The trio rode well between there and the finish, holding off the chasers behind.
Then once the sprint unfolded, Degenkolb made his move. Leading things out from the front, he was clearly better than the other two. Van Avermaet gave it everything to try to get past him, desperate to win the stage in yellow, yet couldn’t even draw alongside.
Degenkolb crossed the line arms aloft, then experienced waves of emotion. The rollercoaster of feelings included flowing tears when celebrating with team staff, and in the post-race interview.
“Pure happiness,” said a crying Degenkolb, describing his feelings when he crossed the finish line. “I was chasing this victory for so long. It’s really hard to describe.”
Winning on such a big level was hugely affirming for himself. It also proved a point to others and that, too, gave him satisfaction.
“Everybody said I was done. That after this accident, I will never come back,” he explained. “I said, no, I am not done. I have to get at least one really big victory.”
The pressures top sportspeople are under can be immense. Degenkolb is just 29 years of age, a relatively young rider. It makes this notion of searching for at least one big win before the end of his career as being really premature, and yet it encapsulates the strain he was under. Triumphing in Roubaix is such a release.
In terms of motivation, the notion of proving the naysayers wrong was an obvious incentive. But there was another one too. “I have been through a lot of things in the past, and it was such a hard time. I want to dedicate this victory to one of my best friends who passed away last winter,” he explained. “This was really something for him because I said no, I am not done. I have to make at least one really big victory for him. He was like my second father.”
Doing so in the Tour made things extra-special. Degenkolb had previously won ten stages in the Vuelta a España and one in the Giro d’Italia. But in the French race, he was banging on the door for a long time without the success he wanted. Since his first participation in 2013, he had notched up six second places but had never won a stage.
On Sunday, things just flowed along perfectly. He had a tunnel-vision on the approach to Roubaix, and everything clicked into place. “I was not thinking anything,” he said, referring to this thought process in the final ten kilometres. “I was just focussing on the race, trying to stay calm. I felt really good, and then you don’t need to think.”
Grabbing a stage in the Tour is a huge moment in any rider’s career. Sometimes people triumph from being in the right place at the right time, but Sunday’s success was hard earned and on one of the hardest days of this year’s event.
“In relation to what happened in the last two years, I think this is pretty unbelievable,” Degenkolb said. “I am so happy to show these guys who didn’t believe me anymore that I am still there, that I am still alive.
“I think that is also what I took out of this accident. That you have to be happy that after such a horrible crash, you are still alive, you are still there. I was fighting my way back and am so proud of that.”
Next up for the Tour riders is Monday’s rest day. The race will then move into the mountains after that, but there will be another couple of chances before Paris.
Don’t be surprised if Degenkolb’s success leads to more big rides. The pressure is off now and his confidence is back.
“It’s so great now to be on the highest level again,” he said, talking about the important career breakthrough. “There’s no way to make it more dramatic, more fantastic, than winning a stage like today. It can’t get better than this.”