German sprinter John Degenkolb was just hitting his prime in 2015 with impressive victories in two monuments, Milan–San Remo and Paris–Roubaix, having already won Ghent-Wevelgem in 2014. But then, in January 2016, while at a training camp with his then Giant-Alpecin team in southern Spain a British tourist, driving on the wrong side of the road, collided head on with Degenkolb and five teammates. Recovery from the crash—he sustained thigh and hand injuries, and the tip of one finger had to be surgically reattached —turned out to be longer than anyone expected. Now in his second season with the Trek-Segafredo squad, Degenkolb, 29, is looking to regain his prowess in the spring classics. We caught up with him at this week’s Paris–Nice.
Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to PELOTON
PELOTON Magazine: John, it’s good to see you back winning again. I know that after that horrendous preseason crash in 2016 it took a long time for you to regain the strength and confidence you had before….
John Degenkolb: Yeah, it has been a long road back. It is a great feeling to start the season so well. It is probably the best start I have ever had. I felt that my shape was good and that my setup was really good and then the team was super-strong. The Mallorca Challenge [in late January] had two possible sprint stages and I won them both. We really controlled the sprints. It was just outstanding.
PELOTON: On paper it appeared that you returned quickly after your crash two years ago—at least, you were racing again within a couple of months. But in reality it seems to have taken a lot longer.
Degenkolb: Yeah, I worked really hard after the accident to return as quickly as possible…. But it took quite a while before I was really comfortable on the bike again. I came back into the season when everyone else had a lot of racing in their legs…and it was just really hard.
Last year I had a decent season, but it was long and hard too, so I took a good break at the end of the year. I stopped earlier and took a longer break. And I think that helped. It was really good for me to shut everything down and start from zero again. I definitely think that this will help give me confidence going into the big races.
PELOTON: It’s true that in 2017 you finished in the top 10 in many of the cobblestone classics, including Ghent–Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix. But you came up just short of winning one. Did you feel that something still was not quite there?
Degenkolb: Well, you know, sometimes the difference between winning and losing is just really small. But small details can make a big difference in the end; 1 or 2 percent can be a big deal in a bike race.
PELOTON: Did the crash change you?
Degenkolb: Hmm, yes and no. It’s not like I am a different person. But when I go out training in traffic I am a lot more defensive. I am always imagining a worst-case scenario. But I think I was lucky in one regard, because it was a training accident and not a racing accident. So while I might be more nervous in training, I am not in racing. And that is important when it comes to the classics. Obviously, it took me a while to get there, especially since I returned in the middle of the season because, well, you know racing is not just about the feelings in your legs but also about having the feeling of racing close together in the sprint.
PELOTON: Paris–Nice has been a good race for you. You seem to like it, even though a lot of the classics guys go to Tirreno–Adriatico.
Degenkolb: I actually really like Paris–Nice. There are always some really good sprints here, and then there are always some really hard stages at the end. I also like the fact that it finishes a couple of days earlier than Tirreno and so there are a few more days to rest before Milan–San Remo. That is one of the main reasons I prefer to come here. And then of course there is the weather. There can often be some really bad weather here, especially in the beginning, where there can be a lot of cold, wind and rain—like last year, which was just all crosswinds with the pack all broken up That can be really good preparation for the classics. Paris–Nice prepares you for anything that you can be hit with in the classics.
PELOTON: You won your first two races this year in a sprint but there are a lot of different kinds of sprinters. Some guys like the big trains, others are really explosive in the final meters. What kind of a sprinter are you?
Degenkolb: I would say that the best sprints for me come after long, hard racing. I also really like a technical final or one that finishes on a false flat. That’s where I feel I make the most out of my power. I don’t like sprints where we go fresh into a sprint. I am weakest when it comes to pure speed.
PELOTON: You are here at Paris–Nice preparing for the classics, starting with Milan–San Remo in less than two weeks. Do you have a sentimental favorite when it comes to the great classics?
Degenkolb: Oh, I don’t know. San Remo, Flanders and Roubaix are all amazing, but personally for me, Roubaix is the race I like the most. Racing over the cobblestones there with the crowds is just so intense. It is so unique, unlike anything you have during the year. That’s what makes it so special. And then there is the fatigue [and] the feeling that you have when you come into the velodrome and try to produce a sprint in such a state of exhaustion. You are trying to produce as much power as possible, but your legs don’t really feel like they are a part of your body anymore. You can’t really use them. It is like your thighs have suddenly turned into two slabs of concrete. But winning there is just unforgettable. You can even see the goose bumps in the pictures when I crossed the line [in 2015].
PELOTON: You seem to like everything about Roubaix…and you are one of the few big riders that still goes to the old historic showers.
Degenkolb: Yes, every year except the year I won. By the time I was finished with the interviews and all it was already dark and just too late.
PELOTON: Will you go to the showers this year?
Degenkolb: I hope not. I hope I will be in the interviews!