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Degenkolb: ‘The big goal is to win on the holy ground’

Just to make it clear; John Degenkolb is sick and tired of talking about “the crash,” but ready to chat all night long about the classics.

When VeloNews sat down with the German classics superstar earlier this month during a break at Trek—Segafredo’s pre-season camp, Degenkolb let out a sigh of resignation when queried about the front-on collision between a car and six Giant—Alpecin riders training along Spain’s Mediterranean coast last January.

“It was not even a training accident, it was a traffic accident, that could happen anywhere, anytime,” Degenkolb said. “For me, the team and the new season starts, so it’s a great new challenge, with a lot of new vibes coming toward me. It is really motivating for me right now, and I enjoy this moment right now. It is special, and it a big step in my career. And I can leave 2016 behind me, and I don’t have to talk about it anymore.”

Wait, no lingering effects? The collision with a motorist who turned head-on into the group of cyclists created havoc among his teammates, leaving most with broken limbs and other injuries. Degenkolb almost lost a finger, but his focus is on the here and now.

“I am fully recovered from the crash. I am in a very good way to feel on 100 percent recovered,” he said. “I am in very good hands, with doctors and physical therapists, both within the team and at home. That was one of the positive side-effects of the accident, because you pay even more attention to smaller details compared to what you would have done before.”

One final question on the crash: any doubts that you’ll be back on top for the classics?

“No, from the beginning, I never had doubts about having the possibility to be a professional bike racer again,” he said, ready to move on to a new theme. “I realized very quickly at least the classic season wouldn’t be happening, and that was not nice. How many classics seasons do you have in your career? I missed one … and now the big goal is come back on the holy ground in Belgium, and that’s the main focus right now.”

Ah, the classics. Degenkolb’s eyes light up. He wants to talk about his move to Trek, his big goals for the upcoming season (classics, Tour de France and worlds), and winning monuments again.

You can’t blame him for wanting to forget 2016. He returned to competition in May, and still put 59 racing days into legs, taking two late-season wins in what he called “hugely important” victories. Degenkolb enjoyed his best season ever in 2015, winning Milano-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix, becoming the first rider since Sean Kelly in 1986 to do that, but missed last year’s entire spring classics campaign due to that crash. Rather than starting as defending champion, he was at home, nursing his wounds, and watching every race on TV.

“It was not a nice feeling to sit at home and watch the classics,” he said. “Normally, I would have been wearing the No. 1 as defending champion, and you miss this opportunity, it doesn’t feel nice. I am aiming for, that I can put myself back into this situation, win a big monument, and start with No. 1 the year after.”

His switch from Giant—Alpecin (now Sunweb) to Trek—Segafredo was one of the biggest moves of the 2016-2017 transfer season. Among the top classics riders of his generation, Degenkolb garnered interest from all the major teams, but he settled on Trek in a three-year deal. Why? It’s about the team’s deep roots and commitment to the spring classics.

“For me, this is the team with the most experience, along with QuickStep,” he said. “I always liked this team even before I came to the team. You feel welcome from the first moment … I want to be successful from February to October, and this was the best team for me to get high performance. I really feel like home here.”

Of course, the next inevitable question, one that he’s been asked in every interview, and will continue to be asked for at least the next few months: does he feel any pressure to fill Fabian Cancellara’s shoes? Again, Degenkolb takes a deep breath, and dives in.

“That is one of the most famous questions, but from my side, I have always had pressure,” he said. “And I absolutely respect what Fabian has done in the past, and it’s a big motivation to try to be as successful as he was. On the hand, I am proud of what I have achieved in the past. I have already won two monuments, so I do not have to hide behind anything. I want to do my job.”

Degenkolb will be 28 in January, a year older than the famous “class of 1990” that includes his arch-rival Peter Sagan. The pair has been squaring off against each other since they were juniors, and they will be at the center of a new rivalry as Tom Boonen (QuickStep) is soon to follow Cancellara into retirement.

“When you look at the past years, Peter is the outstanding rider right now. Beatable? In both monuments I won — it’s not five or 10 years ago, it was two years ago — he was there and I beat him. Everyone is beatable. No one is unbeatable. Cycling is up and down, and the sun is not always shining. You have to keep fighting.”

Degenkolb still has some unfinished business with the Tour de France, where he’s never won a stage. He’s won stages at both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, but he’s been second in five stages at the Tour. With Alberto Contador coming on as GC leader, Degenkolb demurred when asked about any possible conflict, saying “the Tour is a long way away,” but quickly added he wants to race in July.

“The Tour is still a big goal, with the start in Germany, I want to be there,” he said. “It’s still far to the Tour. The only thing is that I want to be there and be in top shape. That is going to be the second goal of the year, and then the worlds in Norway.”

Degenkolb is just where he wants to be, at the center of a classics-centric team, at the top of his game, keen to chase more classics, and leave 2016 in the rear-view mirror for good.

“It’s a great feeling and a big honor to be under those names. It’s also a big dream to play that role in the game, because that is what I was working for,” he concluded. “The ultimate goal is to be the best classics rider of my generation.”

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